Inuit Indigenous Knowledge and Science in the Arctic

bv Ellen Bielawski

"...the process of opening Western knowledge to traditional rationalities has hardly yet begun."

Anne Salmond, 1985

"I am telling you about myself. You didn't even bother telling me about yourself, you just wanted me to write stories about myself. I don't think that's fair. I would like to know about your parents and I would like to know about other things. I am an old man now and I am curious."

Akuliaq Inukjuak, 1967

"...the vast and particular knowledge of the Eskimo, garnered from hundreds of years of their patient interrogation of the landscape, was starting to slip away."

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams


Two groups of people-informants-are currently enriching my knowledge of the Arctic. One group is Inuit elders, who speak little, if any, English. The others are scientists who work in the Arctic.

Two such different groups, my colleagues have commented: Inuit elders born on the land, spending most of their lives as subsistence hunters; and scientists-people as passionate about their right to pursue pure knowledge as Inuit hunters are about the rich taste of caribou marrow. I respond lightly: "I work with elders who speak no English, and it's quite similar to working with scientists, because they don't speak any English either."

I am, of course, trained in the western scientific tradition, and not fluent in Inuktitut. But I find much in common among the informants in the two case studies I have in progress. Both have difficulty communicating their knowledge to those who use it. Both are isolated from much of the knowledge held by the other. In recent history, they have seen little use for each other's knowledge.

The research I am doing is about the difference between Inuit indigenous knowledge and arctic science. Conflict between ways of knowing began when Inuit (whose ancestors first occupied the Arctic nearly 4000 years ago) and European explorers first met. The conflict is sometimes subtle, quietly as well as savagely devastating to Inuit, who nevertheless endure. The conflict continues in the form of negotiations for land, sea, and resources; for political power; for housing and health care; for culture. The difference between Inuit and western knowledge underlies conflict in all realms. The conflict is detrimental to both cultures.

Current thinking recommends that arctic scientists and those who use their work (managers and policy makers) resolve the conflict by recognizing the continuing existence and value of indigenous knowledge (also called "traditional", or "local" knowledge). Canada's former minister of the environment has written: "Our task is to integrate traditional knowledge and science." (de Cotret 1991:8). The Traditional Knowledge Working Group, created by the Government of the Northwest Territories, strives for legislative and policy changes that will integrate traditional knowledge into policy about wildlife, health, justice, and social problems. The working group debated the meaning of traditional knowledge for more than two years before reporting:

The lack of common understanding about the meaning of traditional knowledge is frustrating for those who advocate or attempt in practical ways to recognize and use traditional knowledge. For some, traditional knowledge is simply information which aboriginal peoples have about the land and animals with which they have a special relationship. But for aboriginal people, traditional knowledge is much more. One elder calls it "a common understanding of what life is about."

Knowledge is the condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association. The traditional knowledge of northern aboriginal peoples has roots based firmly in the northern landscape and a land-based life experience of thousands of years. Traditional knowledge offers a view of the world, aspirations, and an avenue to 'truth', different from those held by non-aboriginal people whose knowledge is based largely on European philosophies. (Department of Culture and Communications, Government of the Northwest Territories 1991:11)

In her work describing Maori epistemologies, Anne Salmond writes: "...the process of opening Western knowledge to traditional rationalities has hardly yet begun." (Salmond 1985:260). There is the problem: people now seek to integrate indigenous knowledge and science in the Arctic, but no one quite knows how.

This research on Inuit knowledge and arctic science is an attempt to interpret them in ways mutually comprehensible to Inuit and scientists. Scientists are defensive in thee stance toward issues such as scientific literacy. Some arctic scientists are defensive about commentary on the conduct and application of science in the Arctic. Also, faced with political statements about integrating indigenous knowledge with science, at least one scientist asked the National Science Foundation's Division of Polar Programmes: "What is indigenous knowledge?" I have approached the problem of integrating indigenous knowledge and science through philosophy of science precisely because I want scientists to pay attention to, and grasp, indigenous knowledge in terms they can understand and, one hopes, respect.

