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Alaska Climate Change and Oral Tradition

The BBC Science Web Page has an interesting story about climate change in Alaska. Of note are the words of native elders and the comparisons made between scientific knowledge and local knowledge of climate change. In a common refrain, a native whaler says:

… Western nations need to have scientific proof that the climate is warming rather than believing the word of the native people but he adds: “The white man, the climatologists are just learning what we knew was going on.”

The story continues:

Benedict Jones is an elder who still maintains a subsistence lifestyle.

“I used to have glaciers up at my camp on the Koyukuk River, where the salmon berries used to grow. But the glaciers have all melted and the ground is drying up so there are no more salmon berries.”

Further research projects to tap into elders’ knowledge concerning climate change are under way at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Centre. And the recordings gathered are available to scientists …

“In many of the interviews elders make reference to the 1970s as the time that they began to notice changes in the climate,” says Mike [Spindler, a US fish and wildlife refuge manager from the Koyukuk and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge].

An area near Mike’s base is referred to as a “drunken forest”. He explains that the spruce trees are falling over because of thawing permafrost. This could be due to changing climate, he says, or natural succession.

I am currently reading Julie Cruikshank’s new book Do Glacier’s Listen: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (UBC Press, 2005). In it, Cruikshank explores extensively the production of scientific and local knowledge, along with the concept of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ or TEK, in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Her analysis is centred around around ‘talk’ about glaciers and climate change. Cruikshank’s approach is partly historical and she cites at length the notes and journals of explorers in Alaska and the Yukon. The research also relies heavily on oral traditions and mythology about glaciers.

(I had thought I would mention Cruikshank’s book in a separate post when I was finished reading it, and may still do, but it is worth mentioning in the context of the BBC article.)

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  1. lorenz wrote:

    I remember I’ve read about something similar. Now I’ve found it:
    “The Changing Arctic: Indigenous Perspectives. Indigenous and other local perspectives have a great deal to offer to studies of climate change. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) has made extensive use of information from these sources.”

    Tuesday, August 9, 2005 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks for that reference and link, Lorenz. That’s a useful looking site that I would never have known about otherwise.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2005 at 5:59 pm | Permalink