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Inuit Ilitqusia: Inuit Way of Knowing

By Rosemarie Kuptana & Suzie Napayok-Short

Inuit Ilitqusia, or the Inuit Way of Knowing (Inuit Qaujimaningit, IQ), is the vast body of scientific knowledge of the Inuit.

What is this Inuit Ilitqusia?

It is a living entity. As Jaypetee Arnakak explains,  “It is a means of rationalizing thought and action, a means of organizing tasks and resources, and a means of organizing family and society into coherent wholes.

When you strip away the more ineffable aspects of culture—spirituality, cosmology, language, etc.—you begin to see a structure that is common to all human societies, indeed, essential to all human societies: the family.

At this level of abstraction, I believe that the traditional Inuit family-kinship model with the right elements in it is a workable management model.”

Inuit Observations on Climate Change is a good example of Western scientists working in collaboration with traditional knowledge holders.

Inuit Ilitqusia has its roots and principles in the belief that the world around us and life itself are interdependent, interrelated, inter-dimensional, multi-disciplined, interconnected, intergenerational, evolving, and holistic.

The Inuit Way of Knowing is over 20,000 years old on the North American continent and has developed through trial and error and through observation. It has been passed on generation after generation. Inuit teach our children and grandchildren through action, sharing, and oral history—giving them the tools and skills to live a higher quality of life and ensure survival.

In the Oxford Dictionary, a description of “science” closely reflects the Inuit Way of Knowing. The word is defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

Outsiders have termed this knowledge base as "traditional knowledge," limiting the Inuit Way of Knowing to the past, a source viewed as anecdotal evidence and of little consequence for inclusion in discussions that impact Inuit in the Arctic. The term “traditional knowledge” is not in keeping with the Inuit definition of the world around us.

In Canada, oral tradition is recognized as valid evidence in the court of law. It is through oral history that Inuit Ilitqusia has been passed on to the next generation.

Inuit view humans as interrelated with the environment and the universe around us. Inuit and the environment are from the same tapestry of life. This is a truism in Western science as well; much of the living world and humans share DNA strands, for instance.

Inuit spiritual practices are believed to be connected with other dimensions. For instance, Inuit shamans had already been to the moon and back by the time the first rockets made it to the moon, as described in Nuligak’s book, I, Nuligak. Leading scientist Stephen Hawking speaks closely to the Inuit view on the reality of other dimensions and the possibility of time travel.

Inuit Ilitqusia is multi-disciplined. Marine science and living resources such as marine mammals and fish, as well as the study of ocean currents through Inuit use and occupation of the sea, ice, and water, are several examples of other facets of the Inuit Way of Knowing.

Inuit occupied the sea ice during the winter for two important reasons. One is that the sea ice is warmer than the land, as land has permafrost and sea ice has constant water flows. The second reason is for seal hunting. During the winter, Inuit had knowledge of the tides and currents under the sea ice and would go clam digging on the seabed when the tide was out. This is Inuit knowledge. The Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Study references this way of Inuit life under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (1985) and is recognized under the Canadian Constitution Act (1982) and the Migratory Birds Convention Act (1994). All of these are legally binding agreements.

Child rearing is integral to Inuit society. There is nothing more precious and important than a child to the Inuit. Children are shaped to become who they are depending on their interests and skills. Inuit women, and therefore girls, hold and ensure the passing of genealogical knowledge, history, songs, storytelling, legends, weather reading, constellations, and how to navigate using the stars. Inuit women were once master midwives. There are stories of Inuit women who birthed children and then continued walking on the trail. This is because Inuit possess medicinal knowledge and practices (integrating mind and body) and the need for survival was paramount.

