Reinventing what it means to be Inuit: Indigenous peoples adapt to climate change

nuit leader Jose A. Kusugak said that to address the impacts of climate change, it makes sense to consult with those most affected: the indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic.

“Our millennia-old traditions are already being altered because of the warming Arctic, and we face the possibility of having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit. This is the prospect that we fear,” he was quoted as saying in an 2005 Inuit publication, Unikkaaqatigiit:Putting the Human Face on Climate Change

About four million people live in the Arctic. Indigenous peoples include the Inupiat of Alaska, the Inuit of Canada, Greenland and Russia; the Saami of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia; the Athabascan of Alaska and Canada; the Aleut of Alaska and Russia; and numerous other groups as shown on the map below.

To help understand their point of view, the Inuit and the Arctic Council, a circumpolar group of eight nations and six indigenous groups, separately conducted several workshops around the Arctic in 2004.

At Inuit workshops from 2002-2005 in 17 Inuit communities,  people demonstrated a  wealth of knowledge on the ways their environment is changing.

“Inuit reported that environmental changes are happening at an alarming rate in the Arctic and are creating many challenges for them,”  Unikkaaqatigiit: Putting the Human Face on Climate Change said. “In the community workshops, Inuit clearly stated their observations that support the claim that the Arctic environment is changing. They reported a broad scope of changes encompassing biophysical, socio-economic and human health aspects.”

The Arctic Council published observations from participants at its workshops in its landmark 2004 publication, “Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment.”

Their comments show they share much of same concerns though they live thousands of miles apart.

Nunavut, Canada

“Making the scientific community aware of our knowledge is important. We have a long history of being on the land and we want to provide local and traditional information that science does not have.”

—Inuvik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR)

“There are already a lot of established Inuit concepts on the weather, but they are changing.”

— Repulse Bay, Nunavut

“Weather forecasting is difficult now. Elders are not predicting the weather because they do not feel that the prediction will be reliable.”

— Nunatsiavut

“It is hard to know if it will be good or bad weather for hunting and trapping. It affects when you are able to go out on the land.”

— Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik

“When I was young the old men used to say there will be a time when it will be 12 months summer per year and a time when it will be 12 months winter, with no freeze-up or no thaw for 12 months. Perhaps we will see this in the future.”

— Kugaaruk, Nunavut

“I can feel the change in the climate… It is obvious that global warming is taking place. Our wildlife is changing too” — Repulse Bay, Nunavut

“It costs more money to go hunting because you have to go further from the community to hunt animals like caribou.” — Tuktoyaktuk, ISR

“The entire ecosystem in the North is changing.” — Repulse Bay, Nunavut

“People have lost boats and equipment because of quickly shifting winds.”

— Arctic Bay, Nunavut

“Increased unpredictability in the weather has made it more difficult to go hunting now. We have to consider this more now.”

— Ivujivik, Nunavik

“We need ideas for erosion in the community because it is happening now.” — Tuktoyaktuk, ISR

“We need to be more careful when pursuing animals because of thinner ice and changing ice conditions.” — Arctic Bay, Nunavut

“Inuit have a traditional juggling game. The weather is sort of like that now. The weather is being juggled; it is changing so quickly and drastically.”

— N. Attungala, Baker Lake

“The weather has changed. For instance, elders will predict that it might be windy, but then it doesn’t become windy. And then it often seems like its going to be very calm and then it suddenly becomes windy. So their predictions are never correct anymore, the predictions according to what they see haven’t been true.”

— P. Kunuliusie, Clyde River

“The weather when I was young and vulnerable to the weather, according to my parents, was more predictable, in that we were able to tell where the wind was going to be that day by looking at the cloud formations… Now, the weather patterns seem to have changed a great deal. Contrary to our beliefs and ability to predict [by] looking at the sky, especially the cloud formations, looking at the stars, everything seems to be contrary to our training from the hunting days with our fathers. Whereas before, before 1960s when I was growing up to be a hunter, we were able to predict.”

