The Arctic is home to a diversity of peoples and cultures. In former times, many indigenous people saw themselves as part of a small group in a particular area, not as members of a larger ethnic nation. More recently, language and culture have joined regional geography to define characteristics of groups such as:
All of these people speak related languages and share cultural characteristics. Nonetheless, there is considerable variation even between neighboring communities. In the Arctic, “neighboring” villages may refer to places that are hours apart by airplane and days apart by land or sea.
In addition to indigenous peoples, the Arctic is home to many newcomers. Interactions between Europeans and North American Arctic peoples go back at least five centuries to the early explorers and fishermen who sailed to Greenland and Baffin Island. Since then, visitors and newcomers have arrived in increasing numbers, leading to sweeping social, technological and other changes.
The accommodation of Arctic indigenous practices within the political and economic systems of the United States and Canada has often been challenging. In both countries, dissatisfaction with the appropriation of lands has led to land claims settlements that recognized indigenous rights. At the same time, the settlements have in some cases extinguished certain rights or pushed towards greater assimilation rather than supporting cultural and other self-determination.
Recent years have seen a growing recognition of the importance of indigenous cultures, values, languages and knowledge. Co-management institutions and institutes of public governance have been developed to foster cooperation and incorporate different perspectives and ideas. Traditional knowledge has been recognized as an important source of information and the basis for Arctic peoples’ ability to thrive in a challenging environment.
Pew works in the lands and waters of four different groups of Arctic peoples. Each group has developed its own language and traditions that have been shaped by the part of the Arctic in which they have flourished.
The Inuit live in northeastern Canada and are closely related to Greenlanders to their east and to the Inuvialuit and Inupiat to their west. They depend greatly on marine mammals, fish, caribou, and seabirds for food, clothing, and other materials. “Inuit” means “people” and is plural. “Inuk” is the singular and “Inuktitut” is the name of their language.
The homeland of the Inuvialuit is along the shores of the Beaufort Sea in northwestern Canada and in the Mackenzie River Delta. They hunt beluga whales, seals, caribou, and birds, in addition to fishing for whitefish and other species.
In the neighboring U.S., the Iñupiat live in northern Alaska, from Norton Sound in the northern Bering Sea to the Canadian border. On the North Slope of Alaska, Iñupiat whalers take the bowhead whale, hunting from small skin boats and skiffs in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. They also hunt seals, walrus, beluga whales, caribou, and birds.
The southernmost group is the Yupik, who live in southwestern Alaska, from Bristol Bay across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to Norton Sound. They rely upon salmon that return each year in vast numbers to spawn in the rivers of the area. The Yupik also fish for other species and hunt marine mammals, caribou, and birds.
People who live in an area for a long time develop a great deal of knowledge about that place. If they depend on local plants and animals for food, clothing and shelter, they learn a great deal about the species they use and see. If the environment is variable and potentially dangerous, they learn to identify and avoid hazardous places and conditions.
In the Arctic, such knowledge has been known by various terms, including traditional knowledge, indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, and Inuit qaujimajatuqangiit. Such terms often incorporate the wisdom that has been gained alongside knowledge. We use the term “traditional knowledge” simply because it is widely recognized.
In recent years, a great deal of research has focused on traditional knowledge in the Arctic. Major projects such as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment have incorporated traditional knowledge in efforts to understand what is taking place in the region. Nonetheless, there is a great deal more to be done to make the knowledge of Arctic peoples more widely available.
Documenting knowledge in a report, however, is just one step toward fully incorporating what Arctic peoples have learned over generations. A report about traditional knowledge may put certain facts and observations before a larger audience. But using that knowledge appropriately entails the wisdom than many people associate with traditional perspectives.
Co-management organizations and institutes of public governance are one means of incorporating not just knowledge but also the holders of that knowledge in the decision-making process. Greater involvement by Arctic peoples in the governance of their regions and communities allows their knowledge to benefit modern institutions. These approaches can help in the development of long-term solutions to economic and environmental challenges in the Arctic.