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Introduction to Indigenous Perspectives on the Changing Arctic

This is Section 3.1 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment . Lead Authors: Henry Huntington, Shari Fox; Contributing Authors: Fikret Berkes, Igor Krupnik; Case Study Authors are identified on specific case studies; Consulting Authors: Anne Henshaw,Terry Fenge, Scot Nickels, Simon Wilson

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic have adapted to great environmental variability, cold, extended winter darkness, and fluctuations in animal populations, among many other challenges posed by geography and climate. Although the arctic climate has always undergone change, current and projected changes make it timely and important to reflect on the ways that such changes affect Arctic residents, particularly the indigenous residents whose way of life is so closely linked to their surroundings. It is also important to consider how these indigenous residents observe and feel about the changes that are occurring. Together, such perspectives can help the global community understand what is at stake in a changing Arctic.

Much of the Arctic has been inhabited since at least the end of the last ice age, and some areas for far longer[1]. During this time, human groups have come and gone, and evolved and adapted, their patterns of settlement changing, often abruptly, in response not only to climate but also to regional patterns such as resource availability, relations with neighbors, landscape change, hunting and fishing technology, and the rise of reindeer husbandry[2]. In recent centuries and in particular the twentieth century, forces from outside the region have shaped human patterns in the Arctic, as the modern world has extended its reach and influence. Today, the Arctic is home to a large number of indigenous peoples with distinct cultures, languages, traditions, and ways of interacting with their environment[3]. They have in common a close connection to their surroundings, an intimate understanding of their environment[4], complex relationships with national and sub-national governments and non-indigenous migrants to the Arctic[5], a way of life that mixes modern and traditional activities, and a major stake in the future of the region[6]. An overview of humans in the Arctic is given in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), Chapter 1.

This article attempts to show some of the observations of change that indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic consider to be related to climate change. In doing so, the comments and perspective also show what climate change means to them and their communities within the context of the other forces affecting their lives and cultures. Although little material is available concerning indigenous perspectives on ultraviolet (UV) radiation and ozone depletion, this article includes a short summary of some related observations (see Box 3.1 below). Other chapters of the ACIA describe impacts on specific components of the environment and areas of human activity and so draw extensively on indigenous knowledge and perspectives, a level of inclusion that is unprecedented in an assessment of the type and scope of the ACIA.

This chapter addresses the impacts of climate change and variability on those affected most directly: the people whose ways of life are based on their use of the land and waters of the Arctic. This has been achieved using a series of case studies drawn from existing research projects that have been selected to give, through specific examples rather than general summaries, a sense of the variety of indigenous perspectives on climate change in the Arctic. The case studies are idiosyncratic, reflecting differences in the communities they describe as well as differences in the aims and methods of the studies from which they derive. Because they are examples, the case studies cannot reflect all the views held within arctic communities. Some communities, such as those in Greenland that fish for cod, may see benefits from climate change if fish stocks increase, a perspective that may be missing from case studies focusing more on the negative impacts of climate change. Nonetheless, the case studies are intended to give a human face to some of the impacts of weather and climate change observed by arctic residents.

Although people plan around expectations that reflect the climate of their area, their daily activities are affected more by the day’s weather. Many of the statements and perspectives contained in this chapter reflect perceptions of weather and changes in weather patterns and variability, which are also of interest to climatologists examining the ways that climate change is manifested in the Arctic[7]. The distinction between weather change and climate change is not simple, and observations about weather may indicate something significant about the arctic climate. It is also likely that the publicity surrounding climate change has led many people in the Arctic, as elsewhere, to interpret observations in the light of climate, whether or not this is appropriate. This article presents the connections indigenous peoples draw between their own observations and the general phenomenon of climate change.

In describing the significance of climate change for indigenous peoples, it is important to remember that there are many forms of environmental change in the Arctic, as well as extensive social changes related to modernization and globalization[8]. The challenges these pose often require great attention and effort by indigenous peoples and organizations. From negotiating the creation of Nunavut in Canada to responding to threats from oil and gas development in northern Russia, arctic indigenous peoples have had to organize themselves to articulate and fight for their values and ways of life. In some cases, they have been successful in promoting global action. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was adopted in 2001, in no small part resulting from concerns about contaminants in the Arctic and their impacts on indigenous peoples and cultures[9]. More recently, Inuit leaders have framed climate change as a human rights issue (Sheila Watt-Cloutier as quoted in Brown[10]). Climate change is a topic about which indigenous peoples have a great deal to share with the world.

Box 3.1. Indigenous observations concerning the sun and ultraviolet radiation

Many people in the Arctic have observed changes in the characteristics of sunlight and its effects since the early 1990s[11]. While not discussed in terms of UV radiation, many indigenous observations do include the same concerns as UV scientists (see Chapters 5 and 15). Most commonly expressed is the perception that the sun is stronger or more “stinging” and “sharp” feeling[12]. The sun’s heat seems to have become more intense and northern residents report unusual sunburns, eye irritations, and skin rashes[13].

The direct heat from the sun is warmer, it is not the same anymore and you can’t help but notice that. It is probably not warmer overall, but the heat of the sun is stronger. G. Kappianaq, Igloolik, 1997 as quoted in Fox, 1998

The reason why I mention the fact that the sun seems warmer is because another [piece of] evidence to that is that we get some skin diseases or some skin problems. Because I think in the past when Peter [a Clyde River elder] was a young boy they never seemed to have these skin problems and I see them more and more these days. J. Qillaq, Clyde River, 2001 as quoted in Fox, 2004

Humans are not the only ones affected by a more intense sun. Inuit in Nunavut link other environmental changes to the sun. In some areas, for example, although the overall temperature may not be warmer, elders claim that the heat of the sun is causing small ponds to be warmer than usual or to dry up altogether. In some places, meat hung out to dry seems to get burned by the sun, and caribou skins seem to rip more easily around the neck area, a new condition elders link to skins possibly being burnt or becoming too hot from the sun[14].

Archaeological sites in the Arctic have contained sun goggles, indicating that indigenous peoples have, for a long time, made an effort to shield their eyes from the blinding light of sunshine on snow.These days, indigenous peoples are doing more to protect themselves from sun damage. High quality sunglasses and goggles are popular and many people who spend time on the land are now using sun lotion and lip balm. In Igloolik, Nunavut, for example, the nursing station has had more requests for sun lotion in recent years, but it is unclear whether this is due to more sunburn, or a greater awareness of the damage caused by sun exposure[15]. Still, elders and older hunters who have grown up on the land and spent decades on the sea ice and snow say they are only now beginning to experience sunburn. While rates of skin cancer remain low in the Arctic (see section, community members note it will be important to monitor how serious the new sun-related skin ailments become. Residents also want to monitor how a more intense sun may affect arctic animals and plants over time.


3.1. Introduction
3.2. Indigenous knowledge
3.3. Indigenous observations of climate change
3.4. Case studies
3.4.1. Northwest Alaska: the Qikiktagrugmiut
3.4.2. The Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region, Alaska
3.4.3. Arctic Athabaskan Council: Yukon First Nations
3.4.4. Denendeh: the Dene Nation’s Denendeh Environmental Working Group
3.4.5. Nunavut
3.4.6. Qaanaaq, Greenland
3.4.7. Sapmi: the communities of Purnumukka, Ochejohka, and Nuorgam
3.4.8. Climate change and the Saami
3.4.9. Kola: the Saami community of Lovozero
3.5. Indigenous perspectives and resilience
3.6. Further research needs
3.7. Conclusions


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Committee, I. (2012). Introduction to Indigenous Perspectives on the Changing Arctic. Retrieved from


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