What Inuit can teach us about climate monitoring and adaptation?


How can we all get smarter at monitoring climate change in our communities? For his opinion, Ashoka’s Barb Steele sat down with ecologist and filmmaker Joel Heath, a native of Newfoundland and co-creator of SIKU: the indigenous social knowledge network† With his colleagues from the Arctic Eider Society in Sanikiluaq, an Inuit community in Hudson Bay, Heath is developing tools for Indigenous-led research and monitoring of everything from changing sea ice to travel security to livelihoods.

Barbara Steele: Joel, let me start by asking about the eider, after which your organization is named. You have called this duck “a canary in the coal mine”. Can you explain its meaning?

Joel Heath: Hundreds of years ago, when caribou became extinct in the Belcher Islands archipelago, the Sanikiluaq people came to rely on the eider as their primary source of clothing and food — a unique relationship. Eiders have the warmest feathers in the world and represent the best of nature’s technology and indigenous innovation. This is more of a metaphor because we do a lot more than study ducks. That said, changing sea ice conditions have also led to eiders dying off, as they are thus also a literal canary in the coal mine for environmental change in sea ice ecosystems.

Steele: You are not from Sanikiluaq. How did you come to this community of about a thousand people – and to this work?

heath: Due to concerns about eider deaths, we were invited to come and help the community study and understand the issues. I came up north as a Ph.D. student at Environment Canada, who uses underwater video and time-lapse photography to study environmental changes. We captured footage of eiders diving under the ice and eventually made our film about the unique connection between eiders and Sanikiluaq Inuit, and how things were changing. Almost all the families here came together to help us make this movie. When I finished my PhD, I was told, “Congratulations, Doctor, but you’re still in kindergarten in Inuit Knowledge.” And they were right. I took this challenge seriously and in the years that followed I left academics to learn from and support Inuit and Indigenous knowledge frameworks and how they can play a more leading role in science and environmental management. My role now is to support indigenous self-determination in climate change research and monitoring. We have an Inuit majority on our board of directors and our programs support thriving northern communities where indigenous knowledge supports action.

Steele: Can you give us some examples of how this kind of indigenous knowledge is put into practice?

heath: We have a range of programs to support community-led research, education and stewardship. Our main tool that supports communities at scale is SIKU: The Indigenous Knowledge Social Network – a web platform and mobile apps. With more than 11,000 users, the apps show how indigenous communities can lead climate science at scale for the north, such as with our annual Ice Watch and Goose Watch challenges. While researchers come up north and visit for a few weeks, Inuit live in the north year-round, seeing what happens on a daily basis, in a larger context. In addition, their language – Inuktitut – has a more detailed classification system for many components of the environment, such as sea ice, snow, weather and other parameters essential for understanding the northern environment and climate change. So some of this work supports language conservation, but more importantly, the use of native environmental terminology allows Inuit to use their own knowledge systems and frameworks to consistently and quantitatively document environmental changes. There is a GPS with unique maps for navigation with native place names, showing the ecological and cultural context of those places.

Steele: How did the idea for the SIKU app come about?

heath: Inuit Elder Peter Kattuk has been key in designing SIKU’s approach, as has Lucassie Arragutainaq, who has worked throughout his career to understand how Inuit knowledge and science can work together. While scientists are trained to write everything down in excruciating detail, indigenous knowledge has traditionally been based on oral history. Peter was an active hunter and had noticed that the seal diet was changing, with much less fish in the stomach and more shrimp. This suggested large-scale ecosystem shifts in Hudson Bay. The typical response from sharing these kinds of observations with academics would be, “That’s anecdotal. We need data to believe you.” Then they would usually do their own studies and five years or so and a lot of money later they would come back and say, “You were right all along.” Naturally! Peter was there every day and he talked to other hunters and elders, sort of like a peer review system, but the big difference was that it wasn’t written down. With SIKU, we wanted to help people systematically document these things in simple ways, always mobilize those behind Indigenous knowledge and support a leadership role for communities in research The result: Greater fairness when Inuit sit down to academia, government and industry, giving Indigenous knowledge the credibility it deserves.

Steele: How is SIKU used?

heath: Well, we launched the app in Fall 2019 and it is being used in the North as a way to document observations while native users retain full ownership, access and control over their rights and privacy. In Sanikiluaq, there is a very compelling case study of using it to create a resource inventory for a new Qikiqtait protected area through a community-wide approach, with over 150 people posting about everything from berries and fish to seals and eider all year round. They effectively crowdsourced an indigenous calendar of seasonal resources. You can snap a photo and tag animals the same way you tag people on social media platforms, and use native environmental terminology to document things like ice conditions that could pose safety risks or changing conditions. It has been very successful and the results are starting to change the national dialogue about the value of investing in Inuit knowledge and how we can better invest in indigenous communities for northern research and climate change research rather than just academic institutions.

Steele: Interesting to point out such choices for public investment. Where is your work headed now and what is the plan for the future?

heath: We are constantly improving the app and adding new features in response to community feedback, such as adding new dialects, new species and new measurements. We also want to add new terminologies around weather, water, snow and knowledge indicators for Indigenous women to expand the types of climate change monitoring that can be done. We already support large-scale campaigns like the Ice Watch and Goose Watch that really show what can be done by working together. Indigenous groups have now documented the timing of migration, nesting and hatching in the north over the past three years. We’re also looking at Social Return on Investment analysis using these tools – for example, we were able to track the contributions of programs using SIKU to food security during the pandemic. We also did some analysis to compare the dollar-per-dollar data on the return on investment between traditional academics and the SIKU approach – and it seems that Inuit are 14 times more productive in this regard. Going forward, we want to look at the carbon footprint benefit of investing in indigenous communities to design and lead monitoring efforts on their land, rather than relying on outsiders who come and go for research.

Steele: Joel, you lead with real humility. How much of this is at the heart of your impact and how can it inform other collaborations?

heath: Thank you. The most important thing is to build a long-term trusting relationship and have a mindset to be open to new ways of learning. Many people come up north for a few years; they get their thesis or job, and then they’re gone. What we have been able to achieve is based on cooperation on land and more broadly over more than 20 years in Sanikiluaq. It was a real privilege to have been taught for so long on the ice from Inuit experts, to gain some insight into the depth of those knowledge systems. I see it as my job and responsibility to help pay for that to support community leadership in research and monitoring. To demonstrate that, with the right support, these knowledge frameworks can be as rigorous, quantitative and reliable as academic systems and can support decision-making and management by and for indigenous peoples. We all have a lot to learn in this regard – if we want to.


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