Inuit collaboration makes for better science, says Nunavik adviser

“When Indigenous knowledge and science knowledge merge, it gives a much better understanding”

Appearing remotely from her porch to the ArcticNet conference in a pre-recorded video, Lucy Grey of Kangirsuk speaks about how Inuit traditional knowledge fits into research. (Screen shot courtesy of ArcticNet)

By Jane George

Researchers recently found something interesting during a multiyear study of pregnant women in Nunavik – high levels of a mineral called selenium in their blood.

Selenium is beneficial in normal levels, but too much of it can be toxic.

Southern research on the North is nothing new. But what Laval University public health researcher Mélanie Lemire and fellow researcher Matthew Little did with their findings is increasingly becoming the norm: They spoke to the regional hunters association.

This, said Lucy Grey, the Inuit research adviser for Kativik Regional Government, quickly solved the mystery.

Grey was speaking on Dec. 10 at the ArcticNet conference, in a session devoted to how Inuit traditional knowledge – or Qaujimajatuqangit – fits into research.

“The hunters were like, ‘Of course! It’s because the women eat the beluga tail,” she said.

“They did more tests, and of course there were higher levels of selenium in the tail.” 

Grey told this story to highlight the need for researchers to closely collaborate with Inuit.

That’s something she helps with on a regular basis.

“A lot of the time, my job is to give the Inuit perspective, the Inuit reality when working with researchers,” Grey said.

“Then they are able to do their job better.”

Grey said in the past, traditional knowledge has only informed research in an anecdotal sense. She described Inuit participation as limited to being research subjects, guides, translators, transcribers and field co-ordinators.

“Now, we have an active role,” she said, adding the change has led to more Inuit-led research, too.

Grey pointed to the Qanuilirpitaa? 2017 health survey, saying it was important to Nunavik, not only because it provided information to the region, but Inuit played a role in choosing which questions were asked. 

For Qanuilirpitaa?, researchers travelled across Nunavik via ship to survey people over the age of 16. They were asked a variety of questions related to their mental and physical health. 

“Inuit were part of the design of the research, the questions that were asked,” she said. “It’s important to also remember that yes, we have that vested interest in the information that we’re trying to extract.”

Logistics are also an issue. With many Arctic research projects on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, community involvement has proven key to continuing work, Grey said.

Although researchers are unable to come up to Nunavik, collaboration can continue, she said, but that requires more investment by academics.

“You cannot just come, take the information and go,” Grey said.

“That only benefits your curiosity and publishing. The information also needs to benefit us who live in the region. When Indigenous knowledge and science knowledge merge, it gives a much better understanding of our world.”

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(21) Comments:

  1. Posted by iWonder on

    Good story, I’m curious about something and say this respectfully and as a Southerner.

    I wonder if there a meaningful difference between Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or Traditional Knowledge, as it is used here and in the research context, and western scientific concepts like data or empirical evidence?

    For example, when Lucy Grey says “When Indigenous knowledge and science knowledge merge, it gives a much better understanding of our world” I agree, but feel this could also be stated that “when scientists used Inuit derived data…”

    Is this accurate, or am I missing something?

    • Posted by Bruce Myers on

      Your choice of words (“scientists”) betray your bias (as if no such thing, actually or potentially, as an “inuk scientist”). I suggest better wording is: “When non-Inuit scientists use data discovered and reported to them by Inuit,….”

      • Posted by Don’t know the way no direction scientists on

        I’m very skeptic about much of the traditional knowledge. Not that I don’t believe there’s such a thing, it’s just there’s no crediblilty. Tail of a whale or not, educated persons will not accept most traditional knowledge by the uneducated. That’s a fact.

        • Posted by iWonder on

          An ‘educated’ person, or more specifically, a scientist, who is collecting data would be foolish to ignore any reasonable evidence no matter what its origins.

          • Posted by Not to ignore on

            A confident scientist would not ignore , but would soon rule out traditional knowledge as with limited use maybe, not for sure that it would be scientifically useful, but the scientist would find out quickly how most traditional knowledge is useful to culture, but not necessarily to science.

