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People of the ice

Honouring a community-based partnership that centres Inuit knowledge

By Memorial University

“When I think of an Inuit hunter, I think of a person out at the ice edge watching the sea, waiting.”

This photo shows an Inuit elder and a youth mapping ice.
Elder Elijah Panipakoocho identifies the locations of aajurait (leads) in Eclipse Sound for hunter Moses Arnagolik during an ice hazard mapping workshop in Mittimatalik.
Photo: Submitted

Andrew Arreak’s words are at the heart of Sikumiut, a groundbreaking initiative that monitors, documents and disseminates crucial Inuit knowledge regarding sea ice safety; Mr. Arreak is the SmartICE (Sea-ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments) northern operations lead and Sikumiut co-ordinator.

Sikumiut is also the recipient of this year’s President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnerships. The award celebrates exemplary public engagement partnerships that epitomize Memorial University’s definition of public engagement.

Memorial’s Dr. Trevor Bell, Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Dr. Katherine Wilson, director of knowledge co-production, SmartICE, nominated the initiative for the award.

Community-led

Sikumiut means “people of the ice” in Inuktitut.

The word was chosen by members of the SmartICE community management committee in Mittimatalik (also known as Pond Inlet), Nunavut, to describe who the committee is and what the committee does.

A group of Inuit talking, with Dr. Trevor Bell, a white man, standing behind and listening.
Seated from left are Sikumiut members Gamalie Kilukishak (deceased), Caleb Sangoya and David Angnatsiak (deceased) telling stories about sea ice in Mittimatalik in 2017. Standing from left are Dr. Trevor Bell and Malachi Arreak.
Photo: Submitted

Inuit elders proposed the idea of a community management committee to Drs. Bell and Wilson during a meeting in Mittimatalik in 2015.

Since then, Sikumiut has become a model of deeply embedded community relationships, drawing together sea ice experts from community organizations, governments, elders, hunters and youth, among others.

Committee decision-making is key to Sikumiut’s success, says Dr. Wilson.

“I think the most important part is the community can see that the community is in charge.”

People, ice and change

Ice holds profound cultural significance for Inuit, representing a connection to nature and a bridge to Inuit heritage.

Rapid climate change means that the documentation and sharing of this knowledge is more crucial than ever.

Sea ice patterns frame Inuit hunting and travelling seasons, impacting well-being, identity and culture. However, climate change makes the navigation of sea ice unpredictable and dangerous.

Unpredictable sea ice means greater risk for those travelling on it.

For generations, knowledge of safe sea ice travel was passed on orally from one community member to another.

However, colonization disrupted the transmission of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit – Inuit wisdom, or IQ – when it is most needed to adapt to a changing climate.

This situation led Inuit elders and other members of the community to seek different ways to document and transmit their essential knowledge.

Access to this information gives “young people and inexperienced ice users the benefit of multi-generational knowledge that has accumulated over centuries,” said Dr. Bell.

Getting the words (and pictures) down

By combining IQ with data collected through SmartICE, Sikumiut produced culturally meaningful, user-friendly materials in Inuktitut and English, all available in the community and through the SmartICE website.

A group of Inuit and white people proudly displaying books in a community centre setting. A map of an area in Nunavut is on the wall behind them.
Back row, from left are Katherine Wilson, Moses Arnagolik, Brian Koonoo, James Simonee and Andrew Arreak. Front row, from left are Ivan Koonoo, Sheati Tagak, Elijah Panipakoocho and Shelly Elverum (Ikaarvik). Missing: Caleb Sangoya, Jonathan Pitseolak, Rachel Smale, David Angnatsiak (deceased), Gamalie Kilukishak (deceased) and Jaykolassie Killiktee (deceased). They are holding copies of the illustrated ice terminology book, Sikumiut Sikuit Taigusinginnik.
Photo: Submitted

The resulting illustrated glossary of Mittimatalik sea ice IQ terminology is titled Sikumiut Sikuit Taigusinginnik.

The book depicts ice conditions such as sikuaq, the “first thin layer of ice, still very thin, can see seals popping up and sea water rising” and siaakjuiniq, where “ice is driven against other ice, pushing it up and freezing.”

There are 67 ice conditions included, organized by season.

Sikumiut also produced two multilingual travel safety posters outlining best practices and essential equipment for ice travel safety and three seasonal IQ travel maps marked with recurring hazards and identifying safe shelters in case of emergency.

“This is the first time Inuit have interpreted thousands of satellite images using their sea ice IQ to map areas of safe and unsafe ice.” — Dr. Trevor Bell

Finally, there’s Mittimatalik Siku Asijjipallianinga 1997-19, the first IQ-based sea ice change atlas, which summarizes 230 weekly maps of Mittimatalik’s sea ice conditions using 23 years of satellite images.

“This is the first time Inuit have interpreted thousands of satellite images using their sea ice IQ to map areas of safe and unsafe ice on a weekly basis,” said Dr. Bell.

This reconstructed record of community sea ice change over several decades, combining IQ with western science tools such as satellite images and mentorship from Memorial University, is being used to anticipate how future sea ice may change and affect safe community travel.

Close collaboration

SmartICE began as a community-university-government partnership between Inuit sea ice experts and Memorial researchers.

Over the past six years, it has transformed into an Indigenous-led, non-profit social enterprise.

SmartICE is now in operation across Inuit Nunangat and northern territories, empowering 38 communities to monitor and map their sea, lake and river ice.

“It is something that other communities have noticed happen, and are wanting to do similar work.” — Dr. Katherine Wilson

What the Sikumiut community management committee began eight years ago in Mittimatalik is now a successful cross-cultural, intergenerational collaboration.

“It’s no longer a project,” said Dr. Wilson. “It’s evolved into a program. And it is something that other communities have noticed happen, and are wanting to do similar work in their communities.”

Building trust, opening doors

While Inuit partners, elders and community members brought their invaluable knowledge and experience to the project, Memorial University partners mobilized their institutional skills.

Work included writing proposals, securing funds, obtaining ethics and research clearances and negotiating new research agreements in which communities retain ownership and sovereignty over their knowledge — the data never leaves the community — while students are granted permission to use the research for their university programs.

“And who knows what will come there? Could be greatness coming out of it.” — Andrew Arreak

Memorial partners also helped co-ordinate journal articles, co-authored with Sikumiut members, that detail the co-development and implementation of the research partnership model and training of youth researchers in science methods and skills.

Mr. Arreak says the partnership with the university will build trust and open more doors with both parties.

“And who knows what will come there? Could be greatness coming out of it.”

Ultimately, though, the project is about Sikumiut, the people whose culture, traditions and worldview have always existed alongside, and in response to, the ice.

“The ice is a part of our identity,” he said. “It’s a part of who we are, and it’s very important for us.”


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