Indigenous knowledge is moving towards the top of the Arctic agenda

By Martin Breum - January 9, 2024
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Bowhead whale skull in Utqiagvik (TravelingOtter via CreativeCommons)

We were comfortably seated in Eugene Brower’s one-story bungalow in Utqiagvik, the northernmost town in the US on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, when Brower told me how he and his colleagues made waves across the world with their intricate hunters’ knowledge of the bowhead whales — the great slow moving animals that may weigh up to 60-80 tons.

“You don’t shoot it in the back on its way down. It may sink because it inhales water as it dives,” Brower said.

For four decades, Eugene Brower was a whaling captain, leading numerous hunts and kills, using his acute sense of the whales, their feeding habits, seasonal migrations, mating rituals, escape mechanisms, sight, smell and breathing. Precious knowledge, passed down from his forebears and painstakingly honed through years of perilous hunts on the icy ocean from small, handbuild boats of skins and wood.

For four decades, Eugene Brower of Utqiagvik was a whaling captain. (Martin Breum)

Such expertise is often referred to as indigenous knowledge. Controversial at times and for many years largely unrecognized by western science, but now so much more in the limelight.

For the last few years, political calls for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in all sorts of scientific and political endeavors have been issued by powerful institutions like the Arctic Council, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Whaling Commission, the global Biodiversity Convention and others.

Still more scientists and decision makers argue that indigenous knowledge systems of the Arctic may help build stronger efforts against climate change, strengthen protection of peoples and communities and perhaps even inspire the entire world.

The problem is, that very few know exactly how to go about it. How does one square indigenous knowledge, most of it unwritten, with modern science as scientists with university degrees understand it?

When whaling was stopped

In the midst of this wave of interest, Eugene Brower’s experience stands tall.

In 1976, when he was a young whaling captain, the international community and the US government imposed an all-encompassing moratorium on whale-hunting in the waters that mean life and death to Eugene Brower’s community.

The authorities claimed that the Inuipiat whale hunters were grossly endangering the dwindling numbers of bowhead whales.

It was a bomb. A total stoppage of bowhead whaling. We asked them: How can you prevent us from feeding our people? You have never communicated with us. You could’ve come forward and we could have told you and educated you,” Brower recalls.

Under the ice

Brower and his fellow whalers challenged the official counts of bowhead whales. As one of many results, an envoy from the International Whaling Commission was sent to Utqiagvik, also known as Barrow, where the whalers showed him how the bowheads may dive under the polar sea-ice and become invisible to the inexperienced researcher.

Bowhead whale bones form an arch that opens up into the Arctic. (Jeremy Merritt via CreativeCommons)

The whalers knew that the bowheads breathe from pockets of air under ice-ridges or in narrow cracks between ice floes. They argued that the statistics were not adequate. Later, they added acoustical monitoring of the bowheads and further enhanced their input.

Eugene Brower was president of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission for 41 years and saw how things began to work out. In Utqiagvik, scientists with university educations and the local Inupiat community began to join hands. In 1981, the North Slope Borough, the local municipal authority, opened its own Wildlife Department, possibly the only such municipal department in the US.

Today, five or six scientists and indigenous research coordinators work in tandem as they monitor hunting in the region. The accumulated data informs the relevant politicians and the quotas and other regulations from the State of Alaska or the federal government in Washington D.C.

Internationally, things also changed.

In 2018, after decades of hard-knuckle diplomacy spearheaded by the Arctic whaling communities, the International Whaling Commission, counting more than 80 nations, agreed that from then on status quo catch limits on bowhead whales would be automatically renewed for the indigenous communities in the Arctic, subject only to a few conditions.

In 2022 the Commission officially acknowledged the value of traditional knowledge and supported the incorporation of such knowledge into its own programs of scientific assessments and reviews.

On the grand scale

Likewise within the Arctic Council, the key forum of the governments of the Arctic and the representatives of the indigenous peoples.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, thousands of kilometers from Utqiaqvik, senior researcher Dr. Tom Christensen has been charged with the delicate task of incorporating indigenous knowledge into the biggest ever international program in the Arctic to monitor climate change impacts on animals and plants.