Hunting marine and land mammals, fish and fowl is as natural as walking and breathing for Inuit. That is how we eat and survive. The Inuit way of life is changing due to climate change and global warming, but Inuit will survive. After all, Inuit are masters of adaptation. Inuit leaders from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council can help mitigate the impact of climate change. Food security will become a greater issue as the rate of melting ice affects the current Inuit way of hunting. Inuit manage what is allowed to be harvested based on seasons as well as the gender, age, and health of the animals being hunted. Inuit utilize every part of the kill, and there are dietary practices for young and old as hormones could affect their bodies differently. When a hunter kills a whale or seal, he gives the animal water from his mouth (ocean water) to ensure that it could make it to the next dimension and he gives the bones back to the sea.

In this regard, Inuit view the interconnections between ecosystems and their impact on humans and other living beings. The environmental and star alignment changes Inuit elders and young people were talking about in the 1970s on Banks Island are finally being discussed in the world's capitals. What happens in the Arctic will eventually happen in other parts of the world. The Arctic is impacted first.

Like other peoples and cultures, Inuit have complex knowledge of science. For instance, an igloo builder has to have knowledge of geometry and architecture to understand depth and space. Western science comes from a reductionist point of view, while Inuit exercise Western methods only as part of formulating a holistic approach.

There are inconsistencies in national and international treaties, based on old realities, so there is urgent need for the harmonization of these legal instruments considering the advancement of Indigenous rights in Canada and in the context of increased legal rights and the inclusion of Inuit knowledge.

Inuit wish to share this knowledge with those who seek to speak about Inuit Nunangat (the Inuit homeland) or Inuit Ilitqusia. The elected Inuit leadership must be included in any talks about us or about our territory. Inuit have contributed much on complex matters through discussion, cooperation, and negotiation; Inuit were symbols of Arctic sovereignty, used as human flagpoles during the relocation of the “High Arctic Exiles.” Inuit art is world-renowned. For instance, no one else has been able to perfect the design of the kayak.

Another example is an Inukshuk, which was used in the Vancouver Olympic logo. It is a human-made stone landmark and a symbol of hope that tells a tale of the land by storing food caches or acting as a travel guide. An Inukshuk is a structure of notice: Following the way in which they are built, each structure informs travelers about where the good caribou hunting grounds are, where fish are plentiful, where a suicide happened, or where murder has taken place. One needs to be able to “read” the shape of the Inukshuk to understand its meaning. It’s used as a compass on our travels. It tells travelers of the places of abundance, the safe places, and the places that must be treated with respect.

Inuit have been used as symbols of sovereignty or as token symbols as recently as the administration of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper introduced military exercises to claim sovereignty over Nunavut Arctic lands, mostly due to the oil and gas reserves present there. Of course, these lands are in the Arctic and are already part of Canada. Meanwhile, his government introduced an omnibus bill, and one of the measures it included permitted exploration that could lead to mining without prior environmental assessment or consultation with the people in the area who for millennia lived off the wildlife from their own lands. We are hopeful that with a new government, those harmful laws will be removed and we will once again have protection for our precious lands and waters.

We have heard that scientists in Canada and abroad have been given the mandate to define traditional knowledge. To this we say, such a request is like taking all of Western science and having this knowledge narrowed to only a part of the greater picture. Who has such mastery? Rather than “tell” what Inuit rights are, the very idea that southern scientists will define traditional knowledge is old behavior and reflects attitudes of a bygone era. Inuit have young leaders who will echo this sentiment in much more eloquent ways than we have here. We believe it is time for others to make room for Inuit.

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Rosemarie Kuptana is a former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. In her capacity as ITC President she fought for the inclusion of oral tradition as evidence on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples hearings of the "High Arctic Exiles." Her publications include “No More Secrets” and an essay in What is a Canadian (McClelland & Stewart).

Suzie Napayok-Short is the author of the children’s book Wild Eggs. She is a professional English-Inuktitut translator and was the secretary-treasurer for the Nunavut Planning Commission from 1999 to 2005. She lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

The World Policy Institute would like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's role in support of knowledge mobilization from the One Arctic Symposium.

[Photo courtesy of US Embassy Canada]

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Anonymous's picture
Inuit Knowledge


Elements of this report resonate with my graduate thesis findings - available via the National Archives: "Eskimos and Northerners: Identity in the Canadian Arctic."
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