Epidemics and Population Decline in Greenland’s Inuit Community

The dynamics of climate and environment have a large and growing influence on our culture, practices and health. Climate change is expected to impact communities all over the world, requiring people to adapt to these changes. A recent study by Kirsten Hastrup in the journal Cross-Cultural Research looks at the history of health and environment of the Inuit people of Greenland’s Thule community. Global warming has impacted the hunting economy in the region, and increasing sea contamination is negatively affecting the Arctic ecosystems and human health. Kirsten Hastrup locates these recent changes in the context of earlier dynamics, identifying the social and environmental factors contributing to Inuit development over time.

Effects of Early Exploration and Trade

Colorful houses in the Thule community (Source: Andy Wolff/Flickr).

The Thule community is located in the far northern region of Qaanaaq, Greenland. It is called Avanersuaq, or “Big North,” in the Inuit language of Iñupiat. The Little Ice Age, which lasted from the 14th to 18th century, isolated this small population of 140 from other communities and regions in the south. Waters opened with melting sea-ice in the 19th century, allowing European explorers and whalers to contact the region and the Inuit people. The explorers engaged in trade with the Inuit, exchanging wood, guns, and utensils for fur. Unfortunately, trade and the arrival of whalers introduced new diseases to the community, leading to epidemics and population decline.

Hastrup explains that the Inuit also suffered from famine at the time due to the grip of the Little Ice Age. Expansion of inland ice and glaciers and persistent sea ice made it hard for the Inuit to hunt for food sources like whales, walruses and seals. A lack of driftwood used to make bows, sleds and build kayaks for hunting also contributed to the Inuit’s hardship and further population decline. Natural hazards from living in the Arctic environment led to the decline on a smaller scale. Some of these deaths were due to instabilities of the icy landscape, accidents while traveling across expanses of ice, and large animal attacks during hunting.

Cold War Implications on Health and Identity

Although the risk of disease was great, Hastrup recognizes the impacts of diseases. She also identifies the benefits of trade, which brought resources necessary for hunting and overcoming famine. Development of formal trading stations and greater access to wood allowed for increased hunting capability. Fur trade became quite profitable for the Inuit toward the early 20th century, much to the benefit of the local economy.

However, this did not last long, according to Hastrup. During the Cold War period, the Arctic became a sort of frontier between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. An American airbase was established in the early 1950s, and this had long-lasting effects on health and Inuit identity. Transport vessels, airplanes, and heavy activity at the airbase disturbed the Arctic animals, damaging important Inuit hunting grounds. The population had to relocate to make room for the airbase. This forced movement to new housing sites left a sense of dislocation among the Inuit community.

Fighter aircraft at the Thule Air Base,1955 (Source: United States Air Force/Creative Commons).

A new health risk was introduced in 1959 with the launch of Camp Century, a scientific military camp built under the ice cap. This nuclear-powered camp was also secretly designed to house missiles during the Cold War. The movement of the ice sheet led to an abandonment of the camp in 1966; however, the nuclear threat continued. In 1968, a plane carrying plutonium bombs crashed, going right through the sea ice outside of Thule. Three bombs were retrieved from the waters, although reports in European news media suggest a fourth bomb remains. A nearby fjord was also later revealed to be contaminated by nuclear radiation. According to Hastrup, the people in the region continue to fear risks from radiation-related illness and contaminated food.

Impacts of Changing Climate

These activities and the historical implications of outside contact have left a deep-rooted concern for health and well-being among the Thule community, one that is felt even today. According to Hastrup, many fear that changes in the environment may expose them to further ice-trapped radiation. Camp Century was eventually buried within a glacier, and continued warming is causing movement within the ice. Some Inuit worry that leftover radiation might be released if the glaciers were to retreat, harming the health of their community, Hastrup reports.

Seal meat drying on a platform safe from sled dogs. Qaanaaq, 1998 (Source: Judith Slein/Flickr).

Warming trends impacting the Arctic regions are influencing Inuit practices in certain ways. No longer able to subsist as hunters, for example, the Inuit have adapted to halibut fishing for income. Hastrup argues that in its own way, this adaptation adds a sense of dislocation from tradition. Sharing of game was a longtime tradition among the community, which provided a feeling of unity.

Sherilee L. Harper, associate professor at the Public Health School of the University of Alberta, told GlacierHub about how changing climate might continue to affect the Inuit community. “Research, based on both Inuit knowledge and health sciences, has documented impacts ranging from waterborne and foodborne disease to food security to unintentional injury and death to mental health and wellbeing,” she said.

Despite shifts in traditional practices, Inuit appear ready to meet the challenges of their changing environment. As oceans continue to warm and threaten this Arctic ecosystem, Inuit residents continue to work with governments and climate scientists to monitor changes, deploy conservation efforts, and manage local development. Their openness to change is shown in their shifts to commercial fur collecting in the past to new forms of fishing in the present. Harper added that the Inuit have shown resilience to climate change and continue to be international leaders in climate change adaptation.