— L. Nutaraluk, Iqaluit, 2000

“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

Nunavut, Canada

“Our lifestyle has changed because we are not out on the land as much anymore.” — Ivujivik, Nunavik

“We can’t make dry fish as the heat spoils it. The sun makes it too hot and we need to put a tarp over top now to protect the fish from the sun.” — Inuvik, ISR

“The water from some rivers and ponds smells and tastes bad, particularly when it does not rain for quite some time. We do not want to drink this water.”

— Nunatsiavut

“The land is dropping at Shingle Point. We may have to move the houses and it could be expensive.”

— Aklavik, ISR

“For hunters it costs in gasoline too because places we could reach before cannot be reached because of melting snow and thinning ice in the winter with this warm weather.”

— Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik

“The sun gives us a tan and it goes deeper in children now. We are getting sunburns, and our lips get cracked. We have to go to the health centre to get treatment for these burns.”

— Repulse Bay, Nunavut

“People watch for erosion and have to move their cabins back from the river.”

— Aklavik, ISR

“We are discarding some animals and being selective of things consumed more than ever before.” — Arctic Bay, Nunavut

“Freshwater drinking sources are not as good anymore when we are out on the land, so we use more snow than lake water now for drinking.” — Puvirnituq, Nunavik

“We need to find a way to live comfortably with these changes because we can’t change the weather.” — Nunatsiavut

“People are getting faster boats to help cope with difficulties brought on by unpredictable travel.”

— Repulse Bay, Nunavut

“Inuit living in Arctic communities hold a wealth of knowledge on the ways their environment is changing. In the community workshops, Inuit clearly stated their observations that support the claim that the Arctic environment is changing. They reported a broad scope of changes encompassing biophysical, socio-economic and human health aspects.” — Unikkaaqatigiit: Putting the Human Face on Climate Change

North Greenland

“Change has been so dramatic that during the coldest month of the year, the month of December 2001, torrential rains have fallen in the Thule region so much that there appeared a thick layer of solid ice on top of the sea ice and the surface of the land. The impact on the sea ice can be described in this manner: the snow that normally covers the sea ice became nilak (freshwater ice), and the lower layer became pukak (crystallized ice), which was very bad for the paws of our sled dogs.

In January 2002, our outermost hunting grounds were not covered by sea ice because of shifting wind conditions and sea currents. We used to go hunting to these areas in October only four or five years ago. Sea-ice conditions have changed over the last five to six years. The ice is generally thinner and is slower to form off the smaller forelands. The appearance of aakkarneq (ice thinned by sea currents) happens earlier in the year than normal.

Also, sea ice, which previously broke up gradually from the floe-edge towards land, now breaks off all at once. Glaciers are very notably receding and the place names are no longer consistent with the appearance of the land. For example, Sermiarsussuaq (“the smaller large glacier”), which previously stretched out to the sea, no longer exists.”

— Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, a hunter from Qaanaaq, North Greenland


“Ice is a supporter of life. It brings the sea animals from the north into our area and in the fall it also becomes an extension of our land. When it freezes along the shore  we go out on the ice to fish, to hunt marine mammals, and to travel . . . . When it starts disintegrating and disappearing faster, it affects our lives dramatically.”

— Caleb Pungowiyi,

Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island

“You need thick ice for the weight of the whale to bring it up. You need at least six feet of solid ice to bring up a whale. When it’s like three, four feet, especially if somebody got a bigger whale, it’s going to keep breaking up.”

— Roy Nageak

Barrow, Alaska

“June, July, August, we used to be able to see the polar pack of ice, out in front of Barrow. That’s no longer happening. Our people are going bearded seal hunting, walrus hunting, in the spring, are having to go farther and farther out to find the game. This summer, we were hearing of crews going 20 to 30 miles past Point Barrow north to try and find game. The people were trying to get their subsistence hunting done while the ice was close to us, but there are a lot of people who are still short their normal supply of sea mammals for the year. I’m one of those very unfortunate ones who didn’t land any bearded

seals this spring. My boys went out trying, and some of my crew members went out trying but they didn’t land any.”

