Posts Tagged ‘Inuit and polar bears’

Polar Bears and TEK

Monday, February 1st, 2010

(Michael Berrill,

So what’s ahead for polar bears? Will they survive and adapt to thinning ice and a warmer climate? Or will they gradually starve and inevitably become extinct over the next half century?

It depends on who you talk to, biologists or Inuit hunters. Two different ways of knowing, two different cultures. Sometimes they agree – in their different ways both have clearly documented that the Arctic is warming rapidly. And sometimes they disagree: Inuit know that polar bears are doing well and increasing in numbers, while biologists know that populations are declining and predict dire times ahead. The US has identified polar bears as ‘endangered’ under the Endangered Species Act.


The argument of course is that sea ice is shrinking, along with how long it lasts each spring, and that polar bears depend on sea ice to reach the seals they prey on. The biologists’ data indicate that of the 19 polar bear populations, about half appear to be decreasing, and for most of the rest there are not enough data to call it. Inuit in Nunavut, based on their own observations, think the biologist’s models and simulations are incorrect. They see plenty of healthy polar bears. They want the limited sports hunt to continue, since it brings badly needed funds into the region. Who is ‘right’?

Hunter comforts polar bear that collapsed from heat exhaustion before he could shoot it (

Traditional ecological knowledge is very different from the data biologists accumulate. TEK is a way of knowing, inseparable from all of the other indigenous knowledge, and inseparable from the spirituality that is at the core of Inuit culture. It is qualitative and holistic, and emerges from the deep combined experience of hunters that stretches back for generations beyond count. TEK cannot just be integrated with biologists’ scientific data, validated where it fits, rejected where it doesn’t. TEK is a process, one that cannot be separated from the people who hold the knowledge.

Are polar bears decreasing in numbers? Certainly there are signs of stress. Even so, the Inuit need to be able to participate in decisions that will influence their lives and their ecosystems. Their way of knowing is different from that of Western science, but it is surely as valid. Decisions made without their participation indicate that their culture still is not respected..

Polar bears adapt. The Inuit know this, and have watched them for thousands of years. Despite huge effort and some successes, Western ecological science also has its limitations. Let’s include other ways of knowing when possible – we’re running out of time.