GlacierHub News Report 05:10:18

GlacierHub News Report 05:10:18

The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is featuring an interview with Sophie Elixhauser, a new study on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a discussion of hazardous development in Nepal, and a theory about snowballs and slushies!


This week’s news report features:


East Greenland’s Iivit Communities: An Interview with Sophie Elixhauser

By: Natalie Belew

Summary: GlacierHub interviewed anthropologist Sophie Elixhauser to discuss her recently published book, “Negotiating Personal Autonomy: Communication and Personhood in East Greenland.” She shared her perspective of her time observing the Inuits in East Greenland. She explained that she began her research in East Greenland with a very broad question about how people relate to their environment.

Read her full interview here.


A New Low for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation

By: Sabrina Ho

Summary: A new paper published in Nature has shown that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has decreased drastically in strength, especially in the last 150 years. Increasing freshwater input from melting glaciers and ice sheets in the Nordic and Arctic Seas have contributed to the slowdown. GlacierHub interviewed Wallace Broecker, a well-known geoscience professor in Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences who coined the term “the great ocean conveyor belt.” He claims that there are dozens of “water hosing experiments” that simulated freshwater input of higher magnitudes coming from Greenland. “Still they failed to shut down the AMOC,” he said.

Read more here.


Communities in Nepal Expand to Risk Areas, Despite Hazards

By: Jade Payne

Summary: A recently published study in the journal Land has found that more than a quarter of the new houses in Pokhara, the second-largest city in Nepal, are being built in highly dangerous areas susceptible to multiple natural hazards, including glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and avalanches. The study lists a number of challenges for this rapidly-growing city, located in a region with a number of geological hazards. Most of the newly settled areas are located in agricultural areas, which are attractive to prospective residents because they are flat and have owners who permit construction. However, these locations place new houses at great risk. The researchers indicate that this growth will continue until at least 2035.

Read more here.


Was the Earth Frozen Solid

By: Tae Hamm

Summary: Many scientists are coming up with hypotheses about a global ice age during the Cryogenian geologic period that took place between 720 to 635 million years ago. Two main hypotheses are on the table: “Snowball Earth” theory, which argues that ice covered the entire Earth, and “Slushball Earth” hypothesis, where the sea near the equator stayed open, allowing the evaporation and precipitation of water to persist. However, neither of these hypotheses are set in stone, but are rather part of an ongoing debate that requires much clarification. Developing different climate models with many parameters is necessary to better understand what happened during the Cryogenian period, giving flexibility to the ever-unknown complexity of past climate conditions. Moreover, careful study of the organisms that survived during this period could further help us understand the truth behind the Cryogenian ice age.

Read more here.


Video Credits:

Presenters: Brian Poe Llamanzares & Sabrina Ho

Video Editor: Brian Poe Llamanzares

Writer: Brian Poe Llamanzares

News Intro: Truyền hình SVOL

Music: iMovie

East Greenland’s Iivit Communities: An Interview with Sophie Elixhauser

Since 2005, Sophie Elixhauser has observed Inuit– or Iivit, as the indigenous people on the Greenlandic east coast call themselves– communities in the glacierized landscape of East Greenland. In her recently published book, “Negotiating Personal Autonomy: Communication and Personhood in East Greenland,” Elixhauser shares a detailed ethnographic examination of personal autonomy and social life in the region. Asserting that “a person is a highly permeable entity that is neither bounded by the body nor even necessarily human,” she argues that relationships between Iivit individuals reflect a respect for personal autonomy. By developing this idea, this work ultimately puts forward a new approach to the anthropological study of communication, exploring how personal autonomy involves the Iivit’s relation to glaciers.

In the following interview, GlacierHub got in touch with Elixhauser to discuss her book and perspective of her time in East Greenland.

GlacierHub: Right away, in the book’s introduction, you emphasize your use of a broader definition of the environment. You note that, for you, the environment “embraces both human and non-human surroundings, communicative relationships among the human beings are as much part of human-environmental relations as, for example, people’s relations with a particular mountain or glacier.” Why do you think this distinction is important, and how did it shape your research process and findings?

Hunter returning with his catch, April 2007 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

Sophie Elixhauser: In many societies around the world, the distinction between human and non-human persons– or more broadly between humans and their non-human environment– is not drawn as rigidly as in our Western context. I think that starting off ethnographic research with this distinction imposes a certain way of (Western scientific) thinking onto other people and closes off interesting venues right from the start.

