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Learning from one another

Igor Kolesov, an Evenki reindeer herder from Siberia, demonstrates his lasso techniques and learns how to scrape a sealskin. Mirva Haataja, a Skolt Sámi from northern Finland, makes a sealskin bracelet to accompany her colourful traditional clothes. George Noongwook, a Yupik whaling captain from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, sings and drums and finds inspiration in Piqqusilirivik, Nunavut’s cultural school in Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River). A cultural exchange or artists’ convention? Actually, these activities are part of a new unconventional four-year scientific project involving indigenous researchers and other scholars from Siberia, Finland, Greenland, Alaska, and Nunavut.

Tanja Sanila tries her luck at a traditional Inuit game. The group are invited to join the weekly Friday Elders’ games, hosted by the Clyde River Elders’ Committee. © Robert Kautuk

“It’s time to do things our way” is a consistent theme, as the members of the group share stories and experiences, both as community leaders and in scientific projects taking place in their homes and homelands. Too often, such individuals work in isolation from one another, fulfilling a double role in their daily lives in the community and their research activities. When we meet in Clyde River, however, we find a new community among people who understand one another even though they are meeting for the first time.

Igor and his family follow the reindeer in southern Sakha Republic, hunting and fishing as well. A major challenge in their region is the encroachment of oil and gas pipelines as well as mines in their reindeer herding territory. Aytalina Ivanova is a Sakha legal scholar from the republic’s capital of Yakutsk. She explains that a new law in the republic requires what amounts to a cultural impact assessment for development projects, but some companies ignore it, claiming they are bound only by Russian federal law. The indigenous peoples of Siberia will have to continue to stand up for their rights.

Mirva and her colleague, Tanja Sanila, are from Sevettijärvi, Finland, another reindeer herding community. Tanja is the leader of their village. Their people resettled after World War II, when Finland had to give territory to the Soviet Union. As a result, the Skolt Sámi have felt like intruders on the territory of other Sámi, and have further suffered losses of language and culture. Mirva and Tanja nonetheless see opportunities for reclaiming traditional ways and skills.

Realizing and exercising human rights is also important in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), as Vittus Nielsen and Lene Kielsen Holm explain. Vittus grew up in a small settlement in the fjord near the national capital of Nuuk, but the settlement was closed down in the 1970s because the government decided it was not sustainable with so few people. Since then, and despite the growing political power of Greenland’s self-rule government, the local fishers in the fjord have seen more and more competition for fishing grounds and less and less recognition of their traditional practices and land use. Vittus has therefore started projects to document the fishing territories of people in the fjord, as a step towards controlling tourist fishing and raising awareness of the importance of respecting the streams and fish habitats.

Shari Fox Gearheard takes the visitors for rides with her dog team. © Robert Kautuk

Hunters in Alaska, too, face challenges from industrial development and from regulations that do not reflect traditional practices and traditional knowledge. George speaks passionately about the need to comprehend the whole ecosystem in studies in his region. Charlene Apok, an Iñupiaq scholar, echoes George’s comments and emphasizes that it is essential to focus on strengths and assets in Arctic communities, rather than dwelling on the gloom and doom of climate predictions or the problems many people face. She has drawn inspiration from elders who have encouraged her to pursue her own path as an indigenous researcher, even if that means having to open people’s eyes in both the research world and in her home communities.

Our discussions about culture and strength are underscored by the setting of our meeting at Piqqusilirivik, which co-host the event. The students at the school, from all around Nunavut, share their experiences and learning. Our group learns skin preparation and sewing, ulu making, and igloo building from elder instructors such as Amakłainnuk Aqqiaruq and Atuat Akitiq. We join in a music concert given for the community by students and local musicians. And, of course, we hear from our local project partners, including Jayko Jaypoody, Joelie Sanguya, Robert Kautuk, and Jukeepa Hainnu, about research in and around Clyde River. Local youth Kolola Kolola and Albert Panipak also participate in our discussions and activities. Here, it is vital to recognize and cherish the skills and traditional activities practiced by Kangiqtugaapingmiut, such as the Inuktitut language and travelling and hunting on the land. At the same time, our partners share that it is a continual battle to represent themselves to the wider world, rather than having visiting researchers try to “explain” Inuit to others.

We take advantage of a day of beautiful weather to travel by dog teams and snowmachines out onto the sea ice of Clyde Inlet, visiting three icebergs, sharing traditional food and trying our skill at using a dog whip. We travel with a local hunters and youth program, run by Ilisaqsivik, a community-based Inuit organization that leads a wide range of cultural, land-based, educational, and other programming in the community. The instructors Esa Qillaq, Esa Piungituq, Aisa Piungituq, Jayko Ashevak, and Elijah Palituq lead the way, providing maktaaq, tuktuviniq, bannock, and tea when we stop for lunch. Getting outside and on the ice is memorable for the visitors and gives us much to talk about later.

Igor Kolesov (left) and Aytalina Ivanova in their traditional clothing. Igor also holds his lasso, made of caribou hide, that he demonstrates how to use during a community open house event. © Robert Kautuk

Project participants also include scientists not from the North, but with long experience living and working there. Shari Fox Gearheard, originally from southern Ontario but now a long-time Clyde River resident, combines her studies with serving as Piqqusilirivik’s manager of curriculum development. Shari came up with the idea of our project, based, in part, on experiences she and I have had with Lene working in Alaska (where I live), Nunavut, and Greenland. To round out the team, Shari enlists colleagues Florian Stammler and Bruce Forbes, originally from Germany and the United States respectively and now both at the University of Lapland in Finland, who have worked with reindeer herders in various parts of Russia and Scandinavia for many years. Nuccio Mazzullo, another researcher from the University of Lapland though originally from Sicily, joins the group as well.

As we make new relationships and form a new sense of community in our time in Clyde River, we also recognize how important it is for researchers, whether they are from the community they study or just visiting, to respect what the people there are already doing, what matters to them, how they see the world and their place in it. Getting out on the land and sea and sharing and learning new hands-on skills are important parts of doing research in community-focused ways. These are ideas we will continue to explore as our project continues, with planned visits to Greenland in 2018 and then to Finland or Siberia after that. Our wonderful welcome in Clyde River sets a high standard for future events for sharing ideas, experiences, and hopes.

The project is supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant No. PLR 1503884. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.