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Why Indigenous Knowledge is important to understanding the natural world

December 15, 2022

By Rowenna Gryba

Discussions with Inupiat hunters in northern Alaska provides a deeper understanding that supports scientific studies

Winter is dark and cold in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the northernmost town in the US. When the sun sets in November, the town’s residents don’t see daylight again for two months.

But this is when I travel to the northernmost shores of Alaska to share coffee with Inupiat hunters and learn about the behaviors of three seal species that provide food and skins for their families.

The Inupiat are a group of Indigenous peoples who live along the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and south along the Kotzebue Sound. They live in 34 villages, including Kotzebue, Tikiġaq (Point Hope), and Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow). They are well known for the skills in hunting seals and other sea mammals, knowledge that goes back thousands of years.

This high Arctic region of Alaska is also well known for oil and gas development. As climate change reduces the ice pack and lengthens the open-water season, its coastal waters are increasingly frequented by large commercial ships, tourist vessels, and research boats. 

A winter scene of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, where Indigenous Knowledge is handed down from generation to generation by subsistence hunters.

The lives of the Inupiat, and the sea mammals they hunt, are intimately intertwined and influenced by other human activities in this area. I’ve spent much of my career studying seals in this region and, more recently, working on my doctorate degree from the University of British Columbia on how Indigenous Knowledge (IK) can inform, complement, and expand our knowledge of seal behavior, habitat, and feeding areas. Growing up in the Yukon, I’m more than at home in these northern climates.

For several years, I have traveled regularly to Utqiaġvik, and more recently to Kotzebue and Tikiġaq, to interview Inupiat hunters about their knowledge of seals. I’m trained as a marine mammologist and quantitative ecologist, but when I meet with the Inupiat hunters and elders, I’m an interviewer. I want to learn as much as I can about their understanding of seals. I am there to listen so we can incorporate their IK into statistical models to increase our understanding of seals.

More important, my goal is to further increase the presence of Indigenous voice into our understanding of the Arctic world. As an environmental scientist, I believe in taking a holistic approach to understanding the environment and improving the models upon which we make decisions.

IK is finally getting the attention it deserves as a legitimate source of data on its own and for scientific studies. Here is how my work—and the Inupiat hunters I work with—are adding understanding of seal behavior and why IK is so important to future studies.

Defining Indigenous Knowledge

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a respected organization created in 1977 to unite the voices of Inuit people across the polar regions, defines IK as a “systematic way of thinking applied to phenomena across biological, physical, cultural, and spiritual systems.”

The ICC further explains that IK “includes insights based on evidence acquired through direct and long-term experience and extensive and multigenerational observations, lessons, and skills. It has developed over millennia and is still developing in a living process, including knowledge acquired today and in the future, and it is passed on from generation to generation.”

A ringed seal.

As part of my IK interviews, I am studying bearded, spotted, and ring seals. All three seal species are culturally important to the Inupiat and are also important subsistence mammals and key to their food security.

Because they live in the vast Arctic marine environment, these seals are not easily studied, even with modern tracking methods. Scientists use aerial surveys or expensive satellite tracking devices. To tag these seals, you need to catch them first, and then you can track them in the open ocean and get their diving information. But costs and logistics means that scientists can only tag so many animals, and when the seals molt (shed their skin) in the spring, the tracking tags fall off. Bottom line, it’s difficult to get a large sample size.

When scientists use behavior or movement data from these sources, we know we are only using information from a small subset of the seal population. That information, and the understanding that comes from it, is obviously limited.

IK does not have the same constraints. It spans generations of knowledge, and its understanding comes from year-round observations of hundreds if not thousands of seals. By including IK, we are no longer limited to data from a few individual seals; it’s data much more representative on a population level.

In the past, scientists have treated IK as anecdotal and not as a legitimate piece of information. Today, I believe the scientific community is finally realizing that this is a narrow view. My work with the Inupiat hunters demonstrates we can document IK and significantly improve our seal models.

Indigenous Knowledge is finally getting the attention it deserves as a legitimate source of data on its own and for scientific studies.

Data from a wide span of IK and experiences

Inupiat seal hunting varies between the communities, which span a large migratory path in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas where the animals travel. In Utqiaġvik, for example, ring seals and bearded seals are hunted year-round because some individual seals overwinter nearby.

Things are different in Tikiġaq, where seals are migrating past the community. These hunters have a much different strategy than those in Utqiaġvik. In Tikiġaq, hunting is done near shore and occurs over a matter of weeks rather than months.

Further south, in Kotzebue, hunting is done in Kotzebue Sound and is variable depending on when the ice comes and goes. While there is some winter hunting, it’s done more in spring, fall, and shoulder seasons.

I have been fortunate to be able to work with various folks from Utqiaġvik and other communities over the years. When doing this work, I carefully time my visits and interviews when residents are in town and not busy subsistence hunting. I ask about where they see seals and if they are using different habitats; if the animals are using barrier islands; and if they are associated with different ice concentrations. My interviews sound a lot like open-ended conversations, and it allows hunters to provide information that I might not think to ask. Once I’ve created a graph of seal behavior, I take it back to the hunters to confirm whether it is correct or not. These conversations help me understand if I have interpreted their information correctly.

An aerial view of the winter landscape between Point Hope and Kotzebue, Alaska.

Eventually I translate their IK directly into a Bayesian probability model. Bayesian statistics allow you to include data sets that are quite different from each other. We can use the shared IK in combination with the satellite data and create a better-informed model.

By including IK, as I have done in my model, we can now provide more complete information than before, while also respecting different knowledge sources and needs. Through it, we can provide better information on areas that are important to different species.

Combining scientific and IK is a much more holistic approach and creates a better understanding of the environment that is potentially impacted by human activities.

As scientists and consultants, our job is to help our clients and the environment and achieve goals with the lowest impacts possible. Recognizing the value of IK and collaborations with Indigenous peoples can help us do that.

  • Rowenna Gryba

    Rowenna is an environmental scientist known for her passion for animals. Based in Burnaby, British Columbia, she applies her keen interest in statistics to every environmental assessment, data analysis, and marine mammal survey she works on.

    Contact Rowenna
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