I started my research in East Greenland with a very broad question on how people relate to their environment. In the course of my fieldwork, it happened that my research interests moved toward the interpersonal human realm, while still keeping an eye open for the non-human environment as well. Due to my language apprenticeship, my attention was drawn to the various details of how the Iivit communicate verbally and non-verbally with each other, many of which highlighted the high valuation of a person’s autonomy. At the same time, I found some interesting parallels between how humans communicate amongst each other and how they relate to the non-human world. These build on the so-called animistic way of life that East Greenlanders followed for a long time and, to a lesser extent and in some contexts, still follow today.

GH: What surprised you the most during your ethnographic fieldwork in East Greenland?

SE: I cannot think of one specific thing that surprised me during my fieldwork. What surprises me once and again during my return visits to East Greenland is how easy it is to take up the threads from former times spent in the community, even if years have passed of not having been there… Personally I very much enjoy the valuation of how you are as a person over how you perform, and people’s way of respecting other people’s autonomy, and not interfering with other people’s decisions.

GH: I was intrigued by how your research questions changed over the course of your fieldwork. This particular sentence stuck out to me as particularly interesting: “I began to realize that my former research ideas had been very much directed towards the male realm in the society, which in the long run is not easy for a woman to regularly participate in.” Could you explain this shift and when you realized that your original idea involving environmental perceptions could be linked to the male realm of society? What challenges did you initially face that made you recognize it was hard for women to participate in regularly? How did it lead to the focus on interpersonal communication?

Boats in Sermiligaaq Fjord, July 2017 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

SE: During my first preliminary field trip in East Greenland in 2005, I spoke only a few words of Tunumiusut, the East Greenlandic language, and was not yet very accustomed to the local habits. Through a job as a volunteer for a guesthouse in Tasilaaq, I was able to join local hunters and fishermen quite often, also on trips of several days. Those hunters were staff members of the guesthouse, and they were accustomed to taking foreign volunteers along. I really enjoyed these possibilities of being out in nature together with East Greenlanders and projected that it would continue like this when returning for my main one year period of fieldwork.

Having sketched my research plans accordingly, I returned a year later for my main one-year period of fieldwork. I was accessing a new field in the village of Sermiligaaq, and I started to live with a Greenlandic family. As the time went by, I understood more and more of the language and local ways of doing. I learned that it was not accepted by the community that I– a young woman without a husband at the time– would join the male hunting crews without any romantic interest in the hunters. Doing so would easily lead to speculations, teasing and gossiping back in the village, and jealousy on the part of some of the hunters’ wives. After a while, I therefore mostly stayed back in the village with the other women. Only sometimes I found a way out of this dilemma. For instance, I have a close Greenlandic female friend, who rather untypical for the local women, quite regularly joins the hunting crews together with her husband. If she came along, it was accepted that I would join as well…

The village of Sermiligaaq, July 2017 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

Other female Arctic researchers I know have had similar experiences. For a male researcher, it is much easier to regularly join in subsistence activities and all sorts of (hunting and fishing) trips. Most obviously, this is important when taking a detailed look at the theme of environmental perceptions, and orientation out on the sea, throughout the seasons of the year. Realizing that my initial ideas did not quite fit my research context and being struck by the many communicative details that seemed important in people’s daily encounters, my focus on interpersonal communication slowly evolved.

GH: Throughout your multiple trips to East Greenland in the last two decades, what environmental changes have you witnessed occurring on both the physical environment and on the inhabitants (both human and non-human)? 

SE: Environmental and climatic changes are omnipresent in Greenland and are particularly visible with regard to the massively retreating glaciers and the rising temperatures, especially in the winter months. Being on the move together in the East Greenlandic sea and landscape, East Greenlandic friends have often shown me landmarks that were formerly still covered by ice. Likewise, when looking at the available maps together, it was pointed out to me that most glaciers would be drawn incorrectly as they are much smaller now. I was often told how much warmer it is today. The summers last longer, and the winters are shorter. This means that the times when the fjord ice is thick enough for hunters to be able to go out with the dog team are shorter, which already led to a decline in dogs in the region (East Greenlandic hunters use dogs and sleds for hunting and fishing in the winter). Likewise, the transition periods between the times when the fjords are covered with ice and those when they are free of ice last longer today. During these periods, the motor boats are needed to navigate (at times they are used like icebreakers), yet the ice once and again causes severe strain and damage to the boats, and those ice conditions may lead to a substantial financial loss.

Helicopter view of the Tasiilaq region, July 2017 (Source: Sophie Elixhauser).

East Greenlanders I have talked to have not framed these changes as (global) climate change, and though consequences of the changing environment and climate are noticed and sometimes pitied, I have not come across this dramatic attention to climate change that one encounters in the international media. The Inuit […] are good at adapting to all sorts of changes be it regarding the rapidly changing environment or, for instance, technologies that are being introduced. Though the above changes are usually regarded as negative, on a national Greenlandic level, climate change is sometimes framed positively. Rising temperatures may facilitate access to mineral resources, some Greenlandic political actors hope, which could support the autonomous region on their way to independence.

