Igor Krupnik, anthropologist

An expert on indigenous people in the Arctic is pushing to include their traditional knowledge in discussions of climate change. Interview by Erin Loury

March 31, 2012

Photo: Ken Rahaim/Smithsonian Institution

Igor Krupnik had his introduction to the people of the Arctic at age 20. After his third year at the University of Moscow, a professor invited him on an anthropology research trip to the Bering Strait. Professionally, Krupnik has never left the region since. “It’s called ‘Arctic bug,’” he says. “You either get it or not. I got it.”

Now an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, Krupnik has spent 40 years studying the indigenous communities of Alaska and northern Russia. He has also worked to integrate their voices into discussions of global climate change, such as through the International Polar Year in 2007-08. The Arctic has become the frontline for observing climate change in action, from rising ocean temperatures to shrinking sea ice cover. These changes have greatly impacted the traditional practices of Native people, who rely on sea ice for hunting and travel.

In recent years, climate scientists have sought out these residents for their multi-generational and intimate environmental knowledge. Krupnik spoke about these efforts during a session titled “Indigenous Perspectives on Climate Change” at the February 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada. He then carved out time to speak with SciCom’s Erin Loury about their insights on a shifting landscape and “living” ice, as well as the challenges of preserving such knowledge and connecting it to science.

How long have Arctic communities perceived climate change as a threat?

First, it hasn’t been perceived as a threat. That’s very much today’s Western perspective. This is and always used to be the pattern of life, where climate and the environment were changing. There was never something called a “stable Arctic.” People are concerned with what is happening, but I haven’t heard them speaking about their environment as being under threat. [They describe it as] “a friend acting strangely.” It’s a friend that behaves a little bit weird, but doesn’t cease to be a friend because it’s your home.

"If you wake up and your day depends upon the weather, if your life depends upon going out and coming back safe, then you’re naturally much more attentive and in tune with the environment."

So when did the period of acting strangely start?

We started documenting it from indigenous people in the late 1990s, which doesn’t mean it started then—it’s just when we started looking for it and listening to them.

What indicators do indigenous communities use to measure change in their environment?

We made a list of almost 30 things that people look for in the fall season in Alaska, such as the status of the ground, the freezing, the beginning of ice, how it forms, the species of birds migrating by, the conditions of the beach. Not seeing the incoming floating icebergs ahead of the main coming iceberg turned out to be a very crucial indicator of a different ice regime.

Hunters may not know exactly what each particular indicator means. They’re just looking for many signs in the environment and trying to make sense. The point is not to look for a particular “golden indicator,” but just to be watchful for many signs.

What are some of the biggest differences in how indigenous people and scientists look for or perceive change in the environment?

I wouldn’t put it like “indigenous people” and “scientists.” It’s a difference between someone who lives in the environment daily, and someone who studies it [at a distance]. If you wake up every morning and your day depends upon the weather, if your life depends upon going out and coming back safe, and bringing food and traveling, then you’re naturally much more attentive and in tune with the environment.

The difference between indigenous people and non-indigenous residents is that indigenous people have the advantage of multi-generational, traditional knowledge stored in indigenous language, classifications, and nomenclatures that they learn from parents, grandparents, and other elders. If you’re just a resident scientist, you depend upon what you watch in the environment on your own.

What’s the relationship between knowledge and language in how it’s transmitted?

We’ve always thought that a lot of information is stored and passed via indigenous language. We recently tried to document indigenous terminologies for sea ice, as one of the goals of a project called SIKU (Sea Ice Knowledge and Use). Altogether, we have documented 30 terminologies from different parts of the Arctic.

People are using between 60 and more than 100 terms for different types of ice, and their classifications are very different from those used by scientists. Their terminology is always very local, very different from place to place. It’s not like there’s an “Eskimo terminology” for ice or for snow. There are dozens of different terminologies.

How can this more nuanced perspective help scientists learn about the environment?

You cannot jump across this divide in one jump. You have to build many steps in between, and move step by step. You won’t be able to increase your projections of Arctic ice in general just by listening to indigenous people, because they operate on a local level, and you operate on a global level. But what you can learn from indigenous people is looking at ice as a very dynamic body.