I speak herein about the Inuit of the central and eastern Canadian Arctic; other names a e used for closely related peoples (e.g., Eskimo, Yup'ik) in Alaska. The governments of the Northwest Territories and Canada administer most of the study area. Its southern reaches are administered by the province of Quebec. The research problem crosses modern boundaries. I hope that this research may be applied to Inuit life in the contemporary Arctic and to the conduct of science there.

Theoretical Background

Arguments about rationality and relativism are the philosophical context for comparing Inuit knowledge with western science. Inuit knowledge did not develop in a context requiring comparison with the parameters of science, but compares well when challenged with these parameters. Inuit knowledge is consensual, replicable, generalizable, incorporating, and to some extent experimental and predictive (Bielawski 1990; Denny 1986).

Conversely, I have not yet seen evidence that Inuit controlled conditions for experiment. Nor did they, over time, increase accuracy in measurement. Their knowledge did not comprehensively address universal phenomena beyond their cultural boundaries, nor did they strive for explanation for explanation's sake.

Philosophical realism allows that both science and Inuit knowledge contribute to understanding the Arctic. A realist approach requires that one accept the natural world as real and amenable to explanation. It holds that the objects of nature exist in and of themselves, were here before science, and will remain regardless of the activities of inquiry directed toward them. This position takes science seriously, as a special form of knowledge different from the indigenous knowledge of societies without science; and it allows that such indigenous knowledge can also contribute to understanding the world. Ian Jarvie argues strongly that anthropology is ideally suited for realist inquiry about science and other forms of knowledge (Jarvie 1986:162-171). A realist view contrasts with relativist interpretations more commonly invoked in describing and validating the indigenous knowledge of oral societies. From this position I am examining the difference between western culture, possessing science, and Inuit culture, without western science. (See Jarvie 1986; Gellner 1985) I ask: What happens to knowledge when one culture rapidly imports the products of science? On this question, philosophy of science remains essentially silent.

Case Studies I: How Inuit Construct Knowledge

In the winter of 1991, I visited the community of Inukjuak, in arctic Quebec. The Inuit who live there call the area Nunavik. There I began field work on one of two case studies for this research. Prior to this field work I reviewed Nunavik oral histories for data pertaining to Inuit knowledge. I am trying to derive Inuit epistemology, as others have derived epistemology for several nonwestern "schemes of human nature and reality" (Overing 1985:17; Borofsky 1987).

The Inukjuak case study is intended to yield data on how Inuit construct knowledge. It is set in an unusual historical event where people were deposited in an environment both uninhabited and unfamiliar to them. In 1953 and 1955, the Government of Canada resettled Inuit from the area around Inukjuak to two locations in the High Arctic, Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord. After 20 to 30 years in the High Arctic, many of these people have returned to Inukjuak. They have requested compensation from Canada for their removal to the High Arctic a generation ago. To this end, they have given many structured interviews quite unlike the usual long Inuit narrative.

My task is to learn from the relocatees how they solved the problems of living in an environment where they had no previous experience-how they constructed knowledge necessary to live there practicing a subsistence lifestyle.

Nunavik oral histories are nearly silent on matters of epistemology, except when the context of specific knowledge-the story that is supposed to contain it-has been lost. When people say that they cannot remember stories, and "just say it" (Tuniq 1985) they are most direct in describing how they know something. When they feel that they have lost the context for their knowledge, they speak about how they know it. One hunter, when asked how he worked out the location and movements of caribou herds, looked at me oddly and said, "Because we are Inuit, we can do that."

What does "Because we are Inuit" imply? The initial interviews support the conclusions I drew from the oral histories: Inuit knowledge resides less in what Inuit say than in how they say it and what they do. Inuit knowledge contrasts with science in that "pure knowledge is never separated from moral or practical knowledge" (Overing 1985:17; see also Sayer 1984: 16-40). Fortunately, Arctic ethnography records a great deal of practical knowledge. However, as Fienup-Riordan comments, we have paid much less attention to why Eskimos do what they do (1990:4). The difficulty in answering questions of "why" and "how" is emphasized in the relevant literature. Salmond, Overing, and others emphasize that an openness to other rationalities, a critical understanding of assumptions built into western epistemology, and linguistic comprehension beyond the norm even for anthropology are required (Salmond 1985:245; Overing 1985:17). Also required are Inuit anthropologists.

