Ansgar Walk, Wikimedia Commons

Ancient wisdom. Indigenous knowledge of the Arctic can improve scientists’ understanding of climate change.

Q&A: What Can Indigenous People Tell Us About Climate Change?

VANCOUVER, CANADAThe Arctic has become the frontline for observing the effects of anthropogenic climate change, from rising ocean temperatures to shrinking sea ice cover. These changes have greatly impacted the traditional practices of indigenous Arctic communities, which rely on sea ice for hunting and travel. In recent years, climate scientists have sought the multigenerational and intimate knowledge that indigenous people have of their environment. How can scientists use this knowledge to improve climate projections and models while respecting indigenous culture?

Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, has studied the indigenous communities of Alaska and northern Russia for 40 years. Yesterday, he gave a talk at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW) on environmental observations that indigenous experts recorded from 2000 to 2010. I sat down to chat with him about what scientists could learn from indigenous perspectives of climate change.

Q: How long have Arctic communities perceived climate change as a threat?

I.K.: First, it hasn’t been perceived as a threat. That’s very much today’s Western perspective. People are concerned with what is happening, but I haven’t heard them speaking about their environment as being “under threat.” [They describe it as] “a friend acting strangely.” It’s a friend that behaves a little bit weird, but doesn’t cease to be a friend because it’s your home.

Q: When did the period of acting strangely start?

I.K.: We started documenting it from indigenous people in the late 1990s, which doesn’t mean it started then, it’s just when we started looking for it and listening to them.

Q: What indicators do indigenous communities use to measure change in their environment?

I.K.: I made a list of almost 30 things that people are looking for in the fall. These are things like the status of the ground, the freezing, the beginning of ice, how it forms, the species of birds migrating by, the conditions of the beach.

Q: What are some of the biggest differences in how indigenous people and scientists look for change or perceive change in the environment?

I.K.: I wouldn’t put it like “indigenous people” and “scientists.” It’s a difference between someone who lives in the environment daily, and someone who studies it [at a distance]. If you wake up every morning and your day depends upon the weather, if your life depends upon going out and coming back safe, and bringing food and traveling, then you’re naturally much more attentive and in tune to the environment.

The difference between indigenous people and nonindigenous residents is that indigenous people have the advantage of multigenerational knowledge, and traditional knowledge of language, classification, and nomenclature that they learn from parents, grandparents, and other elders. If you’re just a resident scientist, you depend upon what you may watch in the environment on your own.

Q: What’s the relationship between knowledge and language in how it’s transmitted?

I.K.: We’ve always thought that a lot of information is stored and passed via language. We recently tried to document indigenous terminologies for sea ice, as one of the goals of a project during the International Polar Year [2007-2008]. Altogether, we have documented 30 terminologies from different parts of the Arctic. People are using between 60 and more than 100 terms for different types of ice, and their classifications are very different from those used by scientists. Their terminology is always very local, very different from place to place; the richness of the vocabulary is different. It’s not like there’s an “Eskimo terminology” for ice or for snow. There are a dozens of different terminologies.

Q: How can this more nuanced perspective help scientists learn about the environment?

I.K.: You cannot jump across this divide in one jump. You have to build many steps in between, and move step by step. You won’t be able to increase your projections of Arctic ice in general just by listening to indigenous people, because they operate on a local level, and you operate on a global level. But what you can learn from indigenous people is looking at ice as a very dynamic body.

That literally happened on my watch, working with or talking to sea ice scientists. Back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, all they cared for was annual advance and retreat. Then they started to view it as a three-dimensional body—ice has thickness—and then as a four-dimensional body that has history within itself. The dynamics of this living body depend on how thick it is, how strong it is, where it originated, its history over a particular season of sea ice growth. This is how you build better models.

Q: In your talk, you mentioned the Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (SIKU) Project, where you asked indigenous people to record observations of sea ice change. What were some of the most striking observations that came out of this project?

I.K.: [Indigenous] people keep saying that change has happened before, that we are now documenting an already changed environment. I’m increasingly hearing, “Igor, you’re late. That changed between 1999 and 2000, or 2001.” Probably they are pointing to what biologists and oceanographers call “regime shift” [when ecosystems rapidly change from one relatively stable state to another], which means that the regime shift happened before we started [the project]. Whether it was really an abrupt regime shift or a more gradual one, we don’t know, but we will learn.

Q: In Alaska, where most climate scientists speak English, are there examples of scientific terms that don’t translate well, or vice versa—indigenous terms that don’t have a meaning in English?

I.K.: That’s a very good question, and unfortunately very few people are working on this, what we call cultural translation. Typical scientists normally don’t care about it. Take Pacific Decadal Oscillation, PDO. You come to the village, and ask, “Are you watching PDO?” They’ll say, “What is that?” And the term we translate as “a friend acting strangely,” what is that? It’s sort of an emotional statement rather than a specific term.

This is a result of just how little we’ve worked on this together. We assume that indigenous people were around for millennia, and scientists started looking into indigenous knowledge of climate change in the past 15 years. So I’m not surprised how little we know. That would be my main message: We know so little and we want so much from these people, from their knowledge. We want it immediately, we want it for our specific goals, we want it for our models, for our predictions, and this is not the way you address other people’s knowledge. It’s not a common commodity; it’s other people’s culture.

Q: What are the most important next steps to develop a better understanding of that knowledge?

I.K.: I would say the next step is to learn more from each other. I certainly would welcome many more young students being exposed to the way other knowledge systems work and how people look into climate change. We are in this together. We don’t have either a monopoly of knowledge or the best knowledge. So I believe the more we increase this multicultural, multi-knowledge perspective on what’s happening with us and the planet, the better it will be for us.

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