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Climate Change Alters Indigenous Way of Life

By Mary A. Benanti

expanse of tundra

A broad expanse of tundra gives way to the rocky twin peaks of Mount Asgard, center, and Turner Glacier in Auyuittuq National Park on Canada’s Baffin Island.

Global warming has changed and is continuing to change the way of life for indigenous people. This is noticeably true for people whose lives have been spent in northern latitudes and whose lifestyles have been formed around dependence on the permafrost.

The Inuit are among those peoples. New Mexico State University researcher Eric Morgan is engaged in the study of how these aboriginal inhabitants of the North American Arctic discuss the global phenomenon and its impact on how their identity has been traditionally tied to the land.

Highway Glacier

New Mexico State University researcher Eric Morgan is studying how aboriginal inhabitants of the North American Arctic discuss the phenomenon of global climate change.

As he studied the Inuit ways of discussing the issue of global climate change, Morgan, an assistant professor in communication studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, saw firsthand how this is happening. During his many visits to the Inuit in Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada, Morgan has watched and photographed glacial retreat. He’s also heard about it from the people who depend on the land for their livelihood.

The Inuit know the permafrost is melting. No one has to tell them that. And it not only impacts the habitat of native animals but it also is separating families. Travel across the permafrost was relatively easy and the customary way to get around. But as the ice and snow melt earlier – in May as opposed to July, according to numerous reports – travel across the resulting marshes is increasingly difficult and more time-consuming. Families accustomed to visiting one another frequently throughout the year no longer are able to do that.

expanse of tundra

Highway Glacier crawls across the landscape in Auyuittuq National Park, Canada.

“There are a lot of familial connections in the region,” Morgan said. “They used to be able to travel back and forth on snowmobiles in a matter of five or six hours. But in the summer, that is not possible.”

Yet, here, as across the globe, there is a debate about the long-term consequences of climate change.

“Some elders say this is a cycle that will not be that devastating,” Morgan said. “So you hear: ‘This is bad; this isn’t so bad.’ But there is no disagreement that global climate change is happening.”

Rains are coming at different times of the year and glacier reduction photos show clearly the impacts of warming.

How do the Inuit talk about global warming and thus construct meaning about it for themselves as a people? There are a variety of positions on that, Morgan said. As a people they say they are connected to the land; they know who they are through the land. For many, the identity of the Inuit is caught up in the issue of climate change.

“I was on a boat with an Inuit named Levi,” Morgan said. “We were in a canoe for three hours and the entire way, Levi carried on this interesting narrative based on place as we were carried along on choppy waters.”

expanse of tundra

NMSU researcher Eric Morgan prepares for a trek in Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada. In the background are Mount Asgard and Turner Glacier.

“This is where I took a walrus; this is where there was a whale I hunted,” Levi told Morgan as they churned along ice floes in choppy arctic waters.

“He pointed to hills and started talking about his grandparents being caught out there once, all the while pointing at the ice cap and all along the way showing where it had retreated.”

The land had been different then. When Levi’s grandparents were caught in the storm, it was a different place and different environment. It was easier to move; easier to survive. They were able to get out of harm’s way by going over the ice cap.

“ ‘You used to be able to get on the glacier here,’ he said passing a spot, ‘but it has retreated.’ I was in awe of the landscape but profoundly interested and fascinated and sad,” Morgan said. “I could tell he was somewhat lamenting the loss of the physical features of the landscape. Every story he told was tied to a place, and there was also then a description of this is how the place has changed.”

But Levi also had the attitude that the Inuit would find a way to continue on. As yet, Morgan said, there are no Inuit climate refugees as there are in New Zealand or Auckland. Right now, the Inuit are seeing their young people leave Nunavut for economic reasons.

Nor did he see their homes collapsing or roads buckling as the permafrost melts. However, there are media reports that this is beginning to happen. While a segment of elders see this change as a cycle, there are those who are more politically attuned who see global climate change as an issue of human rights for the Inuit, Morgan said.

According to the Web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper, these Inuit launched a human rights campaign against the Bush administration in 2003 for its refusal to join the Kyoto protocol and claimed global warming will cause their extinction. Sheila Watts-Cloutier, chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, told reporter Paul Brown that “without our snow and ice our way of life goes” and likened their plight to that of the polar bears.

“They talk about extinction of a people,” Morgan said. “Not literally as if all are going to die. But in the vein of ‘our way of life being uniquely Inuit – that’s going to die.’”

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