Long-term observations are an inherent process in our communities

31 March 2020
Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough is the Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and she is one of the keynote speakers of the 2020 Arctic Observing Summit – a conference that has been moved entirely to the digital realm due to the covid-19 outbreak. Dr. Dorough’s address thus has been prerecorded for attendees participating from across the Arctic and beyond. However, as she states in her opening: While she understands the need of holding the gathering in a virtual fashion, she also has to acknowledge that it is a format that creates extraordinary barriers for Inuit to participate directly. The current pandemic demonstrates the lack of infrastructures in many Arctic communities – in addition to lack of potable water, sewer systems, and sufficient housing, a stable bandwidth to attend virtual conferences is one of those lacks. We spoke to Dr. Dorough about the need of multiple observations in the Arctic, the value of co-production of knowledge and the possibilities for concrete actions that observations offer.
Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough speaking at the Arctic Environment Ministers
Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough at the Arctic Environment Ministers' Meeting 11-12 October, Rovaniemi, Finland

The title of your presentation at the Arctic Observing Summit 2020 is “The interrelated world of Inuit” – could you tell us, what observation in an interrelated world looks like?

When I was thinking about a title for my presentation, I borrowed some of the terms scientists use when they are writing their project proposals for the funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, such as ‘long-term observation of the Arctic system’. Clearly, Inuit have conducted long-term observations in the Arctic. So, I borrowed some of the vocabulary to point out the Inuit perspective: Long-term observations of the Arctic system are an inherent process in our communities, they have been and especially now, are a necessity to adapt to our changing homelands and ecosystems. The term interrelated refers to a holistic view of the whole ecosystem, which is the nature of our worldview as Inuit and I believe for Indigenous peoples around the globe. The longevity of Inuit knowledge and observations has resulted in extraordinary understanding of Arctic ecosystems, which are embedded in our language and way of life.


In your keynote, you state Indigenous knowledge and science are different yet complementary systems and sources of knowledge. Bringing them together can be enriching and generate new knowledge. How can these systems be brought together?

There are many ways Indigenous knowledge and Western science can be brought together, and in my keynote I am urging scientists to think more creatively about future observations. For example: We have seen an increase in vessel traffic because of melting sea ice, and those who want to make related observations about their impact should reach out to our coastal communities. Scientists should use Inuit observations, engage with people that see the changes every day and that have a knowledge base that reaches back for generations to inform their results. This knowledge should build the foundation and inform where and how future observations should take place. Scientists could save a lot of time if they reached out early on to hunters and harvesters and engaged them on equal terms.


What benefit could this collaboration have for Inuit communities?

The knowledge held by our people combined with scientific data and research can bolster change. The co-production of knowledge can have beneficial effects on our efforts to pursue increased management of the resources that we rely upon. Further, it could determine priorities for future observation and monitoring programs, and give us the opportunity to influence policies on a national and international level.

Language is a way to access knowledge. Having the patience to engage various knowledge holders and to allow elders to express themselves in their various dialects – that would be an extraordinary and good approach for utilizing Indigenous knowledge.Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough

Could you tell us how the ICC for example has been involved in the work leading up to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Minamata Convention on Mercury?

The ICC was created specifically to ensure that the Inuit voice was injected in all relevant intergovernmental fora. In the mid-1970s, the International Whaling Commission proposed a ban on Aboriginal whaling. Suddenly, we faced a threat from an intergovernmental organization that imposed a ban upon us without our involvement. This example demonstrates the need for having an Inuit voice in every intergovernmental fora – where possible. Inuit involvement in the Stockholm and Minamata conventions was key as few others were paying attention to where the atmospheric pollution was ending up. Due to global activities, ocean and air currents, the pollution was accumulating in the Arctic and in the ecosystems that we depend upon. It was therefore logical: If the international community focused on this global threat, we needed to insert our voice to the discussion. We had to show the significant adverse effects on the ecosystem, on animals, our way of life and our health, and we had to ensure a reference to the Arctic and Indigenous peoples. This process was similar to the work we do in other international fora, such as the Arctic Council.


You mentioned the Inuit language as a repository of knowledge. Would you recommend scientists to engage more with Indigenous languages?

Too often our knowledge is sidelined or others try to apply Inuit knowledge into an existing framework. But if I think about the knowledge held by our people, the observations they make every day as they are standing on the edge of the ice, looking out at the sea, the ice, the animals – how do you put all of these observations, all of this knowledge, into the ounce of one water sample? You cannot do that. It would be wonderful and ideal if scientist would take their time to live in a community, to educate themselves in an Inuit dialect and in our ways of living – but it is not necessary. There are elements scientists can take into consideration when they are reaching out to communities, such as that language is a way to access knowledge. Having the patience to engage various knowledge holders and with the help of skilled interpreters to allow elders to express themselves in their various dialects – that would be an extraordinary and good approach for utilizing Indigenous knowledge.

Our knowledge is applicable at many different scales – not just locally from one hunter to another, but a hunter’s observations can inform studies at both a national and international level.Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough

Could you give an example of where merging Indigenous knowledge and Western science has contributed to new knowledge?

In the early 1980s, the ICC initiated a project to review the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and engaged Thomas Berger to analyze the effects of the settlement act. He went out to 62 of our communities to hear public testimonies, during which people talked about the importance of hunting, fishing, and harvesting in their various dialects. His work is memorialized in his book “Village Journey: The report of the Alaska Native Review Commission”, which was published in the 1980s. Berger’s work is an example of utilizing Indigenous knowledge and observations and testimony provided by Inuit on the importance of food security.
A more recently example is the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report includes information and knowledge of Inuit coastal communities about the impact of climate change. This report is a good example of how scientists can turn to the knowledge of the people living closest to the ecosystems for the benefit the rest of the world. Our knowledge is applicable at many different scales – not just locally from one hunter to another, but a hunter’s observations can inform studies at both a national and international level. For a report about the Arctic cryosphere it makes a lot of sense to reach out to those who have day to day, season to season, decade to decade knowledge of the ecosystem.


How would you say can observing efforts lead to and guide action?

Our desire is that our perception of the Arctic is well understood, that Indigenous knowledge is acknowledged and utilized, that we seize opportunities for co-production of knowledge, and that we create a shift of what observing priorities are – all these steps create opportunities for action. Each of these points could trigger a change of how science is conducted in the Arctic by the simple act of reaching out to our communities, the willingness to co-produce knowledge, while respecting the value of Indigenous knowledge and the ethics related to utilizing it. There are many opportunities throughout observation processes for real action.
I also would like to add that it is important for scientists to reflect how their research can have a direct impact on human beings as a species. Many scientists nowadays have specialized on specific species for example. They are enthusiastic about the topic and related discussions. However, if this energy and fascination is not channeled into the broader context, if an issue is detached from the ecosystem, so much is lost. From an Inuit perspective that is an important lesson.