A film documenting the disappearing oral traditions of the northernmost settled people on Earth offers a glimpse into how their way of life is threatened by climate change.

The Arctic hunters believe strongly that we in the West have not listened to nature and now we are paying the price. They think it is time to use our knowledge wisely.

Stephen Leonard

A rare glimpse of daily life among the remnants of the last hunter-gatherer communities of the Polar North, where traditional culture is rapidly being eroded by consumerism and climate change, can be seen online from today.

Shot over a year with the Inugguit, who live in north-west Greenland, the footage documents the lives of the last Inuit people still hunting seals and narwhals with harpoons, and records some of the songs and stories of a community whose vulnerable language, Inuktun, has never been written down in full.

Yet it also captures the fragile nature of a traditional way of life which is perhaps reaching its end. Hunting is becoming increasingly dangerous on the disappearing sea ice of north-west Greenland, but there is little alternative employment. Leonard found a world that has had to come face to face with the effects of climate change and the immediate threat it poses to their culture.

The Inugguit lived as hunter-gatherers in Greenland’s remote Thule region for centuries. Some say that until they were encountered by Sir John Ross in 1818, they believed that they were the only inhabitants of the world. Today, they live in the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement on Earth. But the region’s glaciers are melting fast, the movement of sea mammals upon which they traditionally relied for their livelihoods is becoming less predictable, and the expense of supporting their communities through the provision of supply ships means that there is some pressure from their own Government, 1,000 miles away, for them to move.

The film captures a sense of their oral culture - stories, myths, songs and folklore which have only ever existed in Inuktun. 770 people speak this impenetrable language of sighs and groans, in which words can be up to 50 letters long. The fear is that if the Inugguit leave their homeland in search of better employment prospects in south-west Greenland, both the language and the cultural heritage it preserves will, within a few generations, potentially disappear. Their language is not widely understood in other parts of Greenland.

More than 15 hours of footage have been edited into a short, filmed report, "Living with the Inugguit".

In part, the film documents the area’s linguistic culture. In one sequence, a 67-year-old former hunter performs one of the Inugguit’s traditional drum-songs, or piheq. In another, a young girl demonstrates how raising one’s eyebrows means “yes”, while pinching one’s nose means “no”. At the same time, however, we see the realities of a lifestyle that is still often caricatured in the west. Dog sledge races take place across the sea ice, a starving polar bear is butchered after being shot at 3 ‘o’ clock in the morning outside Leonard’s door, and violent storms relentlessly batter fragile-looking huts in tiny settlements.

The most remote of these are barely clinging on. Part of the film was shot in Savissivik, on Melville Bay; a cluster of buildings mainly occupied by male hunters, whose wives have, in many cases, long-since left. The effects of climate change mean that it is now almost impossible to reach Savissivik by dog-sledge. Its eldest citizen believed the settlement would be closed down within a decade. Another community, Qeqertat, comprises a population of just 22 narwhal-hunters still cheerfully and stubbornly eking out an existence together at the end of a fjord.

Global warming is not the only reason that life is changing, however. The main settlement, Qaanaaq, is home to a community struggling with its own sense of identity as the old way of life disappears. Even here, Amazon delivers, and the material culture and produce of the west has become alluring for a generation who feel increasingly directionless. In this very remote corner of the world, there is only one visiting doctor, one policeman, and little by way of career or employment prospects.

Despite the tremendous changes in their society which have taken place in a very short period of time, the bond of family ties is as strong as ever, with some family members visiting one another four or five times a day. Some young people are caught, however, in a dilemna: “They feel a very special bond to the land and their families,” the film narrative says. “On the other hand, staying might mean an uncertain future.”

What shines through in the film are how the people were friendly, welcoming and armed with a tremendous sense of humour. This is despite a traditional suspicion of white Europeans prevailing amongst some - the legacy of years of exploitation by assorted visitors. Children, appear frequently curious to meet the filmmakers and find out about what they are doing there.

The dogs which the Inugguit keep for hunting purposes and appear several times in his film became a focal point for the sense of cultural distance he felt at times. Dogs are critical to the Inugguit way of life - they can survive in temperatures as low as -50C degrees, smell seals at distant breathing holes, and save hunters’ lives by finding their way home. Yet the Inugguit have no concept of pets and treat them only as tools. 

This is a culture formed against the harshest of backdrops. Local storms were so violent that in some cases the force moved items of furniture across the floor of people's huts. Three and a half months of total darkness ensue after the sun goes down on 24 October.

Amazon provided one ray of sunshine - delivering to the heart of this remote community in a testament to how irresistible forces are killing off the old ways in the Polar North.

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