Indigenous peoples, animals, and climate in the Arctic

This is Section 12.2.1 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Lead Author: Mark Nuttall; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Bruce Forbes, Gary Kofinas,Tatiana Vlassova, George Wenzel

Animals, food, and survival (12.2.1.1)

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic include the Iñupiat, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Aleuts, and Athapaskans of Alaska; the Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, and Athapaskans of northern Canada; the Kalaallit and Inughuit of Greenland; the Saami of Fennoscandia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula; and the Chukchi, Even, Evenk, Nenets, and Yukaghir of the Russian Far North and Siberia (see Chapters 1 and 3 for an extended discussion). These peoples have subsisted for thousands of years on the resources of land and sea, as hunters, gatherers, fishers, and reindeer herders. Today, many indigenous communities across the Arctic continue to depend on the harvesting and use of living terrestrial, marine, and freshwater resources. In recent decades indigenous peoples have demanded the right to be involved in the policy-making processes that affect their lives, lands, and communities. Responding to rapid social change and threats to the arctic environment, demands for land claims and self-government have been based on historical and cultural rights to lands and resources.

The species most commonly harvested by the indigenous peoples of the Arctic are marine mammals such as seals; walrus (Odobenus rosmarus); narwhal (Monodon monoceros); beluga (Delphinapterus leucas), fin (Balaenoptera physalus), and minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) whales; polar bear (Ursus maritimus) and land mammals such as caribou (Rangifer tarandus), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)*, and muskox (Ovibos moschatus); and fish such as salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), northern pike (Esox lucius), and other species, such as whitefishes (Coregonus spp.). Many of these species are used as food, and for clothing and other products, as well as figuring prominently in the cash economy of local households and communities[2].

Ringed seals (Phoca hispida), bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus), and hooded seals (Cystophora cristata) are widely hunted in Greenland and Canada. Harp seals (Phoca groenlandica) and harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) are also used locally. Smaller toothed whales like the beluga and the narwhal are hunted in many areas of Canada and Greenland and are prized for their mattak (skin) and meat. Baleen whales like bowhead (Balaena mysticetus), minke, fin, grey (Eschrichtius robustus), pilot (Globicephala melaena), and other larger whales are also a valued source of food. Walrus are also commonly taken in Inuit areas, especially in the Bering Strait region and in the Canadian Arctic[3].

Fish species used by arctic communities include those that move seasonally from marine to freshwater environments, such as salmon and Arctic char, which are particularly important for indigenous peoples of Alaska (including Inuit communities around Kotzebue Sound, Norton Sound, and the Yukon and Kuskokwim Deltas). The five species of Pacific salmon are also an important food source and a major source of cash income for many households[4]. Other arctic species used locally include Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), several species of whitefish, pike, and grayling (Thymallus arcticus).

Marine fish are an important source of food and a cornerstone of economic life in the Arctic. Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida) is used for domestic consumption but also has a long history of use for commercial purposes, especially in Greenland. While its numbers today are reduced, it remains an important part of northern economies in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. Greenlandic-owned (and largely Greenlandic-crewed) fishing vessels also fish in waters beyond Greenland, such as in the Barents Sea. In the Bering Sea, the large fishery for pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) is undertaken mainly by vessels coming from outside the Arctic, but indigenous peoples are increasingly participating in this and other Bering Sea fisheries. Several flatfish, including halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus), Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), and flounder (Pleuronectes ferrugineus) are important locally for food and for cash. In Greenland, deep-water shrimp (Pandalus borealis) is the major source of export income; indeed, Greenland is the world’s largest exporter of shrimp, while the economies of small communities along the west coast are increasingly based on fishing for local stocks of Greenland halibut and cod. Capelin (Mallotus villosus), which spawns in large numbers on rocky beaches, is a particularly important coastal fish used locally in Canada and Greenland for human and sled dog food.

Several terrestrial species – especially caribou, reindeer, muskox, and moose (Alces alces) – are extremely important in local economies. Caribou, in particular, are hunted widely in Alaska and Canada and in some parts of Greenland, and are used both for food and for other products. Caribou populations are known to vary dramatically over time, and hunters are attuned to the near predictability of their seasonal abundance and migratory routes. Reindeer underpin the culture and economy of herding societies in Fennoscandia and Siberia. Moose are common in the subarctic boreal forest, but their range is expanding into more northerly environments. Other terrestrial species of economic importance to arctic residents include muskox, grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus), arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), and ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii).

