Article Link: “Altered Perspectives”

March 17, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what constitutes traditional knowledge, both within and outside the IRS TRC. In part, this was prompted by the controversial book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. The book itself is unfortunate, and its treatment of issues facing Aboriginal communities, including the legacy of the Indian Residential School system, is irresponsible. I’ve been trying to work through a response to these authors and their critique of traditional knowledge (a concept they do not understand) as a way for people (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) to exploit, among other things, funding opportunities, the legal system, and policy-making. I think a recent article in SSHRC’s Dialogue entitled “Altered Perspectives: Inuit Knowledge Provides Scientific Insight into Climate Change” provides an illustration of how traditional knowledge and empirical/scientific knowledge (of course, these two terms are not mutually exclusive) work in tandem. Far from Widdowson and Howard’s claims, traditional knowledge is a valid and valuable concept for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

Here’s an excerpt from “Altered Perspectives“:

In a unique, SSHRC-supported, community-based multimedia project, the University of Victoria researcher in environmental studies teamed up with colleagues Peter Kulchyski and Chris Trott from the University of Manitoba and internationally acclaimed Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat The Fast Runner) to record interviews with Inuit elders using digital video, filmmaking and Internet tools. After interviewing 55 elders, hunters and women, four experts, and Canada’s Governor General, the results were greater than anticipated.

“Do you want to know the most mind-blowing thing I’ve heard?” asks Mauro. “Inuit elders from four northern settlements separated by thousands of kilometres have independently concluded that climate change is caused by the earth having tilted on its axis.”

Mauro says elders from Nunavut in Resolute Bay, Iqaluit, Igloolik and Pangnirtung all noticed the stars, moon and sun have shifted in their positions. The sun is now rising higher, staying longer and is warmer than it used to be. When Mauro first heard of these observations in 2009, he went to the scientific literature to see if anything had been published to support the elders’ claims. He found very little.

“Trusting the knowledge of elders, we shared their perspectives with scientists,” says Mauro. “By linking different ways of knowing, we discovered that a warming atmosphere is actually changing the refraction index of the sky, which dramatically alters the visual landscape of the Arctic.”

The phenomenon is caused by low altitude refraction. According to Mauro, the only other researcher actively working on this topic is Wayne Davidson, a meteorological observer in Resolute Bay, who first documented similar observations in the 1990s.

“Understandably, the elders attribute the visual change to a tilting earth, but it’s actually an optical shift caused by a complex interplay between the wind, atmosphere, earth and ice,” says Mauro. “This observational knowledge of objects shifting in the sky is actually proof of a warming world.”

Surprisingly, Inuit are not particularly apprehensive about climate change, says Mauro. Instead, they are prepared to ride the wave of adaptation. He says the message from the communities is that humans and animals can adapt to changing ice conditions, global ocean currents and altered migratory patterns. Having thrived for more than 4,000 years in the Arctic through multiple warming and cooling cycles, Inuit have no doubt about their ability to adjust.

To read the full article, click here.

I won’t say much more about Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, as it has already received more coverage than it deserves. To read some recent reviews or about the controversy surrounding the book, see The National Post review, or Gerald Taiaiake Alfred’s review, or writing on the topic by Peter Kulchyski.

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