Franz Krause has learned many things in the Beaufort Delta over the past three years, but for him, one thing stands out.
“Don’t make plans,” he said. “Things always change.”
Krause presented an overview of his work as part of the Aurora Research Institute’s speaker series on Aug. 11.
Having lived in Aklavik learning traditional ways as part of his research on how humans traditionally relate to their environment — specifically in deltas — the German anthropologist from the University of Cologne is part of a multi-national effort across the planet. He was one of four researchers who embedded themselves in Indigenous communities around the world to gather data, with colleagues stationed in Senegal, Brazil and Myanmar, in what has been dubbed the Volatile Waters project.
Each scientist lived and learned the practices of a community that had invited them, contributing to a growing body of research.
The study has sparked some fascinating projects, one of which is a planned comic book describing life in the various deltas — drawn by artists from each of the four communities. While the project is still in its early phase, and there’s no firm timeline yet, the artists are on board. The comic will be illustrated by Beatriz Belo of Brazil, Pamplumus of Senegal, Thant Myat Htoo of Myanmar and Karis Gruben of Inuvik.
Krause’s research was conducted in a three-step process. First, he visited Aklavik in 2015 to introduce himself and determine if people in the community were open to letting him join them. After establishing a rapport, he set two dates to spend three months in Aklavik. He was especially keen to learn how people respond to the spring thaw and fall freeze up of the river, so he chose to live with the community from August to December in 2017, before returning the following February to stay through June.
Krause’s research was three pronged. He interviewed Elders, traditional knowledge holders and land experts in the community. He read through old literature and records, and he applied “participant observation” — a fancy way of saying he got his hands dirty and did the actual work himself.
“It’s trying to learn some of the things people are doing to understand them,” he said. “People laugh at you a lot.”
Along with his colleagues, Krause has published a number of papers on his work, highlighting common traits and differences in the communities they visited and the challenges they faced.
He noted that while mass media tends to focus on the environmental struggles of people who live in the Beaufort Delta, like Tuktoyaktuk’s receding coastline or the changing landscape further inland, he noted people living in the delta are faced with a whole mess of challenges, not just climate change.
He notes operating in the global economy has been a frustrating experience for many as demand for goods shifted. For example, when the global fur market peaked, many in the delta made a good living hunting and trapping, but when public opinion on fur as fashion shifted and demand tapered off, people were left in the lurch. The boom and bust cycles of the oil and gas industry have also taken a toll.
Krause also concluded that conventional thinking around a region and culture changing, is inaccurate — cultures and ecosystems are always in a state of flux. Case in point? He says hunters may have shifted from dog sleds to snowmobiles, but they still maintain traditional hunting practices.
“Tradition in the delta is not so much reproducing old stuff, but taking teachings and stories and living them onward into the future,” he said. “We have new technologies and new economic opportunities. The world is always transforming and so are the traditions, but that is exactly what tradition is.
“If you just reproduce what people did 50 or 100 years ago, that wouldn’t work. It also means that if we now see people driving around big trucks and snowmobiles, it doesn’t mean that they have lost their tradition, but they are developing it further with the new means that are available.”
After seven years, the project is finally complete. Krause hopes to be back for a follow-up study someday soon.