Indigenous peoples have also collected eggs and hunted birds among coastal colonies of auks and other seabirds. For example, Greenlanders hunt, among others, Brünnich’s guillemot (Uria lomvia), common eider (Somateria mollissima), king eider (Somateria spectabilis), and kittiwakes (Rissa spp.), and take the eggs of all these species. They also collect the eggs of birds not hunted for food, such as the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea).

 

caption Figure 12.1. Average annual indigenous subsistence production in arctic Canada. (Source: based on AMAP, [1])

 

Literally hundreds of harvest studies have been carried out in the Arctic and subarctic, particularly in Alaska and Canada. The wide range and diversity of plant and animal species used for food by indigenous peoples is illustrated by data from recent studies and surveys from the Canadian Arctic summarized in reports by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (e.g., [5]). Figure 12.1 shows harvest levels in the different Inuit regions and in the Yukon.

In 1989, the total harvest in the Northwest Territories was estimated to be about 5,000 tonnes, or 232 kilograms per person per year, excluding commercial fish catches. There is very little information about the harvesting activities of most Dene and Métis communities, except for fur-bearing species and commercially significant fish. Employment figures indicate that subsistence activities are important, as almost 40% of the indigenous population in Dene communities were not part of the labor force according to a survey in 1991[6]. Almost 38% of people over 15 years old said that they used non-cash activities to provide for their families. A slightly larger percentage said that they had lived on the land in the previous twelve months. An estimate of the per-capita harvest suggests that the communities are self-sufficient in their protein requirements. Yukon First Nations also rely heavily on subsistence activities. About one third of the people in the 1991 Aboriginal People’s Survey said that they had lived on the land in the previous year and 30% supported their families with activities that were not part of the cash economy[7].

The AMAP assessment shows that studies support the picture of a high reliance on subsistence production throughout northern Canada[8]. Even if store-bought foods are also common, traditional/country foods contribute a significant proportion of the daily nutritional intake.

The traditional diets of indigenous peoples in northern Canada are more balanced than a diet of foods imported from southern Canada, which have higher levels of sugar and more saturated fats. Using traditional/country foods is regarded by indigenous peoples as more economical than purchasing food in the store. This becomes especially important in communities where many people are not employed or where many have incomes below the poverty line. Traditional/country foods are also important for reinforcing the social relationships that are central to the culture and subsistence economy.

Diets and food preferences vary between communities and between families, but detailed studies provide some examples of what people eat. In Aklavik, Northwest Territories, more than half the Inuit households consume caribou, beluga, Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), muskrat, whitefish, cisco (Coregonus spp.), burbot (Lota lota), inconnu (Stenodus leucichthys), Arctic char, ducks, geese, cloudberries (Rubus spp.), cranberries (Oxycoccux spp.), and blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), with caribou the most common food[9].

The types of food eaten also depend on the time of year. In Aklavik, autumn is caribou and moose hunting season, as well as being the hunting season for Dall sheep (Ovis canadensis dalli), ducks, and geese. Winter activities are trapping small fur-bearing animals and fishing. When the ice breaks up in April, muskrat are harvested for their pelts and meat. The waterfowl return, and are used as food until they begin to nest. Fishing resumes after ice break-up. Spring is the time for gathering roots. Summer is whaling time, and people travel out to the Yukon coast to hunt beluga. Willow tops, bird eggs, and wild rhubarb supplement the diet. As autumn approaches again, it is time to dry fish and caribou meat and to pick berries. Among the Dene, a few dietary studies have been carried out specifically to estimate the amount of contaminants in traditional/country foods. These surveys show, for example, that moose are eaten in summer, barrenland caribou in winter, and ducks in spring. Other important foods are inconnu, whitefish, cisco, and blueberries. In the winter, moose, rabbit, whitefish, and loche are part of the diet, and in the spring woodland caribou[10]. The influence of the fear of contaminants on food harvesting is an important issue that needs development[11].

A survey of dietary preferences in the communities of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, and Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, showed that people ate traditional/country foods six times per week and that animals from the land made up one-third of the diet. In a survey of Yukon First Nations (Haines Junction in the traditional territory of the Champagne–Aishihik First Nation, Old Crow, which is a remote community on the Porcupine River relying heavily on the Porcupine Caribou Herd that migrates through their land, Teslin at Teslin Lake, and Whitehorse, which is the territorial capital with a more diverse population), virtually all households used moose and salmon, as well as berries and other plant foods. Many also used caribou, hare, ground squirrel, beaver, ducks, grouse, chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), sockeye salmon (O. nerka), coho salmon (O. kisutch), whitefish, lake trout, and Labrador tea (Ledum spp.). In total, mammals accounted for about half the traditional food, fish for a fifth, berries for a fifth, other plants for a tenth, and birds for a twentieth. People got most of their food from hunting and fishing[12].

