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Lessons From an Indigenous People

by Kathryn Spear



Environmental ethics tells us that the good of the community is inextricable from the good of the external environment,” said Chris Cuomo. With this principle in mind, she and a team of other researchers are studying the indigenous Inupiaq people of Alaska’s remote northern slope to better understand the effects of global warming and develop a sound approach for addressing it.

Cuomo, professor of philosophy and director of UGA’s Institute for Women’s Studies, along with University of Cincinnati geographers Wendy Eisner and Ken Hinkel, are combining the tools of modern science with the wisdom of people who have long thrived in perhaps the planet’s harshest climate but now worry for their future.

Climate change is beyond dispute in the Inupiaq community. Ice is thawing early and stranding whalers on the water, while thawed permafrost is making travel on the tundra more difficult. Caribou migration patterns have shifted, compromising subsistence hunting. Coastal erosion is rampant, and storms, once unusual in the area, are now more frequent. Even the quality of snow and ice has been altered, impeding the ability to make igloos.

Cuomo and her colleagues, with the aid of a grant from the National Science Foundation, are conducting formal interviews with the Inupiaq elders in order to connect indigenous knowledge with environmental research. They question the elders about specific changes at the local lakes; shifts in hunting and travel routes, migration patterns, and weather; and geophysical alterations that have occurred in their environment.

The researchers are using the information they obtain to help determine where and what to study more closely in the area. As the research continues, they will create a GIS (geographic information system) map of the region that delineates the major sites of change.

The Inupiaq are a community of survivors, and they are accustomed to challenges. Their openness and willingness to talk to the-scientists—and to share their knowledge—surprised Cuomo, particularly given their long history of negative experiences with outsiders. Like all indigenous peoples of North America, the Inupiaq were dramatically affected by colonialism; today, their communities are affected by Arctic oil drilling.

Yet the Inupiaq are willing to collaborate. They are familiar with compromise and adaptation and are eager to obtain information. The Inupiaq are not opposed to technology. In fact, they want to learn how to measure environmental impacts, and they are ready to engage in creative problem-solving.

Given Cuomo’s background in environmental ethics and feminist epistemology, she approaches this research asking, “What’s best both for the people and the environment?” This approach has been valuable in building trust and fostering collaboration with the Inupiaq.

Cuomo is also conducting her own investigation of environmental ethics within the indigenous communities. The Arctic is one of the planet’s best examples of a wise-use paradigm. The need for sustainable practices on the tundra is great, and the margin of error exceptionally small, because conditions are so extreme and dangerous. “The Inupiaq have admirable ethical systems and values that guide subsistence practices and social relations in their communities,” said Cuomo. “The codependence within the social community is not negotiable; they have to depend on it.”

For more information contact Chris Cuomo at


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