“Caribou was the reason, and everything else happened after”: Effects of caribou declines on Inuit in Labrador, Canada.

Abstract

For many Indigenous Peoples in the Circumpolar North, cultural engagement and continuity across generations is directly related to relationships between and among people, animals, and landscapes. However, minimal research outlines the emotional responses and disruptions to culture and identity that are driven by ecological change, and the subsequent cultural dimensions of coping and adapting to this uncertainty. Through a case study that explores how caribou population declines and a caribou hunting ban are impacting Inuit in the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador, Canada, this article examines the critical interplay between cultural continuity and adaptive capacity for responding to ecological uncertainty. More specifically, this study: 1) described the central role that caribou play for Inuit emotional wellness, identity, and cultural continuity; 2) explored how the rapid declines of caribou in Labrador are affecting Inuit emotional wellness, identity, and cultural continuity; and 3) characterized the ways in which Inuit are adapting to these emotio-social, cultural, and ecological changes. Drawing from an Inuit-led, multi-year, multi-media qualitative and visual media research program, data from video interviews (n=84: Nunatsiavut region: n=54; NunatuKavut region: n=30) were analyzed using a video-based qualitative analysis, constantcomparative methods, and inductive qualitative approach. Results indicated that caribou are a foundational element for Inuit emotional wellness, identity, and cultural continuity. The changes in caribou populations are resulting in complex emotional responses, losses to cultural meaning and knowledge, and alterations to Inuit identities. The impacts on emotions, identity, and cultural continuity related to Inuit-caribou relations at an individual and collective level reflect the interconnections between cultural continuity and adaptive capacity that underlie the loss of this culturally important species. Though this research focuses on two Inuit groups and caribou in Labrador, the insights from these lived experiences highlight the ongoing cultural and identity consequences associated with species declines occurring globally.

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Abstract

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Figure 1: Summary of the ways in which Inuit from the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions described

their relationships with caribou, and the effects of the disruption to Inuit-caribou relationships on Inuit

wellbeing.

Findings

Just from one caribou hunt I learned how to kill a partridge, I learned how to kill a caribou, how to skin a caribou, how to set up a tent, how to light a fire, put up the stove, how to get a Ski-Doo unstuck, I mean there’s so many aspects of survival that you learn on a caribou hunt.

 

—  Andrea Andersen, Makkovik

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Caribou are a foundational element for Inuit identity, both on an individual and collective level. Caribou help individuals oriented themselves to their shared communities, culture, and heritage, contributing to group values, and thinking. 

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The changes in caribou populations are resulting in complex and interconnected emotional responses, losses to cultural meaning and knowledge, and alterations to Inuit identities.

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Inuit described feeling particularly anxious or vulnerable during certain times of year, such as the winter and spring, suggesting a seasonal dimension to caribou-related anxiety and uncertainty

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Caribou help Inuit engage in cultural activities on a seasonal basis, transfer knowledge and practices between and among generations, and interact with the land and culturally important places. 

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Inuit have experienced a variety of emotional reactions due to the declines, including anxiety about Inuit abilities to adapt to change, and sadness with the loss of a species and the subsequent losses to Inuit ways of living and being.

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The impacts on emotions, identity, and cultural continuity related to Inuit-caribou relations reflect the interconnections between cultural continuity and adaptive capacity that underlie the loss of this culturally important species.