-Eugene Brower

Barrow, Alaska

Labrador, Nunavik,

Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region

“Through changes in the timing and conditions of ice formation, stability, and break up, the amount and timing of snow, and the stability of critical land (e.g., permafrost) in the regions used by indigenous communities, climate change can result in significant negative impacts on the health of community residents.

All communities in the four regions reported that weather has become more unpredictable. Because of temperature and other changes seen in all communities and subsequent lack of consistency in weather patterns, Elders’ confidence in their ability to consistently provide accurate weather predictions has decreased across the Canadian North.

Unpredictable weather patterns have also meant that travel has become more dangerous throughout the Canadian North. Different impacts from this include changes to regular travel times, economic and dietary impacts related to lack of access to regular hunting grounds, and many people getting stranded on the land due to quickly changing poor weather conditions.

Communities in all regions have seen earlier spring break-up and later fall freeze-up of sea ice reported to be related to warmer temperatures during the spring and fall seasons. Ice has also become thinner across all regions in the North.”

— Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment

Lovozero, Russia

“The cycle of the yearly calendar has been disturbed greatly and this affects the reindeer herding negatively for sure. We should start working differently in a new way. We still have not thought this and we still have not pondered this — we try to start from the needs of the people and be flexible. We Saami have an anecdote, rather it is a legend, which has the law of the Saami life in it. People tell this onwards always. The Saami say:”We are not reapers, we are not field-plowers, we are reindeer herders. The reindeer are our bread. Everybody should cherish the land. The green land with its flowers and lichens was given to us so that we should pass it on to our children.” We try to follow this Saami law because there are laws that the Saami follow. And the Saami guide other people to follow those laws in our land. It is true. This is the truth.”

—Larisa Avdeyeva, director of the Saami Culture Center in Lovozero

“The weather has changed to worse and to us it is a bad thing. It affects mobility at work. In the olden days [the 1960s and 1970s], the permanent ice cover came in October and even people as old as myself remember how on 7 of November we would go home to celebrate the anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution. These days you can venture to the ice only beginning in December. This year the ice came and froze a little early but for sure the weather has changed very much. All began about six years ago. Everything went haywire. Yes, six years ago!”

—Arkady Khodzinsky, a reindeer herder from Lovozero Impacts Assessment


“There is normal fluctuation in the amounts of snow. However, snow falls later. In the 1950s and 1960s, there used to be a permanent snow cover always in October. Starting in the 1970s, it can be November, middle of November. Ice has thinned, especially in the small rivers and ditches here. I wonder if the reservoirs affected this? It used to be that we could just drive away on the ice. There used to be a proper ice cover on the small rivers.”

—Niila Nikodemus, an 86-year-old elder and the oldest reindeer herder in Purnumukkaan.

“Traditional knowledge has changed like reindeer herding in a negative direction. We have to feed the reindeers with hay and fodder quite much now. But I would not advocate that the traditional Saami calendar is mixed up yet. But traditional weather reading skills cannot be trusted anymore. In the olden times one could see beforehand.”

— Veikko Magga, a reindeer herder for 50 years

“People in the villages are worried as they face global changes. The Saami are used to combining different economic activities, such as berry picking, reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, trapping, and handicraft. If the changes are sudden, accumulate rapidly, and have impacts on all or most of local resources, and if the resource base is scarce, then the problems start to show themselves immediately. Many claim that the weather has become warmer, and especially the fall and early winter are warm. Many herders and subsistence hunters claim that there are no winds anymore. Wind has some positive effects. For instance, wind gathers the snow to certain spots. During the recent years, the weather has started to change rapidly, so that sudden shifts take place. There are no longer stable periods of a cold weather type. It has also become more difficult to predict the coming weather. People are more careful when moving across lakes and rivers.”

— Elina Helander, a researcher at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland, as well as a Saami from Ochejohka.

The city and Native Village of Kivalina have filed a $400 million lawsuit against ExxonMobil and 23 other energy companies. They claim that the large amounts of greenhouse gases these companies emit contribute to global warming, threatening the community’s existence.

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