Down in the many deep, cold bays of Baffin Island, narwhals come and go with the seasons.
For local Aboriginal (Inuit) communities, these sea mammals are a source of food and income, and part of their culture and identity. For visiting scientists, they are a source of information about climate change and biodiversity, and a resource to be conserved and managed.
On the face of it, these two groups don’t work at cross purposes – both are interested in understanding and increasing the abundance of these animals. But they don’t always find it easy to talk to one another.
“Many scientists believe narwhals have ‘site-specific fidelity,’ returning to the same bay each summer,” says Trent University researcher Chris Furgal. “So if we see a decrease in numbers in a given bay, we should decrease the hunt in that bay in future years.”
But local hunters see things differently. They don’t believe the same narwhals return to the same bays each summer. They believe it’s the total count in the population that comes together at the beginning and end of the year that ultimately matters, not the number of narwhals in a single summer area.
In a critical review of science and Indigenous knowledge on the topic, Furgal found that scientists were basing their site-specific theory on limited satellite tag data from whales tracked for one year, as compared to the many years of observations among many hunters reported in Indigenous Knowledge reports on the topic.
It might seem like a simple correction to make, but Furgal, who’s interested in finding ways to bring together conventional science with Aboriginal knowledge, has had trouble making headway.
“Inuit observations and knowledge of the species represent many more data points over a much longer time,” he says of the disagreement. But those data carry less weight than you might think. “This came to light two years ago, and is still not widely accepted in the scientific community.”
Furgal, whose own research is focused on interactions between health and the environment and this intersection of ways of knowing, has broad, multidisciplinary interests.
He first became interested in the relationship between Indigenous cultural knowledge and natural, health, and social sciences when he was doing a study on the interactions between polar bears and seals at the north end of Baffin Island and ended up living with an Inuit family to conduct his research.
“I was hunting five or six days a week for four months, eating what we hunted, sleeping in an igloo, sleeping in a tent,” he says. “I realized the local hunters I was working with hold similarly rich and valuable knowledge and experience as senior scientists do on this topic, and have more experience in their local area than anyone.”
Another area where Furgal sees the need to reconcile different types of knowledge is in addressing the issue of food security in Indigenous communities.
“Nunavut has the highest reported level of food insecurity outside of a developing country – 70 percent of households are classified as ‘food insecure,’” he says. “I agree there’s a problem but it’s not solely an economic one. And if we try to solve it using only economic tools, we may be creating other problems.”
This high figure comes from studies that focus on whether individuals have the means to buy food. But in the Far North, much food access is not related solely to money.
“There’s still a great deal of social access to food – sharing, trading, and borrowing with extended families and communities,” he says. When social networks are factored in, food insecurity is still very much an issue, but perhaps a very different and more manageable one.
“The problem is that we’re using a non-Indigenous lens and tool to understand an issue in an Indigenous context, with very little understanding and appreciation of the issue from an Indigenous perspective,” says Furgal. Many of these same knowledge and perspective issues exist in our approach to working with Indigenous communities on the challenges faced by climate change.
The challenges of balancing the co-creation of knowledge with the application of that knowledge are not simple for any researcher, but Furgal insists on navigating these waters.
“You have a level of social responsibility as a researcher working in communities to follow through on your research and not just tell people what their problems are,” he says.
“It makes for longer and more complex research, and often extends you beyond your comfort zone,” says Furgal. “But I think it makes for more responsible research in and with communities and makes the role of research more relevant in helping address local issues.”