Home Inuit Forum Inuit knowledge is not a footnote to “real” science

Inuit knowledge is not a footnote to “real” science


By Terry Audla

As some of you might know, I sit on the Board of Directors of ArcticNet, which, in just under 10 years, has become the preeminent source of Arctic research in both the natural and social sciences. I am proud of the linkages that have been created between ArcticNet and ITK, and the work we have done to engage young Inuit in research that serves the informational needs of Inuit communities.

But I still get comments, from some of the highest offices of science, which make me realize that our work is far from done. Questions such as, “Is Inuit knowledge still relevant?” And off-the-cuff remarks about the “anecdotal” nature of Inuit knowledge, which is so puzzling to researchers unaccustomed to seeing beyond the methodology of western science.

I think we need to reframe the discussion. Rather than “How can Inuit knowledge be best integrated into western science?” we need to ask, “How can science be best integrated into our system of knowledge generation?”

To understand how these two ways of knowing can co-exist and intertwine, consider the DNA molecule. The discovery of the double helix structure is in itself an amazing example of what science can do. It has helped us under stand the animals that live among us and to manage wildlife populations. And, while the two strands of the double helix are equal in every way, they need to separate from time to time, to keep the mystery of life alive and moving forward.

Too often, to even some of the most enlightened scientists, traditional knowledge (TK) is seen as a kind of fireside chat, or as one researcher described it to me, “like learning from my father.”

“Like most of us from the South with an academic background, I didn’t really get it for years,” he confided. Now he realizes that “TK is more than just some stories about Inuit lore that turned out to be true. It is not entertainment. It took me awhile to appreciate it, but eventually it changed the way I see things.”

A couple of years ago, Fisheries and Oceans Canada prepared a synthesis of narwhal scientific advice and Inuit knowledge collected during community consultations in Nunavut. We need more of this kind of work. The analysis noted that there was some divergence of ideas in the information collected.

Is such divergence a bad thing? No, it is not. I don’t think we should assume that our two systems of knowledge should always deliver duplicate results. They are not carbon copies, as in the case of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Sometimes they separate and go their own way.

The authors wrote, “Inuit knowledge has the potential to complement scientific advice and to enhance our current understanding of narwhals.” This is a good start, but it misses the point. It asks how Inuit knowledge can help southern scientists, rather than asking how science can serve Inuit communities.

At Inuit Qaujisarvingat, ITK’s research arm, we have found that by providing equal space and opportunity for southern scientists and Inuit to work together, that new and important questions arise that would never have emerged had it not been for this collaboration.

Inuit Qaujisarvingat asks what knowledge is needed for better decision making. Inuit have much to provide — and this is often the missing element in sound policy development. So Inuit Qaujisarvingat ensures that Inuit have the opportunity to take on increasing responsibilities to conduct research and influence science funding decisions and priorities.

We have much to gain from working together. But, often, working together is only the beginning. The Inuit knowledge system is an open system. We adopt and we adapt. I challenge all scientists working to understand the vastness of Canada’s Arctic to do the same. Help us to build our science, rather than engaging us to help build yours.