Igloolik elders win northern science award

SEAN McKIBBON
Nunatsiaq News

IGLOOLIK — Elders in Igloolik were recognized with a national science award last week for their efforts in preserving traditional Inuit knowledge.

Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell presents Igloolik elder Arsene Ivalu with the Northern Science Award. Ivalu is president of Igloolik's Inullariit Society, whose members won the award.
PHOTO BY SEAN McKIBBON

Since 1986, elders in the community have worked with researchers such as John MacDonald, the co-ordinator of the Igloolik Research Centre and George Qulaut, the centre's former operations manager to record their knowledge for posterity on paper and audio tape.

Stories, expertise on hunting, survival on the land, sewing, tanning, technical terms for harpoons and other traditional tools and many other topics have been recorded in 500 interviews.

The work has only scratched the surface, MacDonald said.

"It's a race against time," said Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell, as she listened to MacDonald describe for the Northern Sciences Award committee the painstaking work of interviewing the elders and then transcribing and translating their words.

"Hardly a day goes by that an translator does not wish they could go back and ask an elder who has passed away what a particular word meant," MacDonald said. Many of the Inuktitut terms used by the elders are very specialized and no longer used by younger Inuit, MacDonald said.

On Friday, Lindell presented Igloolik's Inullariit Elders Society with the federal government's Northern Sciences Award. She said the award is important, because it recognizes traditional Inuit knowledge as being on the same footing as Western scientific knowledge.

A young drum dancer at last Friday's celebrations in Igloolik.
PHOTO BY SEAN McKIBBON

The award was established in 1983 by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the International Polar Year — the first world-wide scientific effort to study the Earth's polar regions.

Between the years 1882 and 1883, 11 countries established 12 stations in the Arctic and two in the Antarctic to simultaneously observe weather and other phenomena. The award consists of a centenary medal commemorating the polar year, and $4,500 in cash.

Until 1998, the award was always awarded to individual researchers who were often from the South and usually affiliated with Southern universities.

But this year, the award was given to people who have been helping southern researchers ever since Europeans arrived in the Arctic.

"We were very happy about it," said Arsene Ivalu, the president of the Inullariit Society. He accepted the award on behalf of the society at the award ceremony.

The elders of the community were pleasantly surprised by the award, he said, but had never expected to get an award. For them the motivating factor behind their work was to preserve their oral history and knowledge.

"The culture is not being shown enough," Ivalu said. As a result the elders of the community want to pass on as much as they can, he said. So began the project of recording as much traditional knowledge as possible.

"I believe this is the largest indexed collection of interviews," said MacDonald, explaining that researchers can use a computerized keyword search in English to look for particular topics of traditional knowledge.

But it's difficult to keep pace with volume of interviews he said. Time and money limit the project he said. One elder, the late Noah Piugaattuk, would interview himself, and contributed 70 to 80 hours of audio tape.

"If the translation is left to0 late, sometimes we may find an elder passes away," said MacDonald. Of the 30 elders who were in Igloolik when the project started, about half have died, MacDonald said.

But the elders have recruited more middle-aged people to help with the project and contribute what knowledge they learned from their parents in an effort to counter their decline in numbers, MacDonald said.

"In the winter time we take students out caribou hunting with us," said Ivalu. In an effort to reclaim the traditional method of transferring knowledge from one generation to the next, the Inullariit society takes youngsters out on the land to learn traditional hunting and survival techniques, Ivalu said.

"They're usually quite happy about this. Not just boys, sometimes there are girls who go out too," he said. Almost year-round the elders try to teach young people in Igloolik everything from how to hunt seal, to how to navigate the land and how to make clothing.

Even new knowledge about how far gasoline-powered vehicles can go on the land and still make a return trip has been incorporated into the teaching.

"Traditional knowledge can grow, and it will change over time as the environment changes and people learn new things," said NTI President Paul Quassa, who was on hand for the award ceremony. He said the science award is an important stepping-stone for the federal and territorial governments in their attitude toward traditional knowledge.

"It's in the land claim, traditional knowledge is to be considered to be equal to scientific knowledge," Quassa said.

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik said the award represents a lot pride for the people of Igloolik. He said the book Arctic Sky, written by John MacDonald with the help of the Inullariit society using research gathered in the oral history project is a "very good start" in helping to preserve traditional knowledge.

He said traditional practices are very important to Nunavummiut and evoke powerful emotions.

"I can remember being out on the land with my parents and them telling me about the names of different places and what they meant. They would explain the name of the place and it's background and purpose and history," he said.

"The thing is it's not dying at all because we are going to make it continue," said Ivalu. He said that he hoped the award would motivate other communities to preserve their traditional knowledge also. He said the different regions had inherited different things from their ancestors.

"Maybe if other people are watching us receive the award they will do the same thing," said Ivalu.