Friday, 14 August 2015

Recasting Inuit Knowledge: Honouring Our Elders

I was recently asked at work to look into some climate change stuff. I didn't really get a chance to look into the work itself but it got me thinking about the whole academic research into Inuit knowledge on climate change discourse. There seems to be two commonly-employed stratagems for dealing with this type of research: sociology and as a component of 'native studies'.

Of the two, I'd say that sociology is the kinder discipline - for the simple fact that it is something that feels more familiar to me as having done academic research myself. Also, I'm a huge fan of Max Weber and the social criticism of obscurantist philosophers like Wittgenstein, Camus, etc. (ie, those thinkers who see real world linkages between language and social justice).

The native studies variety (no moral judgement, I assure you), on the other hand, is a bit further behind (by virtue of still needing a common ground, a common framework, and quite possibly nothing else).

This thing, this common framework, is a very important detail that decides the fate of all formal forms of discourse - from the religious to the cultural (and I mean here, say, a hunting culture (like Inuit) and its intellectual/epistemological justifications for its modes of being). These 'justifications', I think I can show, need not be pedantic and/or academic, but practical and highly intuitive (ie, comprehensible to 'outsiders' without much need for explanation).

I was recently shown a video interview of the father of one of my oldest and dearest friends. I was paying particular attention to Jaypiti Palluq's responses to questions what he was doing just now right before the interview (and what he'd be doing were it the past this time of the year). He said he had been checking daily the passage for whales that opens this time of the year (describing in great and wonderfully-useful detail how the conditions and ways of the broken sea ice behaved as he knew it in the past and how it seems to act now).

The description is all-encompassing. He links the changes he sees in his daily wanderings with changes in animal behaviour, with shifts and forced-adaptations in our own behaviours, in turn. But it requires a refocus in how we listen and watch out for certain data. My name-sake is describing the life activities of the socio-economic structures of his culture - the trick is to understand that its embedded in the ecology and seasonal conditions that he is already intimately familiar with, and it is up to us (as researchers) to figure it all out.

The past is the baseline; Jaypiti's invaluable and totally trust-worthy insights into and descriptions of his contemporaneous observations are right there (he is talking to us). There are many different ways of laying out his irreplaceable data and thus obtain an overview and perspective that may honour his gift to us: Inuit science.

Jay

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