            • Posted by iWonder on

              As an outsider it is difficult to assess the value of what traditional knowledge might bring to the table viz-a-vis scientific discovery given the lack of clarity around what it encompasses.

              This was the gist of my original question; in the context of research is traditional knowledge (TK) or IQ referring to data (such as: pregnant women eat Beluga tails)? Of course, not all TK or IQ appears to be scientific, some expresses values and some is cultural knowledge and practice. These are threads that need to be pulled apart if we are serious about bringing these two together.

              That said, you’re generalizing too much when you say things like scientists would “soon rule out traditional knowledge as [having] limited use.”

              A categorical rejection like this is no more helpful than a categorical endorsement. Unfortunately, I rarely see Inuit or people involved in TK or IQ offer much input into these forums.

              • Posted by Flat world belief on

                Maybe it’s art instead of science. People used to see the world as flat, that even have its usefulness at the time, but it was not correct, as we now know. Even science that is accurate, as we have proven it today , could be disputed tomorrow. Many traditional knowledge as I see it in the north, is very limited, not useless totally, but limited to the cultures usefulness. When you live beside theses claims, you get to know them as who is claiming, and you a little bit of common sense helps a lot to see clearly. Many today, still don’t know which way the wind blows , but they know what to do in windy situation. But their way , is not the only way.

              • Posted by You don’t see lots on

                Seeing no Inuit or other people involved in these forums is exactly what most of us see too in the north. Theres a reason for this. It’s called pseudoscience . We don’t let it affect us as we live here, we just know what it is. For a scientist to go above and beyond the call of duty , indulged in its seriousness, I not only question the knowledge, but also the scientist. I’m of the common sense , and believe too most scientist would be too.

                • Posted by Clown Car on

                  Sounds like you just don’t like science, and I will guess you probably don’t really know what it even is. But yea “common sense” is always the superior method for things like building space probes, nuclear reactors and particle accelerators.

                  • Posted by Traditional knowledge and science on

                    With so many drop outs and non graduates from the Nunavik school system, this traditional knowledge idea should go wild. I mean why not substitute the science for traditional knowledge? The level of science will never be reached with the rate of uneducated among the population, might as well put something in there for entertainment if nothing else.

      • Posted by Terms Matter on

        The use of the term Western science is also very misleading. There is no such thing – science is universal, regardless of culture. Equally misleading is the term, “Inuit science”. Knowledge, tradition, observations, wisdom of some such term are all accurate and valuable, but unless the scientific method is followed, it is not science.

        The scientific method is the same everywhere, regardless of the ethnicity of the person doing it.

        • Posted by No guessing accepted here on

          I don’t know what to make of this. Traditional knowledge? It’s always like that. Farmers , fishermen, hunters, sewers. You can find in many places as far as I know. It’s not unique among Inuit per say. But traditional knowledge is not always scientifically proven , challenged, ruled in or out. We must be careful. Traditional knowledge could be good or not, it depends. Sometimes traditional knowledge might be limited, to certain conditions, thereby, not withstanding variables, therefore be no good in the practical.

        • Posted by iWonder on

          Fair points

      • Posted by iWonder on

        Wow Bruce, a stunning and brave response to a clear act of hetero-colonial oppression on my part. You get two woke cookies.

        Still, keep in mind the author draws the distinction between ‘Indigenous knowledge and science knowledge.’ Do you think she is erasing the possibility of Inuit scientists by doing this?

        Also, would you describe the hunters who relayed the information about the Beluga tail in the article above as scientists? Would you describe anyone who transfers data or information as a scientist? I would not, because nothing in the narrative suggests they were.

        To your point, this obviously does not preclude the possibility that Inuit can “actually or potentially” be scientists. To imply that I am suggesting this, is disingenuous non-sense and a bad faith argument.

        Be better

  2. Posted by Folklore on

    It’s called folklore. It belongs to the culture. It’s not science. It’s useful, but it’s not science. Indigenous and many rural societies have formed strong traditions with folklore at its Center. There’s lots of interesting lore. Maybe a folklorist could help with the forum here. Plus why do some people outside of Inuit and indigenous society have this notion that any thing traditional is uniquely to theses societies only . Many societies on the planet have similar experiences. The world is full of traditional knowledge which can also be shared to indigenous societies and vice versa.

