endangered culture

A project to document the unique language and culture of a remote Inuit community which is threatened by the effects of climate change is being launched by a University of Cambridge researcher.

If their language dies, their heritage and identity will die with it

Dr. Stephen Pax Leonard

Starting on 18 August, Dr. Stephen Pax Leonard will spend a year living with the Inughuit people of north-west Greenland, recording their dialect, "Inuktun", and documenting their culture.

The Inughuit are the northernmost settled population in the world. For centuries, they have lived as hunter-gatherers in the remote Thule region of Greenland. Their language, which has never been written down in full, is used to communicate their history, spirituality and other forms of practical knowledge.

Until they were "discovered" by Sir John Ross in 1818, the Inughuit (literally, the "Big People") thought that they were the only inhabitants of the world. Today, their ancient way of life, language and spoken traditions are threatened as the effects of global warming make their existence less and less sustainable.

Under political pressure, the Inughuit people may have to leave their ancient homeland within the next 10 to 15 years and adapt to a very different life further south.

If that happens, it is likely that the language of these Arctic hunters, whose speakers number no more than 1,000, will disappear. With it, their ancient spoken traditions - a rich repository of indigenous cultural knowledge about how they relate to the land, sea and ice, bound up in stories, myths and folklore - will also be lost.

Over the course of his 12-month stay, Dr. Leonard, an anthropological linguist, will live the life of the Inughuit hunter. He will learn their language and spend days with the Inuit elders, documenting their stories and narratives, so that he can record this unique and endangered culture.

Rather than writing a grammar or dictionary, he plans to produce an "Ethnography of Speaking", which will show how their language and culture are interconnected. The stories, narratives and myths which underpin the Inughuit culture will be recorded, digitised and archived, and returned to the community in their own language.

"Inughuit society has no established written literature, but it does have a very strong and distinctive, intangible cultural heritage," Dr. Leonard said.

"If their language dies, their heritage and identity will die with it. The aim of this project is to record and describe it and then give it back to the communities themselves in a form that future generations can use and understand."

The Inughuit people are one of the last hunter-gatherer communities left in Greenland. Even by Arctic standards, their settlements are extremely remote and their culture has a number of unique characteristics.

Many of the men spend weeks away from home hunting for seals, whales, narwhal, walruses and other sea mammals. Although they carry tents, in extreme weather conditions they still build igloos to protect themselves.

Unlike other Inuit communities, the Inughuit were not significantly influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Greenland in the 18th century, and retain some aspects of a much older, shamanic culture, that have disappeared elsewhere.

Similarly, their language, Inuktun, is seen by experts as a linguistic "fossil" which may represent one of the most ancient and "pure" Inuit dialects. Little is known about the language and most research thus far has not gone much beyond word-lists.

Climate change means that the Inughuit are now being forced to change their way of life. Melting ice has made the business of hunting the sea mammals that provide so many of their essential resources more and more difficult.

Greenland's government cannot afford to supply such remote communities with imports to compensate for this shortage, however. If the situation worsens, it will become necessary to move the Inughuit to locations further south in Greenland, where life is very different.

Dr. Leonard will begin his research by honing his linguistic skills and building contacts in Qaanaaq, the main Inughuit settlement, which lies on Greenland's western coast, north of Baffin Bay.

This will lay the foundations for a second phase in Siorapaluk, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world. Its community, with a population of about 70, is one of the most traditional Inughuit outposts, and likely to prove one of the richest centres for the storytelling which lies at the heart of the Inughuit culture.

Living in such communities will mean having to confront a number of significant challenges, not least the dangers of hunting expeditions and the psychological effects of three and a half months of solid darkness in the winter, when the average temperature is -25 celsius, with lows of -40 celsius. In the summer, the temperature rises to a modest zero.

The diet will also be dramatically different. Qaanaaq receives one delivery of fruit and vegetables by ship a year. The rest of the time, the people live mainly on a diet of sea mammals. And while the community has a hospital, boasting one doctor and one nurse, there is no formal healthcare at all.

"These communities, which could be just years away from fragmentation, want their cultural plight to be known to the rest of the world," Dr. Leonard added.

"The only way to tell their full story, rather than just reporting on the tragedy of their disappearance, is by going deep into the communities and living the Inughuit way of life. Hopefully that will lead to a lasting record of this extraordinary community whose very future and identity is threatened."

Dr. Leonard's research has been generously funded by the British Academy and the World Oral Literature Project (http://www.oralliterature.org/)

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