GH: What are your future plans? Anything else involving more glacierized environments?

SE: For my post-doc project, I was part of a larger project in the European Alps focusing on the perceptions of climate change in local communities. Yet the project that involved the theme of glacial retreat and people’s memories about glaciers has been finished for some years. My connection with East Greenland is of a more permanent kind of project, and I think I will always return every couple of years if possible. I am not in a research post these days, as I work in the field of migration in Munich, Southern Germany. Thus, I do not have concrete research plans for the future now. But let’s see what the future will bring.

Be sure to check out Sophie Elixhauser’s book to explore more of her fieldwork and findings.

Indigenous Art Promotes Resilience to Climate Change

Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, Pangnirtung (source: Timothy K/Panoramio)
Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, Pangnirtung (source: Timothy K/Panoramio)

Indigenous art can play a role in transmitting environmental knowledge between generations and across cultures, according to an article published recently in the journal Ecology and Society. Inuit people in northern Canada produce art that conveys their perceptions of environmental change to younger generations within their community and to the wider world

Authors Kaitlyn Rathwell and Derek Armitage interviewed 30 professional artists in the towns of  Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset, both towns in Baffin Island in northern Canada where the decline of sea ice and changing seasons impact traditional hunting and food security. They selected the towns, both former trading posts for the Hudson Bay Company, for their “legacy of artmaking,” including textiles, carving, and printmaking. Cape Dorset is known as the “Capital of Inuit Art,” and carvers there use power tools on their work. The authors wrote, “While walking the streets, one hears the soundtrack of power tools omnipresent as carvers work constantly beside houses.” Local art cooperatives purchase the work and showcase it in national and international markets.

Hudson's Bay Company blubber station at Pangnirtung (source: Slp1/Creative Commons)
Hudson’s Bay Company blubber station at Pangnirtung (source: Slp1/Creative Commons)

Among professional artists, the artwork is an important source of livelihood. Newer generations of Innit are relying on art for income generation in areas where work opportunities are otherwise limited to commercial fishing and local social services.  International market demands, such as the unacceptability of seal skin canvases in European markets, have shifted the type of work that the Inuit produce.

Rathwell and Armitage also undertook a series of activities that led to the creation of a mural. They opened with a planning process to learn local priorities and build local support. These led to a full-day workshop, in which Inuit youth and youth from southern Canada discussed old and new times and sketched vignettes, which the group then integrated into a sketch for a mural. At a later workshop, they presented the mural to a group of elders, who then had a storytelling session about sea ice. The youth made sketches during this session. These activities overlapped with more formal art-making at a print shop and a studio.

Mural produced by Inuit artists in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada (source: Ecology and Society)
Mural produced by Inuit artists in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada (source: Ecology and Society)

Based on their interviews and observations of the workshops, the authors describe how knowledge is shared and recreated through art and art-making. The authors identify mechanisms by which art transmits and fosters knowledge. Firstly, artist embed messages and meanings in the objects they create. The artist Elisapee Ishulutaq stated, “When I was young the ice was not dangerous…now it’s getting dangerous and through art, artists can get [that message] out there.” Another mechanism was the sharing of knowledge through art, particularly across generations. The artist Toonoo Sharky said, “I learned by watching my grandfather and I took his place trying to imitate his carving at that time”

The authors find that the art-making provides a context that bring together the environmental knowledge of the elders and the skills of artists of different generations. One artist, Eddie Perrier, described how one printmaker, Jolly, taught him specific techniques while another, Eena, provided environmental knowledge. He said, “Jolly showed me how to draw icebergs and the mountains [from] his perspective.… she [Eena] is a really talented artist and printmaker and she is the one who told me the stories about…the snow on the mountains and about how the glaciers are changing. Where Jolly was just showing me how to draw it, not the story behind it.”

Andrew Qappak, Favourite Place to Be, 1987 (source: Inuit Art Quarterly)
Andrew Qappik, Favourite Place to Be, 1987 (source: Inuit Art Quarterly)

Another artist, Andrew Qappik, described recently making a “a large watercolor painting a couple weeks ago at the print shop. Painted the fjord where there use to be a lot of glaciers [and] now the glaciers are not there as much as they used to be. That is what I believe I’m showing in the painting.”  

The authors conclude that Inuit in both communities use art to provide livelihoods and to strengthen their communities. They show that the process of making art itself reinforces social ties and cultural understandings. Moreover, the techniques used in the art support not only the production of items for sale, but also maintain the traditional crafts, such as kamik or hand-sewn sealskin boots, which are used on hunting trips. In these ways, the art contributes to the resilience of an indigenous culture in a changing environment.

To see a video about Andrew Qappik from the National Film Board of Canada, click here.