Sustaining caribou harvesting with Elder knowledge
While there is caribou, while we have some Elders, it’s like emergency now to pass on the knowledge to the younger generation. There are also methods of sharing, which needs to be properly learned by the younger generation, and it’s true that this work is needed. While there is caribou, that we have a chance to pass knowledge, the proper knowledge of harvesting and taking care of caribou, to the younger generation. It’s like an emergency now.”– Jobie Ohaituk, Inukjuak
In January 2019, expert hunters and Elders from Nunavik gathered to discuss the status of migratory caribou in the region. Fluctuations in wildlife population levels are well known to Inuit. Nonetheless, hunters expressed concern about the status of the George and Leaf River herds. Hunters agreed that the George River herd is at a critical low and needs to be allowed to recover. Hunters were also concerned about the ongoing decline of the Leaf River Herd and agreed that Nunavik Inuit must lead efforts to address it. Management plans created outside of Nunavik have been the source of tension and conflict. Hunters, together with their local and regional associations, Local Nunavimmi Umajulirijiit Katujjiqatigiinningit (LNUK), Regional Nunavimmi Umajulirijiit Katujjiqatigiinninga (RNUK), and Makivik wanted to see things done differently for caribou.
We used to hear from Elders that the numbers of animals always fluctuate. Some years there are more, some years are less, and some of the years you don’t see any at all. It’s just the way it is, it’s just the way the numbers are of all species.– Jobie Kutchaka, Inukjuak
During the meeting there was a commitment to develop an Inuit-led management plan for caribou — one which would be grounded in Nunavik Inuit knowledge of caribou and the stewardship practices that have sustained caribou and Inuit since time immemorial. In developing such a plan, those gathered at that meeting recognized the importance of gathering Inuit knowledge into a report that could then serve as the basis for the eventual Nunavik Inuit Caribou Protection Plan. This article is based on the results of a Nunavik Inuit Knowledge of Caribou project in which 54 Elders and hunters, selected by their respective communities of Umiujaq, Inukjuak, Salluit, Tasiujaq and Kangiqsualujjuaq, shared their knowledge and experiences of caribou and important stewardship practices.
All across Nunavik, the land holds the history of the relationship between Nunavik Inuit and caribou.
Everywhere you go in Nunavik you see tracks and work that’s been done by Inuit. It’s everywhere…Like, we would see, way inland where a person harvests the caribou. They would erect one inuksuk where they had one, and if they had happened to catch three they put up three small inuksuit so you could see, way inland, where they had harvested them. They indicated where they were… Tell people, that will come after, I was here.– Simeonie Ohaituk, Inukjuak
Caribou have been and continue to be an essential part of food security in the region and many Elders explained how completely the whole caribou is used.
[We] use it for everything, make clothing out of the hide, cook it, dried, raw. For everything it’s being used. All the meat is edible, except the genital parts…All bones, feet, hoofs are edible, even the stomach.– Moses Munick, Tasiujaq
As far back as people can remember, caribou population have fluctuated. Elders spoke of a time before living memory, in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, when caribou were so abundant that you could feel the ground shaking as they came and the entire mountain would move with their arrival.
My father used to tell the story to us that in my grand father’s time there used to be plenty of caribou and there were so many in the hill. And when they start walking it looks as if the mountain, the whole mountain starts moving. That’s how plentiful they were. I assume that must have happened in 1800s that they were plenty.– Shaomik Inukpuk, Inukjuak
I remember my mother talking about her father’s time, my grandfather, their generation… they used to hear caribou walking from a great distance because they were, like shaking the land. Many days — or two days. I think it used to be two days before they arrive, they started hearing caribou walking on the land.– Inukjuak participant
Elders also remember an earlier population low in the 1940s to 1960s when numbers were so low that Inuit had to travel far inland to find caribou but the Elders knew they would return one day. And caribou did return in great numbers. Between the 1980s until about 2000 caribou were abundant across Nunavik with survey estimates of 820,000 for the George River caribou and 680,000 for the Leaf River herd. However, the numbers have since plummeted making it even more critical that best practices around caribou harvesting are shared and maintained.
Elders and experienced hunters from all five communities shared caribou harvesting skills and values that have been important in sustaining caribou in the past. These values and practices should guide harvesters going forward to ensure the recovery of migratory caribou herds:
Respect the life of the animal
That’s what the old people taught us. They said “When you hunt for fun, hunt for sport, the animal will leave you and it’s going to take a long time for it to come back to you. But when you treat it with respect it will always be there.”– Charlie Ikey, Salluit
Take only what you need
Even as kids, even when we were killing birds, our parents would tell us don’t kill what you won’t eat. Even with birds. So, they have to be told. Basically, if we see them doing this, somebody has to tell them, like I do if I ever find anybody who is killing without a need.– Simeonie Ohaituk, Inukjuak
Take care of the herd
We were taught not to harvest animals who look like leaders, you know. And today they harvest animals they see, without watching to see if they could be leaders or pregnant or anything– Jobie Kutchaka, Inukjuak
Be observant and thoughtful while harvesting
In the old days we had to be very, very careful because we had to go near the caribou. We even used to have special kind of feet bottoms when they walk to make less noise to go near them and to crouch down and not to be visible. But today they go chasing them whenever they see them.– Willie Kumarluk, Umiujaq
Do not waste
[I was taught] to always ensure I take the whole kill home so that there’s no wastage of any part of the caribou that’s going to be used.– Epervik Parr, Salluit
Make good use of and appreciate the animal
I am also hoping that younger people can learn that the goodness of it, the value of the food. How to prepare it the right way, how to catch them, how to butcher them, make a good use of it. Because they seem to be like in a rush.– Jeremiah Kumarluk, Umiujaq
Share the catch
There is a lot of sharing. Whenever somebody goes harvesting and they have some at home, they call around to have people come and get what they need…Even young people bring food to houses. Even my nephew just yesterday he said that all his catch is shared.– Jobie Kutchaka, Inukjuak
In closing, we wish to thank and acknowledge all hunters and Elders who participated in this project as well as the other team members and skilled interpreters. Funding for this was made possible through Makivik Corporation, the Société du Plan Nord and the World Wildlife Fund Canada.