Case Studies II: An Ethnography Of Arctic Science

The second case study begins with a significant contrast between Inuit knowledge and science. Inuit do not separate people from nature. Arctic scientists do. As one scientist said to me, "It's a little bit different in archaeology and anthropology, but in geology or biology, people are overburden." (Background interview, June 1990, Resolute Bay, N.W.T.). The bifurcation between culture and nature, and between social and natural sciences (see Margolis 1987:xv) in Arctic research denies the unity of people and nature in Inuit interpretations of the world and strategies for living in it.

Fienup-Riordan takes this contrast further in her work on Yuptik Eskimo ideology. She writes that Western science assumes an inherent differentiation between humans and animals and focuses on the explanation of the relationship between originally independent parts; the Yup'ik Eskimos stand this basic assumption on its head and assume, for instance, that men and animals are analogically related as human and nonhuman persons...the focus of explanation shifts to the creation of differentiation out of an original unity" (Fienup-Riordan 1990:4).

This contrast led to such things as Canada relocating Inuit to the High Arctic without grasping any of the inseparable social and natural implications for the Inuit. It led to many of the westem strategies for community development, medicine, education, and justice that have isolated Inuit from at least half of their reality, the natural world. It also led me to my second case study in progress, an ethnography of arctic science.

Firmly grounded in the western intellectual tradition, arctic science nevertheless differs in specifiable ways from science that is geographically, financially, and culturally closer to its southern support bases. Arctic science is shaped by environment (e.g., low species diversity, polar extremes); history (e.g., four nations conducting science and applying technology amidst Inuit culture) politics (e.g., sovereignty in the Arctic); and humanism (e.g., the Arctic in the southern imagination; wilderness conservation). Arctic science attracts some who prefer its vastness and extremes for its own sake; others who find it free of the "overburden" of a western-educated public, paying taxes for research. Some see it as a "playground", others as the key to global research questions (Background interview, Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa, November 1990.) Arctic science is, willingly or unwillingly, being influenced by the social context in which it is conducted (Bielawski 1984; Colorado 1988; Cruikshank 1981, 1984; Freeman and Carbyn 1988; Johnson 1987; Merculieff 1990; Waldram 1986). This influence has thus far been primarily empirical. Life scientists, for example, recognize Inuit taxonomic data, but append it to studies that are classical western science (see Nakashima 1988).

The ethnography involves documenting the customary research behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes of a sample of Canadian arctic scientists. Definition of research problems, education, and initiation rites are all part of the study. Scientists from three research institutions with critical influence in Canadian Arctic science are involved-the Geological Survey of Canada, the Polar Continental Shelf Project, and the Canadian Wildlife Service.


Taken together, the case studies should illuminate how Inuit knowledge and arctic science both contribute to understanding the Arctic. Each is successful in specific realms. Inuit knowledge has both a moral and practical place in the contemporary Arctic (for comparative studies see Overing 1985). But no Inuk will abandon her or his antibiotics, electric sewing machine, or snowmobile. An intellectual tradition crossing and integrating Inuit knowledge and western science does not yet exist, and it is not yet possible for me to say what an Inuit 'science' might consist of in the future (Bielawski 1990:19). Nor is it possible to construe what an Arctic science integrating indigenous knowledge in some way beyond empiricism could say about the world.

Ellen Bielawski is a research associate of the Arctic Institute of North America. This paper is based on a presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., 1991, in the symposium, "The Anthropology of Science and Scientists".


Research for the theoretical context of the case studies was supported by a Killam Postdoctoral Scholarship at the University of Alberta. The Inuit Relocation case study is supported by Multiculturalism Canada, Department of the Secretary of State. The Ethnography of Arctic Science is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Science, Technology and Policy Programme. I am very grateful to the Documentation Centre, Avataq Cultural Institute, for use of the Inuit Archive, and especially to Sylvie Cote Chew for her invaluable assistance there.

References Cited

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