Traditional Knowledge and the Arctic Environment

Aug 27, 2013


The study of the Arctic ecosystem is no easy task, despite the great advances in science and the wide array of new observational tools on land, sea, air, and space. Understanding the changing dynamics of weather and climate on the region’s flora and fauna also requires deep, on-the-ground information. Traditional knowledge, which is passed down from generation to generation by the longtime inhabitants of the Arctic, is an important part of our collective understanding.

Today, “traditional knowledge” is often contrasted with “scientific knowledge” and is used in reference to indigenous peoples around the world. In the Arctic region, these communities include the Iñupiat and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik of the northern and western coasts of Alaska. As the region experiences rapid climate change as well as increased vessel traffic and offshore oil and gas development, it is essential that policies reflect local interests and knowledge about the function of the ecosystem and its sensitivities to disturbance.

In this paper, we will discuss how traditional knowledge has been used in various settings and also will make suggestions for what more can be done. We will use some specific examples from the St. Lawrence Island Yupik, who live on the shores of the northern Bering Sea and hunt extensively on the sea ice and open ocean there. Traditional knowledge has a strong cultural component, and thus the knowledge of one people does not necessarily transfer to another people. Nonetheless, some of the basic lessons learned on St. Lawrence Island have meaning in other regions, too. What is learned about one’s ecology or about weather-induced changes is shared not only within one’s community but with other communities.

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