To the source
Caribou study relies on knowledge of elders, hunters

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 20/99) - A study of the effect of climate on caribou movement and calving is relying more on experience than science for its conclusions.

Funded by the West Kitikmeot Slave Study, which relies on a combination of private and public donations, the three-year, $260,000 Tuktu and Nogak Project examines the movement of caribou at Bathurst Inlet through the experience of elders and hunters.

Principal researcher Natasha Thorpe said the study relied on "open-ended semi-directed interviews, meaning we try to let the elder or hunter guide the interview."

The study was directed by an advisory group composed of elders from Cambridge Bay, Umingmaktok, Kugluktuk and Bathurst Inlet.

Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and six hours, she said, focusing on the observations of those who live and hunted, or used to hunt, in the Bathurst Inlet area. The area is the calving ground of the Bathurst Caribou herd, the subject of the study.

Thorpe said relying on the experience of elders provides a level of observation conventional scientific research typically lacks.

"(Elders and hunters) don't come up for a very brief period of time, then go south again," said the Simon Fraser University graduate student. "It's different in that you have observations that span four seasons, 365 days a year, instead of a very intense shorter period."

As an example of the advantage of continual observation, she said elders were amused by the significance scientists attached to the movement of the calving ground from the east to the west side of the inlet.

It was generally accepted that mineral exploration on the east side of the inlet, which occurred just before the switch, prompted the change.

"What the elders suggested is the reason why caribou calve to the west is that they make the crossing to the east in the southern region of Bathurst Inlet," explained Thorpe. "In order to do that the ice has to be safe in spring. There were specific areas that are common crossing routes where the ice was breaking up and making it unsafe to cross."

Interviewing was an exhaustive process. Apart from the translation involved -- those interviewed relayed their observations in Innuinaqtun -- the responses had to be transcribed, brought back to the people interviewed for verification, which required more translation.

The final version of the interviews is now being completed and conclusions drawn. Information from the study, such as caribou crossings and specific calving areas, will be incorporated into a Geographical Information System.

Though it required an enormous effort, assistant researcher and translator Sandra Eyegetok said it was a rewarding experience.

"It was like a step back in time," said the Cambridge Bay resident. "Listening to their stories I imagined how my parents lived.

"It brings tears to my eyes, because they are trying so hard to preserve traditional ways."