Dr. Christensen is Head of Section for Arctic Environment at Aarhus University in Denmark and co-chair of the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program, a massive effort under the auspices of the Arctic Council’s working group for Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, CAFF.

There is really important knowledge involved. We are talking of very sparsely populated areas where it is difficult for scientists to go. We can do fly-overs with a plane to count narwhals along the coast for instance, but to be able to have information from those who live in the area everyday is priceless,” Dr. Christensen said.

One challenge is how to scale things up. We may have a whale hunter who knows everything about the whales in his particular region of the Arctic, but how do we fit this into the bigger picture of the Arctic? We still need to figure that out,” he said.

Race, wealth and gender

Such efforts are not only complex, they may also be controversial, touching upon colonial legacies and cultural differences.

“Previously the indigenous peoples have not been heard, but several Arctic countries are now working to get the important information from indigenous-, hunters- and local knowledge better included. The US and Canada are among the countries that have been leading the way,” Tom Chistensen told me.

In May 2021 a group of scientists summed up many years of international projects involving indigenous knowledge in BioScience, a journal published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences:

Indigenous research methodologies may also highlight factors such as race, wealth, academic status, and gender and thus shift the entire focus it feeds into (…) many stakeholders in environmental decisions have frequently been excluded from or don’t see themselves as represented in scientific endeavors,” the group wrote.

A group of Inupiaq Eskimos flense a bowhead whale on the north side of Utqiagvik (Alaska Jack via Wikimedia Commons)

The taste of a whale

Progress is slow, but change is evident. Dr. Christensen explained how the input from indigenous elders at a workshop with scientists in Ottawa in 2016 led to the inclusion of a completely new factor in the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program.

In the future, the program’s monitoring of marine mammals like seals, whales and walruses will not only focus on the number of animals, feeding habits, offspring and other classic factors but also on factors such as the taste of the animals. The taste may tell the indigenous hunter for instance if the animal has been starving, how much muscle it contains and other items which ordinary scientists would not be able to measure.

The conversation in Ottawa was not simple. One elder brought up the subject of mermaids, illustrating the need for careful cultural translation.

In the end the scientists understood that there is much information and important changes that we would not normally be measuring but that we may now add to the program as we include ‘taste’ as a factor,” Dr. Christensen said.

The conversation was facilitated by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), the international body of inuit in Greenland, Alaska, Canada and Russia. Four years later, in June 2022, the ICC published the Circumpolar Inuit Protocols for Equitable and Ethical Engagement, a 35 page guide for anyone wanting to engage with indigenous communities and indigenous knowledge.

Simply stated, the EEE Protocols are the terms by which we expect to be engaged in all work affecting our homelands,” the text goes. The reader may learn, for instance, “that trust takes a long time to develop but can be easily and quickly lost” and that “meetings may also require unstructured space and time for discussion, language interpreters, the inclusion of appropriate dialects (…) Many of us prefer smaller, informal gatherings, where natural conversations occur, and privacy is respected.”

The best possible marriage

Back in Utqiagvik, Eugene Brower’s town, the discussion of indigenous knowledge now meets pressing discussions about global warming.

As the sea ice gets weaker, there is less protection against the violent storms from the Arctic Ocean that hungrily erode Utqiagvik’s shoreline. In 2022, salty sea water reached all the way to the lake that provides fresh water for Utqiagvik’s 5000 residents.

The climate also impacts on the caribou, an essential food source. Migration patterns change, and the changing climate may be impacting on the crucial Western Arctic herd of caribou that has dwindled from some 490.00 to about 164.000 animals.

To Dr. Pearl Kiyawn Nageak Brower, CEO of the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, which owns most of the land and infrastructure in the North Slope Borough, indigenous knowledge must be a cornerstone in all science, even in the more specialized fields of climate science.

“I don’t believe there is a place in science where indigenous knowledge should not have a place at the table,” she told me.

It is the best possible marriage. You take the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of the world and you bring it all together to have a truly well rounded conversation. Traditional knowledge takes into perspective that of the whole. The whole body, the whole person, the whole environment. There is a lot of difference between the indigenous world view and the western one,” she said.