For us today, as for ancient man, the four classic elements ― earth, wind, water, and fire ― are at the root of many religious beliefs and ways of life. For the Thule Inuit people of Greenland, however, there is a more powerful and important fifth element: ice. For the past several thousand years, Inuit people in northwest Greenland have carved an existence out of ice, surviving some of the harshest conditions on earth by developing a rich culture with a vocabulary that boasts over 49 different words just for ice and snow. Ironically, though, no words exist in their language as a general description for either. For instance, you could say sea ice, or siku in their native tongue, or pack ice (sikursuit), or new ice (sikuliaq), or even thin ice (sikuaq), but there is no word for just “ice.”
Ice. This seemingly simple phase of water has defined Inuit ways of life from hunting to housing to a social structure based on sharing and cooperation. Unfortunately, over the last 100 years, the forced acceptance of organized religion, influence of Western cultures, well-intentioned government subsidies, and now the melting of the very ice sheet upon which they reside threatens to dissolve the remaining strands of culture they cling to, threatening cultural collapse.
A Catch-22 for Survival
In the past, marine mammals, such as whales, walruses, and seals, and land animals, such as polar bears, were hunted with kayaks and/or a team of sled dogs and a spear, but these have been replaced with motorized boats, snowmobiles, and guns. One result of this giant leap in technology is that animal populations, particularly polar bears and narwhals, hang in the balance. In addition, the motorboats, snowmobiles, and guns, as well as the gas and ammunition to use them, must be imported and purchased with money. Housing, too, has shifted from ice (igloos) to modern forms that must be maintained. As a cash-based economy takes over and the ice melts, the need and value of the traditional methods used to gather and produce food, clothing, and shelter declines. Correspondingly, these changes also impact the societal roles of Inuit men and women, which in turn affect the mental and social health of their communities.
An Inuit family in northern Greenland today now finds itself faced with many dilemmas. Becoming a man and maintaining a family in Inuit culture has been based for thousands of years upon hunting, but much of their game is now protected, and men can no longer hunt easily or often, unless their wives find employment outside the home. This, in turn, means that women have less time to dedicate to their traditional roles and skills, such as sewing and the preparation and preservation of meat and skin. Another choice is for men to stop hunting altogether and take up a full-time or part-time job to enable their wives to maintain what is left of their traditional lifestyle. Making such choices more difficult is modern media. Images of far-off consumerism and lack of local opportunities combine with the loss of traditional role models to create high rates of alcoholism and suicide, especially among the younger generations.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that the Thule Inuit people of Greenland will experience a collective community movement to return to traditional ways, if that were even possible. Nevertheless, the need to preserve what defines the Inuit as a culture has become obvious, just as has the need to combat the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the need for species protection.
Some Light in the Tunnel
Due to the relative inaccessibility of many northern Greenlandic Inuit communities, tourism is still relatively new and undeveloped. However, as a group leader who has completed several dogsled expeditions with groups of 10 to 12 travelers, I can say that the traditional experiences of the Inuit have enormous value, both for the traveler and the Inuit community. Although ice melting is altering the ability of Inuit to fully live out their traditional ways, there is plenty of ice still to be traveled by dogsled.
Traditional dogsled “hunting” expeditions with Inuit guides enable travelers to learn an amazing array of insightful details of the Arctic ― from ice conditions, to traditional hunting methods, to languages, to survival skills, to igloo construction. More important, an experience like this enables participants to understand the challenges native peoples face in order to survive in remote, isolated, and “unproductive” regions. At the same time, such trips help empower the Inuit to preserve and teach to their youth the traditional ways ― albeit with some twists, given the evolving necessities of survival.
For example, while it is still true that tracking and killing a polar bear is a step toward establishing one’s manhood in Inuit society, there is also something to be said for tracking down a polar bear for 10 to 15 visitors who excitedly fire off their cameras for that perfect “shot” ― followed by their beaming smiles, massive expressions of gratitude, and, of course, paying a fee. Tourism in these communities has the potential to be a pioneering step for transitioning natural and cultural resources from predation and decline to protection, while generating understanding in the global world and preserving traditional values, so that their lives can continue to revolve around the ever-important and powerful element: ice.