As the dietary surveys carried out in Yukon First Nation communities show, traditional/country food harvested from the local environment has a central role in the daily lives of individuals, families, households, and communities. Traditional/country foods improve the quality of the diet as shown by the lower fat and saturated fat content of the diet when traditional food is consumed. Traditional/country foods also represent important sources of dietary energy, protein, iron, and zinc. The increased physical activity associated with traditional food harvest, and the role of the traditional/country food system in cultural and social support systems is also likely to contribute to health[13].

Animals and cultural identity (12.2.1.2)

Successful harvesting of all the species used by indigenous peoples requires specialized knowledge of animal and fish behavior, sea ice and terrestrial conditions, and arctic weather. The detailed knowledge of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples about these factors is widely recognized. Indigenous peoples have detailed and complex systems of classification and knowledge about the natural world which is developed and enhanced through long-term experience and generational transmission[14]. This knowledge has enabled indigenous societies to exploit highly productive ecosystems effectively in the region for thousands of years[15] and provides a foundation for economic, cultural, spiritual, and ethical concerns that guide the use and management of natural resources[16].

The living resources of the Arctic do not just sustain indigenous peoples in an economic and nutritional sense, but provide a fundamental basis for social identity, cultural survival, and spiritual life. As such they are as much important cultural resources as they are economic ones. This dependence on animals for food and social, cultural, and economic well-being is reflected in rules for community hunting, in herding traditions, and in patterns of sharing and gift-giving based on kinship ties and other forms of close social relatedness. Participation in family and community hunting, herding, and fishing activities contributes to defining and establishing a sense of social relatedness and is important for community and cultural identity, as well as for providing a moral framework for relationships between people and between people and animals.

Across the Arctic, the sharing and distribution of meat and fish is central to daily social life and expresses and sustains social relationships, and the case study from Nunavut (section 12.3.2) illustrates vividly the sharing practices and networks in one particular region. Harvesting and its associated processing and sharing activities reaffirm fundamental values and attitudes towards animals and the environment and provide a moral foundation for continuity between generations[17]. In seal hunting households in Greenland and Canada, for example, the meat, fat, and skin of the seal is utilized. There is rarely much wasted. Complex and precise local rules determine the sharing and distribution of the catch, and seal meat is commonly shared out to people beyond the household, whether those people are related to the hunter or not[18]. For arctic hunting peoples, sharing can only be understood with reference to the sense of social relatedness that people feel they have with each other and with animals and the environment. This has been well documented by recent research on the consumption of traditional/country foods in Greenland[19].

The cultural expression of the relationships between humans and animals is evident in first-catch celebrations. At an early age, boys are taken on hunting trips with their fathers, who begin to teach them the skills and impart the knowledge necessary to be a successful hunter. In small Greenlandic hunting villages, for example, when a boy catches his first seal, he will give gifts of meat to every household in his community and people are invited to his parents’ home for coffee or tea and cake. A first catch celebration is not only a recognition by the community of the boy’s development as a hunter, but is a statement of the vitality and cultural importance of the hunting way of life[20]. For arctic hunting peoples such as the Inuit, sharing the products of the hunt is a social event that demonstrates relatedness, affection, and concern. Obligations to share underlie customary ideologies of subsistence and contribute to the reproduction of kinship ties and other close social relationships[21]. Climate change not only disrupts hunting activities, it has an impact on such social relationships, as the case study from Nunavut (section 12.3.2) shows.

Rich mythologies, vivid oral histories, festivals, and animal ceremonialism also illustrate the social, economic, and spiritual relationships that indigenous peoples have with the arctic environment. Animals have a spiritual essence as well as a cultural and economic value, and land and water are not just seen as commodities. For indigenous peoples, many features in the landscape are sacred places, especially along migration routes, where animals reveal themselves to hunters in dreams, or where people encounter animal spirits while traveling[22].

