Tag Archives: Inuit

Jarich Oosten & Barbara Helen Miller (eds.), Traditions, Traps and Trends. Transfer of Knowledge in Arctic Regions (Alberta: The University of Alberta Press, 2018)

Indigenous knowledge – or traditional knowledge – has recently gained more and more attention, especially within the Arctic context. Large and complex bodies of knowledge(s) are thus acknowledged, which are mostly acquired in non-verbal ways: a learning by doing, or better, a learning by living (it), ensuring survival in the harshest environments of the globe for millennia.  Such a knowledge includes skills and “attitude that encourages perceptual rather than judgmental forms of knowing”, leading to a life oriented toward service to community. It is a knowledge that still today struggles with the Western concept of “science”, still deeply anchored to classic dichotomies, as “our way of thinking” vs ”their way of thinking”, or the Cartesian paradigm whereby mind and body are essentially separate entities.

The scope of this book, outlined by the editors Jarich Oosten and Barbara Helen Miller in the introduction, is to overcome the classic definition of “Western science” and “mak[e] a place in scientific discourse for contributions from Indigenous authorities”.  This cognitive place is therefore created by eight interdisciplinary case-studies, written by different authors, that explore knowledge transfer and knowledge practices of the Inuit in Canada, East and West Greenland, and the Northern Sámi of Norway. There is no given methodological explanation regarding the selection of Arctic regions treated in the book, but probably it is the result of the geographical areas of expertise of the authors, all members of the Research Group Circumpolar Cultures.

After a dense introduction, aimed at clearing out both the theoretical background and the histories of the peoples involved, the book is divided conceptually into two parts: the first one comprises five chapters on the Inuit of Greenland and North America; the second one three chapters on the Northern Sámi of Norway.

The first part considers the Inuit concept of IQ, “knowledge that has proven to be useful in the past and is still useful today”, in different contexts, historical times and geographical areas. Although following separate patterns, all the authors come to highlight, on the one hand, the disruptive effects that the introduction of Western education, with missionaries first and national school systems later, has had on individual, social and family relations. On the other hand, the dynamic and flexible nature of this IQ makes it still today a valuable body of knowledge(s) (inclusive of its spiritual component) for the younger generations’ well-being, both mental and physical. A correct transfer of this knowledge (or IQ), however, faces today several challenges, as for example the impossibility of extracting this knowledge from its material support, that is to say, the environment, and teach it in a classroom; obliging educators and researchers to experiment and find more suitable solutions (some of them are addressed in the book).

The second part takes the reader to a completely different location, Northern Norway, and into a different culture, the Sámi. This second part focuses on a variety of topics, yet connected with the main area outlined in the introduction, i.e. transfer of knowledge and knowledge practices.

Presented as a book for “students and scholars in anthropology and ethnology and for everyone interested in the Circumpolar North”, this collection of essays offers indeed different reading levels. However, probably due to a general lack of coordination among the authors of the first part, where the five essays share the same main topic, IQ, and different yet similar background (Inuit), make the reading often repetitive and redundant, hampering a fluid reading. The second part, while being definitely more diverse, sometimes struggles in showing clearly its connections with the overall scope of the book, leaving the reader a little lost.

Some peculiar design choices – such as the font and its size, slightly smaller than usual, and the left-side alignment – make the reading not easy, as they give the feeling of an endless footnote. On the bright side, this book includes also some interesting historical figures and drawings, such as those (pp. 166-167) illustrating stories related to “tupilat” (i.e. “evil spirits” in the form of small sculptures carved out of bone, ivory, wood or stone, depicting monstrous figures and believed to have destructive and sometimes lethal effects on rivals).

A question, however, remains unanswered.

Why is no essay in this book openly written by an indigenous scholar or an “indigenous authority” of the actual Arctic communities that are discussed therein, a child of their lived experiences and living cultures?  The feeling is that one very important classic dichotomy was not addressed at all, that is to say, indigenous cultures and indigenous peoples as proactive “subjects” of research rather than “objects”. If this dichotomy persists, can then the authors’ competent scientific approach really achieve the declared aim of the book’s editors, namely to “mak[e] a place in scientific discourse for contributions from Indigenous authorities”?