Scientists, Inuit Struggle to Bridge IQ Dilemma

IQALUIT, Nunavut, Canada, May 3, 2001 (ENS) - The idea of uniting science and traditional Inuit knowledge is all the rage in Canada's newest territory Nunavut, but no one seems quite sure how to do it.

That much was evident when nearly 200 scientists from 25 nations gathered in Nunavut's capital Iqaluit for the annual Arctic Science Summit, which wrapped up last weekend.

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The Inuit's traditional relationship with the land lends the northern culture a wealth of knowledge about the Arctic environment, knowledge that scientists would like to harness. (Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation)
Nunavut means "our land" in Inuktitut, the language of the native Inuit. Established as a territory in April 1999, it accounts for 1.9 million square kilometers, nearly one fifth the size of Canada.

Many of the researchers who spoke during the week long meeting stressed the need to use Inuit wisdom to strengthen their scientific understanding of the Arctic.

And several Inuit presenters, including Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference for Canada, implored scientists to team up with Inuit for the good of both Northerners and researchers.

With climate changes threatening to imperil Arctic cultures, she said, "There's a pressing need for high quality partnership."

But when talk at the meeting turned to the nitty gritty of how, exactly, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit - traditional knowledge - should be incorporated into scientific data, both the researchers and Inuit leaders seemed a little shaky.

After it was suggested that the observations of elders should be used as evidence in the study of climate change, one scientist in the crowd asked if the timing of environmental events "in the verbal memories of elders" could be pinpointed with certainty.

That question prompted criticism from Karla Williamson, a Greenlandic Inuk who directs the Arctic Institute in Calgary.

"Time is indeed a very different concept from culture to culture," she said, implying that linear time scales may not be applicable to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, otherwise known as IQ.

If that is so, suggested Olav Orheim of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsų, then traditional knowledge may have little application in hard science.

"We need to put the anecdotal information into some kind of system if it is to have any use," he said.

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ICC-Canada president Sheila Watt-Cloutier. (Photo courtesy ICC-Canada)
Following the meeting, Watt-Cloutier said it is obvious many scientists are still resistant to using IQ.

"I sensed that there was still that kind of skepticism or that kind of dismissal of Inuit knowledge," she said.

"I think it all comes down to that whole issue that it's not scientific and it's all gut feelings and instinct."

But Watt-Cloutier said even Inuit have not worked out how IQ should be properly used in science.

"We ourselves have not been fully able to say what it translates into - how it really fits into policy development, training programs, education programs, governance systems. We ourselves are still at that stage of grappling with that very issue."

In a question and answer period with Olayuk Akesuk, the head of Nunavut's Department of Sustainable Development, the minister said one problem with wedding science and IQ is the language barrier.

"There are a lot of words that are hard to put into Inuktitut, especially in science," he said.

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Nunavut Minister of sustainable development, Olayuk Akesuk. (Photo by Aaron Spitzer, courtesy Nunatsiaq News)
Akesuk's statement was underscored by the fact that, during the more technical presentations at the meeting, translation was not available for Inuktitut speakers.

Indeed, during some talks even English speakers seemed baffled by the fog of scientific jargon.

The discussions on traditional knowledge began on an odd note when Akesuk told the assembly that one sign of climate change in Nunavut is that the sun is not rising in the same place it used to.

No scientists challenged him on this assertion.

Published in cooperation with the Nunatsiaq News.