In Alaska and Canada, Athapaskan oral histories describe how features of the landscape, or the elements, such as the moon, sun, wind, stars, and so on, were originally human beings and whose spirits are now embodied in aspects of the natural world. In Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, Inuit stories about the origin of the elements, the sun and the moon, and other celestial bodies, are often related to myths about the balance between daylight and darkness, time and space, and between the human and natural worlds. In Siberia and Sapmi, one can find reindeer antlers that have been placed at sacred sites and adorned with gifts, and sacred stones placed on the tops of mountains and near lakes and rivers.

Place, environment, and climate (12.2.1.3)

Although the Arctic is often labeled one of the last remaining wilderness areas on earth, this ignores the fact that the Arctic is a homeland for indigenous peoples. The indigenous names for features of the landscape – for streams, lakes, mountains, valleys, plains, and tundra meadows – as well as the icescape and features of the sea are not merely geographically descriptive. The names that indigenous peoples have given to the arctic landscape are multidimensional, in that they contain information about physical features, the availability and movement of animals, community history, and historical and mythological events[23]. This differs sharply from the practice of naming places by explorers, colonialists, and settlers in order to control, own, and dominate the landscape.

Often, place names provide information about climate change and significant weather-related events. For indigenous peoples, stories and discussions about the weather and climate are interwoven with stories and experiences of particular tasks, like hunting, herding, fishing, berry-picking, or traveling (see Chapter 3). Much of this is bound up with memories of past events, of local family histories, and of a strong sense of attachment to place and locality[24]. The weather connects people to the environment and to animals.

One example of this is the understanding of sila in Greenland. In Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) the word for weather and climate is sila. Sila is also used to mean "the elements" or "the air". But sila is also the word for "intelligence/consciousness", or "mind," and is understood to be the fundamental principle underlying the natural world. Sila is manifest in each and every person. It is an all-pervading, life-giving force – the natural order, a universal consciousness, and a breath soul[25]. Sila connects a person with the rhythms of the universe, integrating the self with the natural world. As sila links the individual and the environment, a person who lacks sila is said to be separated from an essential relationship with the environment that is necessary for human well-being. When people in Greenland experience a change in the weather, this change is experienced in a deeply personal way. And when they talk about their concerns about climate change, they articulate this not only in terms of how their own sense of self, personhood, and well-being is changing in relation to external climatic fluctuations, but in their concerns for their own sense of self and well-being in terms of climate change[26].

Memories and knowledge of how the weather and climate has changed are also found in oral histories as well as in contemporary observations. For Athapaskan people of Canada’s Yukon Territory and southeast Alaska, memories of the Little Ice Age play a significant role in indigenous oral traditions. Cruikshank[27] shows how these stories are "sedimented" on land just like geological processes. Athapaskan clan histories document travel across glaciers from several directions. Eyak, Athapaskan, and Tlingit place names encapsulate information and local ecology and climate now rendered invisible by English names. Cruikshank[28] shows that surging glaciers present navigational, spiritual, and intellectual challenges of a sentient "land that listens". Stories about changes in the weather, to the landscape, and to glaciers persist with a richness, range, and variety because of ongoing risks they posed to everyday life well into the 20th century.

Today, as Athapaskan people demonstrate concern with climate change, there is a contemporary validity to these stories. They not only record the consequences of climate change, and enrich scientific understandings of past climatic conditions, but also provide information on the responses that helped indigenous communities cope with and adapt to climate change. Observations and understandings of change are invaluable to scientists working on the impacts of climate change and increased levels of ultraviolet-B radiation by providing long-term records of observed changes with which to compare and contrast their results[29].

Chapter 12. Hunting, herding, fishing, and gathering: indigenous peoples and renewable resource use in the Arctic
12.1 Introduction
12.2 Present uses of living marine and terrestrial resources
    12.2.1 Indigenous peoples, animals, and climate
    12.2.2 Mixed economies
    12.2.3 Renewable resource use, resource development, and global processes
    12.2.4 Renewable resource use and climate change
    12.2.5 Responding to climate change
12.3 Understanding climate change impacts through case studies
    12.3.1 Canadian Western Arctic: the Inuvialuit of Sachs Harbour
    12.3.2 Canadian Inuit in Nunavut
    12.3.3 The Yamal Nenets of northwest Siberia
    12.3.4 Indigenous peoples of the Russian North
    12.3.5 Indigenous caribou systems of North America

References

*Caribou are wild animals in North America. Reindeer are domesticated animals in or originally from Eurasia. There are also "wild reindeer", meaning the wild relatives of the animals that were domesticated in Eurasia.

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Citation

Committee, I. (2012). Indigenous peoples, animals, and climate in the Arctic. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153806

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