That literally happened on my watch, working with or talking to sea ice scientists. Back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, all they cared for was annual ice advance and retreat. Then they started to view ice as a three-dimensional body with thickness, and then as a four-dimensional body that has history within itself. The dynamics of this living body depend on how thick it is, how strong it is, where it originated, its history over a particular season of sea ice growth. This is how you build better models.

In your talk, you said you involved indigenous people as climate and sea ice observers in the SIKU project. How did they take to this role?

It’s not easy because as much as people are accustomed to watching their environment, they’re not accustomed to writing things down. This is something very alien to them. They may keep diaries of their own, but they don’t keep diaries of weather. They’re busy; they’re hunting and travelling. But eventually they tend to like it because they see the value of preserving their knowledge in a written form, and they increasingly view it as a message to their children and grandchildren.

It’s also not easy because not every Native person is a good observer, or is interested in working with you to document climate change. It’s normally a single person in the community. These are very rare people, because first they have to provide food, get money, and tend for their children and families. That’s why I call it a partnership. There’s a very personal and often emotional partnership with the people you work with.

What were some of the most striking observations that came out of this project?

People keep saying that change has happened before, that we are now documenting an already changed environment. I’m increasingly hearing, “Igor, you’re late. That changed between 1999 and 2000, or 2001.” They are probably pointing to what biologists and oceanographers call “regime shift” [when ecosystems rapidly change from one relatively stable state to another], which means that the regime shift happened before we started the project. Whether it was really an abrupt shift or a more gradual one, we don’t know, but we will learn.

Can you talk about the role elders play in holding traditional knowledge, and their increasing reluctance to make predictions using this knowledge?

The elders and their accumulated knowledge are held in immense respect. You develop that vision and knowledge from many years of personal observations, training, listening to other people, and teachings of previous teachers. But in many places we documented that elders feel their knowledge is not working anymore because of the immense transformation of once-known weather regimes.

Your knowledge works when you can predict the weather safely for a number of days. People say there used to be five to seven days of a particular weather pattern. But if your weather is changing every day and young people come to you for advice, you could put them in danger because something is happening that is beyond your understanding or expertise. There’s a very high responsibility for the well-being of younger, less knowledgeable people. If [Western teachers] were responsible for the lives of our students, we’d probably be far more cautious and reserved with our advice.

Is there a fear that with the loss of indigenous language, there will be loss of traditional knowledge?

Yes, for sure. But people keep talking, they just switch to another language. What is happening is a translation of culture and ecological knowledge from one language to another, such as village English or village Russian. The question is whether it’s an adequate translation or not. English, for example, doesn’t have a plural for “ice.” It’s “the ice.” Many other languages have plurals that have different meanings whether they’re in a single or plural form.

The new language is not your choice; it’s kind of forced on you. Every time you do this translation of culture from one language to another, you step into very uncharted territory. The potential losses through translation are a very important issue that we have only just started to understand.

Are there examples of scientific terms in English that don’t translate well into indigenous language, or indigenous terms that don’t have a meaning in English?

That’s a very good question, and unfortunately very few people are working on this, what we call cultural translation. Typical scientists normally don’t care about it. Take Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO. You come to the village, and ask, “Are you watching PDO?” They’ll say, “What is that?” And the term we translate as “a friend acting strangely,” what is that? It’s sort of an emotional statement rather than a specific term.

This is a byproduct or result of just how little we’ve worked together. We assume that indigenous people were around for millennia, and scientists started looking into indigenous knowledge of climate change in the past 15 years. So I’m not surprised how little we know. That would be my main message: we know so little and we want so much from these people, from their knowledge. We want it immediately, we want it for our specific goals, we want it for our models, for our predictions, and this is not the way you address other people’s knowledge. It’s not a common commodity; it’s other people’s culture.

What are the most important next steps to develop a better understanding of that knowledge?

I would say the next step is to learn more from each other. I certainly would welcome many more young students being exposed to the way other knowledge systems work and how people look into climate change. We are in this together. We don’t have either a monopoly of knowledge or the best knowledge. So I believe the more we increase this multicultural, multi-knowledge perspective on what’s happening with us and the planet, the better it will be for us.


Erin Loury, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned her bachelor's degree in biology at UC Davis and her master's degree in marine science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. At UCSC, she has interned at the Monterey County Herald, the news office of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and ScienceNOW, the online news service published by Science. This summer, she will report for The Los Angeles Times on a Kaiser Family Foundation health reporting internship.

© 2012 Erin Loury