By Jim Steele
Native American Wisdom and Kappiananngittuq: Polar Bears and Bowhead whales
published Pacifica Tribune April 17, 2019
What’s Natural column
Native American Wisdom and Kappiananngittuq: Part 1
In 2010 Nunavut’s Minister of Environment Daniel Shewchuk wrote, “Inuit hunters have a close relationship with the land and wildlife. They have observed that the overall population of polar bears in Nunavut is not declining as some suggest, but rather is thriving. No known environmental or other factors are currently posing a significant or immediate threat to polar bears overall. Furthermore, Inuit knowledge and science corroborate that the species can and will adapt to changing and severe climatic conditions, as it has done for centuries.”
The Inuit truly practice the concept of “it takes a village”. Hunters sit down in kappiananngittuq and respectfully share their observations of wildlife and their movements. Kappiananngittuq is the Inuit word for a “safe place to discuss”. Based on community discussions, Inuit have steadfastly claimed it is “The Time of the Most Polar Bears”. Overhunting has been one of the world’s greatest threats to wildlife. And the growing number of polar bears is testimony to wise hunting regulations now honored by the Inuit.
In contrast, based on questionable computer models, some western scientists have argued two-thirds of all polar bears will be extinct by the year 2030. Climate scientists like Gavin Schmidt sitting in his New York office, suggested the Inuit are in total denial. Sadly, in climate politics there is no kappiananngittuq where people safely discuss divergent knowledge. If you dare disagree with models of gloom and doom, you are attacked as an ignorant denier.
|A well-fed polar bear
In part 2, I will present abundant scientific evidence supporting Inuit claims that it is the “time of the most polar bears”. But first I present an example of the Inuit’s amazing ability to correctly diagnose changes in Arctic wildlife populations. Kappiananngittuq discussions consistently resulted in accurate conclusions, far superior to western science.
Due to overharvesting during the early 20thcentury, Bowhead whales were undeniably on the brink of extinction. In response, commercial hunting of Bowheads along the Canadian Arctic was wisely banned in 1951. Inuit subsistence hunting continued until 1979 but was later prohibited. After extensive debate, a limited licensed subsistence hunt was eventually renewed in Nunavut in 1996.
When the Inuit first petitioned to hunt the Bowhead in the 1980s, scientists argued the Bowhead population had not yet recovered to the sustainable numbers needed to safely permit subsistence hunting. The Inuit insisted scientists grossly underrepresented the whale’s abundance due to faulty surveys. It is not exactly clear how the Inuit counted, but by compiling their community’s observations, they concluded there were three times more Bowhead than scientific models suggested.
Many non-Inuit were suspicious, insinuating Inuit estimates were a self-serving calculation driven by their desire to hunt more whales. Off-hand comments portrayed Inuit estimates as mere hunches lacking written documentation and verifiable observations. Inuit science was not considered on par with hi-tech calculations.
But scientific surveys frequently suffer from a wide range of biases and inaccuracies. Models are often just the best guesses of a small group of scientists that get translated into numbers and equations. The data that feed their models are often limited by scant observations.
In the 1970s, during the Bowhead’s spring migration, scientists perched on hilltops, or pressure ridges in the ice. They counted whales as they migrated north through the open-water “leads” along the north coast of Alaska. They erroneously assumed that when the winds changed and ice temporarily closed those leads, whales stopped migrating. Only after the winds again shifted and the leads reopened, did scientists continue their count. Based on such survey assumptions, scientists modeled that only 2000-3000 Bowhead whales existed. And such small numbers meant the whales were still endangered.
In contrast Inuit hunters had always ventured much further out on the ice. Based on experience, they argued that when open-water leads closed, the whale migration still continued. The swirling pack ice always generated chaotic but sufficient springtime cracks and leads, providing whales enough opportunities to breathe.
|Bowhead Whale creating breathing hole
Bowheads also break relatively thin ice to make their own breathing holes. Whales were never restricted to large open-water leads along the coast. Thus, Inuit hunters argued the scientists had been blind to the majority of migrating whales. To their credit, western scientists re-designed their surveys to address the Inuit’s criticisms. The Inuit were proven correct, and amazingly had correctly calculated that Bowhead populations were 3 times higher than scientists had estimated. I suggest we all could benefit by debating kappiananngittuq style.
Jim Steele is the retired director of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.