  3. Posted by Days gone by on

    I can remember a time many moons ago, it was a pleasure to go on the land with Inuit. The knowledge was second best to none. Today I wouldn’t go across a lake with most. I have good reason too. There are more accidents, incidents, death, from inexperienced, carelessness, intoxication. It just not there anymore. Let me know about your scientific proven traditional knowledge, I’m waiting.

  4. Posted by Kyle on

    knowledge is knowledge and then needs to be verified. no different then saying it’s country food ok if you want. food is good.

    no one says here have some of my country food and it’s homegrown apples potatoes etc

    many of the elders have that knowledge and need to pass it on at least they should be if we’re expecting teachers to teach all of the IQ principles then this is a loss. Teachers are a piece. Elders are a piece. Scientists are a piece.

    I really don’t get some of the comments on here. If people have knowledge and it’s valuable it gets used scientist or no scientist. Yes scientists will write papers and post their findings at least i can read their paper and find their sources.

    Should i take it all for proof maybe maybe not. I know I would still do my own research or find factual information that shows it is correct no different then if an Elder says it is so. 7 foot trout well I love for it to be true my dear Elder but oh well.

    I wish for a day where people work together forget who is what Race my son will live with a foot in each world Inuk and white. should be proud of both and learn to think for himself make good choices and support others. Happy New Year!

    • Posted by Yes but on

      Oh yes I agree that knowledge is knowledge, but just being an elder doesn’t guarantee knowledge that is worth considering as contributing to scientific advancement. That’s the problem here, not the knowledge itself , but the belief that elder Johnny , Peter or Bessie has it. I worked with elders and they can share much about life , but they are very misinformed about much of the reality of how the world works, not that it altered their life in any significant way, just information, like trying to get an elder to come up with new words for internet, how silly really. If Inuit would stay in school and get a good education, then no worries then, they’ll be part of the scientific world, traditional or otherwise.

    • Posted by Karl Popper on

      The majority of people, Southern or Inuit, have at best a surface level understanding of what terms like ‘scientific’ or ‘traditional’ knowledge fundamentally mean. To disentangle this yarn takes a fair bit of work.

      My own concern is over the political push, in the name of reconciliation, to not only make gestures of respect toward traditional or indigenous knowledge, but to place it on equal footing to scientific knowledge. It feels as if this is not to be questioned.

      The problem is that not questioning and not subjecting claims about knowledge to rigor is antithetical to science; which is a method constructed to avoid biases towards things like arguments from authority (i.e. an elder says so), or genetic fallacies that favour of disfavour claims based on their origins (i.e. a person’s identity or background automatically imbues their work with authority, or counts against it).

      As a method scientific claims to knowledge must be testable, repeatable and empirical. Traditional knowledge, as I see it, gives us accumulated data; useful, but distinct from a method of discovering new knowledge. Do we need to pretend these are the same or that they do the same thing?

  5. Posted by Careful with the romanticism on

    Much of this commotion about Inuit traditional knowledge comes from the southerners romance with Inuit and the culture. It’s nothing more than that. It’s not difficult to see in action for anyone interested in seeing it. I saw an Inuk out fishing with her southern boyfriend, he who thought the young Inuk woman could not only have knowledge where exactly the fish were, but he thought she could literally see the fish with her Inuk traditional knowledge. He was convinced to the dismay, of an emptied handed day on the land, of which most Inuit accept as the reality of the wild , hunt , fish , gather, and knowledge yes, but a bit of luck too. That’s the ones we need to watch, those romantic fools.

  6. Posted by Will the fish go there? on

    A little while back, I was having dinner with an old Cree friend from James bay. He was telling some jokes as usual. He was telling one funny true story about how the politicians asked the old Cree, if the fish would swim up that river , if it was dammed for hydro. The old Cree laughed at the politicians and told them to don’t ask him, but to ask the fish what they might do.

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