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For Inuits Dealing With Climate Change, Science Can Be Slow and Bumbling

For Inuits Dealing With Climate Change, Science Can Be Slow and Bumbling

Carol Berry
10/25/11

An Inuk woman practicing a traditional craft finds the sealskin she’s working with doesn’t have the nice fur of times past and it has rotten patches that tear easily.

Her husband finds that hunting seals is more difficult than in the past because the formerly stable edge of an ice-floe has broken off and fewer seals are there. He carries a gun as protection against increasing numbers of polar bears.

They are among Native people in the circumpolar North who experience climate change in their everyday lives and for whom conventional science, despite its ability to describe the change, sometimes has been unhelpful.

One Inuk hunter accuses wildlife biologists of “meddling [that] is causing problems” by putting radio collars on bears so they “can’t hunt properly” or using helicopters that destroy animals’ hearing. Carcasses of over-drugged bears have been found, he says, and wildlife policies “make our lives difficult” even though “we know our wildlife intimately.”

His and others’ experiences are told in Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, the last film in the Eighth Annual Indigenous Film & Arts Festival, presented Oct. 12-16 by the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management (IIIRM), Denver. The festival’s theme was “Adaptation: Finding Balance in a Changing World.”

Mervyn Tano, IIIRM president, said both ground-level science and science policy are needed to “cut through some of the conventional wisdom” to discern, for example, what the role should be of wildlife biologists crafting wildlife regulations.

Government inflexibility in wildlife rules is difficult to change, one scientist found after doing research in the remote northwest interior of Alaska. Shannon McNeeley, with the Integrated Science Program, National Center for Atmospheric Research, conducted a post-film panel with Tano and talked about changes in moose behavior patterns with climate change.

Moose hunters don’t have as much success when fall comes later, McNeeley said, but regulations under which they can harvest moose are rigid, leaving local families with few choices for sustenance: less nutritious store-bought food, other wild meat that may not be as economical, or hunting moose illegally, leading to possible fines and a large economic impact.

Although there has been a slight, but measurable, environmental change outside the normal range in northwest Alaska, the government insists they don’t have the data to warrant a revision of moose hunting regulations. “How are we going to change regulations and institutions to adapt to a changing environment?” she asks.

That change is indeed occurring is documented by the film’s co-director, Zacharias Kunuk, who interviewed elders on Baffin Island, located in the eastern part of Nunavut in the Canadian polar North.

Environmental change “is dangerous to people worldwide—it affects both Inuit and Southerners,” said Mary Simon, Inuk, Canada’s first Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. “These big money-makers in the world are all contributors to climate change.”

Others made detailed observations about changes in the world around them, including hunting tips: They didn’t take the first group of animals that passed them because they would turn back quickly and the other animals would understand the threat. Hunters no longer cache walrus meat where they formerly stored it, and they carry guns to defend against increasing numbers of polar bears.

Generally, glaciers are melting, ice is thinner, ice melt occurs earlier, the permafrost is thawing, the north winds are diminishing, the south winds increasing, and temperatures are rising. “Perhaps the world has tilted on its axis,” said an elder from Igloolik, near Baffin Island.

Tano and Jeanne Rubin, film festival director and IIIRM general counsel, said in a prepared statement that “Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity have been said to be the hallmarks of life in the 21st century,” but those qualities have always been true for indigenous peoples who nevertheless have survived and become a political force.

In post-panel discussion, Cindy Hannah, Dakota, said Native people have a “multigenerational history of how to survive” and urged planners to collect anecdotal data—“as valuable as any other science you can think of”—and extrapolate from that. Vivian Delgado, Yaqui Pueblo, said, “Our culture is spiritual” and asked what science is doing to validate Native people and their sacred ecology.

Sue Savage, Dine’, lived in Alaska in the 1970s and recalled that elders talked about changes in caribou routes when the Alaska Pipeline came through the area, and said subsistence panels were held with Natives “but no one’s listening.” Grant Davis, Tlingit, said of regulations: “When you look back in history, when you regulate, you take away from every living thing. You prevent healthy living from the land.”

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shannonmcneeley's picture
shannonmcneeley
Submitted by shannonmcneeley on
Nice article, Carol. You did a great job of capturing the key messages of the movie and panel. One slight editorial comment: there has been a small, but detectable change in FALL time weather. However, there is a much more significant temperature change in other seasons (winter, spring, summer, then fall in that order). Winter time temperatures in the interior of Alaska at some stations record as high as +9F and higher temperature increase over the last half century. I wanted to make that distinction between seasonal temperature changes. The reason fall time is important, even though temperature changes are seemingly small, is because of the timing of temperature-driven ecological changes that are very significant when put into context of the people "on the ground" - i.e., Koyukon hunters and communities who are affected by changes to moose behavior and, in turn, decreased harvest success.
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