Entrepreneurs

The Leading Edge: What Inuit Can Teach Us About Climate Monitoring And Adaptation

How can we all get smarter about monitoring climate change in our communities? For his take, Ashoka’s Barb Steele sat down with ecologist and filmmaker Joel Heath, a Newfoundland native and co-creator of SIKU: the Indigenous Knowledge Social Network. With his colleagues at the Arctic Eider Society in Sanikiluaq, an Inuit community in Hudson Bay, Heath develops tools for Indigenous-driven research and monitoring of everything from changing sea ice to travel safety to subsistence livelihoods.

Barb Steele: Joel, I want to start by asking about the eider, after which your organization is named. You’ve called this duck “a canary in the coal mine.” Can you explain its significance?

Joel Heath: Hundreds of years ago, when caribou died out on the Belcher Islands archipelago, the Sanikiluaq people came to rely on the eider as a primary source of clothing and food — a unique relationship. Eiders have the warmest feather in the world, representing the best of nature’s technology and Indigenous innovation. Now this is more of a metaphor as we do a lot more than study ducks. That said, changing sea ice conditions have also been causing die-off events of eiders as so they are also a literal canary in the coal mine for environmental change in sea ice ecosystems.

Steele: You aren’t from Sanikiluaq. How did you come to this community of about a thousand people — and to this work?

Heath: Due to concerns about eider die-offs, we were invited to come and help the community study and understand the issues. I came north as a Ph.D. student with Environment Canada, using underwater video and time-lapse photography to study environmental change. We were taking footage of eiders diving underneath the ice and ended up making our film about the unique connection between eiders and Sanikiluaq Inuit, and how things were changing. Almost every family here came together to help us make this film. When I finished my Ph.D, I was told “Congrats, Doctor, but you’re still kindergarten in Inuit Knowledge.” And they were right. I took this challenge seriously, and in the years since, left academics to learn from and support Inuit and Indigenous knowledge frameworks and how they can play more of a leading role in science and environmental stewardship. My role now is to support Indigenous self-determination in research and climate change monitoring. We have an Inuit majority on our board of directors, and our programs are in support of thriving northern communities where Indigenous knowledge supports action.

Steele: Could you give us a couple of examples of how this kind of Indigenous knowledge is put into action?

Heath: We have a range of programs supporting grass-roots community-driven research, education and stewardship. Our main tool that is supporting communities at scale is SIKU: The Indigenous Knowledge Social Network — a web platform and mobile apps. With over 11,000 users, the apps are showing 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 may come up north and visit for a couple of weeks, Inuit live year round in the north and see what’s happening on a daily basis, in greater context. In addition, their language — Inuktitut — has a more detailed classification system for many components of the environment like sea ice, snow, weather and other parameters key to understanding the northern environment and climate change. So part of this work supports language preservation, but more importantly, using Indigenous environmental terminology allows Inuit to use their own knowledge systems and frameworks to document environmental change consistently and quantitatively. There’s a GPS with unique maps for navigation with Indigenous place names, which provide the ecological and cultural context of those places.

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

Heath: Inuit elder Peter Kattuk was key in helping design the approach to SIKU, as well as Lucassie Arragutainaq, who has spent his career working 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 in oral history. Peter was an active hunter and had noticed that the diets of seals were changing, having a lot less fish in the stomach and more shrimp. This suggested large-scale ecosystem shifts in Hudson Bay. The typical response from sharing this kind of observation with academics would be, “That’s anecdotal. We need data to believe you.” Then typically they’d do their own study and five years or so and a bunch of money later they’d come back and say, “You were right all along.” Of course! Peter was out there every day and he was talking to other hunters and elders, a kind of peer review system, but the big difference was that it wasn’t being written down. With SIKU, we wanted to help people document these things systematically in simple ways, mobilize the data that has always been behind Indigenous knowledge, and support a leading role for communities in research. The result? Greater equity when Inuit sit across the table from academics, government and industry, with Indigenous knowledge being given the credibility it is due.

Steele: How is SIKU being used?

Heath: Well, we launched the app in fall 2019 and it is being used across the north as a way to document observations while Indigenous users maintain full ownership, access and control of their rights and privacy. In Sanikiluaq there is a very compelling case study of it being used to create a resource inventory for a new Qikiqtait protected area through a whole-of-community approach, with over 150 people making posts about everything from berries and fish, to seals and eiders all year round. They have effectively crowd-sourced an Indigenous calendar of seasonal resources. You can take a picture and tag animals in the same way you tag people on social media platforms, and use Indigenous environmental terminology to document things like ice conditions that might represent safety hazards or changing conditions. It has been very successful and the outcomes are starting to change the national dialogue about the value of investing in Inuit knowledge and how we might better invest in Indigenous communities for northern and climate change research instead of just academic institutions.

Steele: Interesting to point to such public investment choices. Where is your work going now, and what’s the future plan?

Heath: We’re constantly working to improve the app and add new features in response to community feedback, such as adding new dialects, new species, and new measurements. We are also want to add new terminologies around weather, water, snow and Indigenous women’s knowledge indicators to expand the types of climate change monitoring that can be done. We’ve been supporting large scale campaigns such as the Ice Watch and Goose Watch that really show what is possible by working together. Indigenous groups have now documented the timing of migration, nesting, and hatching across the north over the last three years. We’re looking at Social Return on Investment analysis using these tools as well — for example, we were able to track contributions of programs using SIKU to food security in the pandemic. We’ve also done some analysis to compare the data per dollar return on investment between traditional academics and the SIKU approach — and it looks like Inuit are 14 times more productive in this regard. In the future we want to look at the carbon footprint benefit of investing in Indigenous communities to design and lead monitoring efforts on their lands, versus relying on outsiders coming and going for research.

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

Heath: Thank you. The biggest thing is building a long-term relationship of trust and having a mindset of being open to new ways of learning. A lot of people show up to the north for a couple of years; they get their thesis or job, and then they’re gone. What we’ve been able to accomplish is based on working together on the land and more generally for over 20 years in Sanikiluaq. It has been a real privilege to have been taught on the ice by Inuit experts for so long, to get some understanding of the depth of those knowledge systems. I view it as my job and responsibility to help pay that forward to support a leading role for communities in research and monitoring. To help demonstrate that with the right support, these knowledge frameworks can be just as rigorous, quantitative and reliable as academic systems and can support decision making and management by and for Indigenous people. We all have a lot to learn in this regard — if we’re willing to.

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