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Recording the wisdom

Inuit elders speak about caribou and climate

"Caribou would die from the heat of the sun. When the weather gets too hot, a lot of them would suffocate side by side. My wife and I have seen them at Tahiluk. They suffocated from the heat of the sun." (Mackie Kaosoni, 1998)

"The snow was covered in ice. It had rained after a big snowfall. That's when some of the caribou had starved to death but in another area of land, where it isn't so rough, they were fine. The land was covered in sleet and ice and some caribou and musk-ox froze to death." (Archie Komak, 1998)

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Cambridge Bay (Nov 06/00) - Sandra Eyegetok feels sadness when she thinks of the knowledge that is lost when elders die.

"It's the elders that have all the information and the storytelling," Eyegetok said from her home in Cambridge Bay.

"People my age need to connect with the elders and make sure it gets passed down to this generation."

Her work as a research assistant, interviewer and a translator over the past two years brought her to the knowledge of 27 elders in the four west Kitikmeot communities (Umingmaktuuq (Bay Chimo), Kingaok (Bathurst Inlet), Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay).

Working alongside three other reasearchers employed on the The Tuktu (caribou) and Nogat (calves) Project, Eyegetok spoke to the elders about caribou and how the weather and the environment have changed over the years.

Part of the larger West Kitikmeot Slave Study Society, the Tuktu and Nogat Project will be published next year.

Hearing the elders speak about the effect of climate change on the Bathurst caribou herd improved Eyegetok's Innuinaqtun language skills and taught her much about the value of traditional knowledge.

"I have more respect for elders now," she said.

Adding to the body of knowledge

Eyegetok speaks passionately about the value traditional knowledge plays in adding to the body of knowledge about caribou and climate patterns.

"The elders should be considered as equals to scientists because they know the life cycles of animals and with the environment, they notice any little change," said Eyegetok.

Michelle Wheatley, the director of wildlife management for the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, said Inuit knowledge is taken into account more and more.

She said both government and non-government organizations are combining science and traditional knowledge in an effort to produce a more inclusive and complete body of information.

Many of the funding requests the board receives -- including the Tuktu and Nogat Project -- stress the need to incorporate both bodies of research.

"It's an important aspect that Inuit feel their information is being used," said Wheatley.

"It's useful to the board because it helps to make sure there is a balance between the two types of work."

One step further

Natasha Thorpe has also helped advance the role traditional knowledge plays.

After living with Inuit families in the west Kitikmeot for four years and participating in the project, Thorpe started work on her Master's Thesis. She recently completed the degree and is producing the 200-page final report.

Thorpe said her original work made her realize how important the topic is to the elders and she decided to use it to complete her thesis.

She focused her research on weather in the 1990s, how it compared to previous decades and how it had affected where caribou calved and how they survived.

Elders reported radical shifts in weather patterns, spoke about incidences of caribou drowning because of unseasonably thin ice or dying of heat exhaustion.

Thorpe said the information will be used in a management plan for the caribou in the Bathurst herd.

A meeting to plan how the knowledge can be incorporated is set for Rae-Edzo, NWT, in December. Both Dogrib and Inuit elders will participate.