The many ways to "know" beluga Peter Collings, Tristan Pearce, and Joseph Kanna

1. Beluga whales are a relatively new species in the Ulukhaktok environment in the Northwest Territories, Canada, and we wanted to document what hunters knew about these animals. We interviewed residents of Ulukhaktok to document local traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) about beluga.

2. Despite success at hunting beluga, research participants claimed to lack knowledge about beluga. We examined the interview narratives about beluga knowledge to focus on how speakers used the English word “know” when talking about beluga.

3. We found that research participants used the English word “know” to reference three separate Inuinnaqtun concepts about what it means to know something. Knowing can refer to practical experience, empathy and concern for others, and awareness and memory. Our inquiries about TEK were interpreted as requests for only the first meaning of “know”.

4. We conclude that research participants claimed to lack knowledge about beluga because they lacked experience hunting this species. Investigating other uses of the word “know” revealed a much deeper understanding of what it means to know something. Scientific investigations to document TEK focus on asking what facts are known about a species. Our participants’ responses highlight how greater importance can be placed on knowledge as a set of skills for observing and constructing facts about individual species.

How do we account for traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of a species when it is new to the environment? In Ulukhaktok, NT, beluga whales were not a traditionally available or important species for residents.

Now, beluga have appeared in increasing numbers in the waters around the community and hunters have actively pursued and successfully hunted them. We conducted interviews in English with 31 residents of Ulukhaktok to document TEK about these animals. We found that research participants often claimed in interviews that they lacked knowledge about beluga. We analyzed how research participants used the English word “know” in the interview narratives, which revealed three different conceptions of what it means to know something about whales.

Each of the meanings have separate word bases in Inuinnaqtun, the language spoken by people in Ulukhaktok. “Know” can reference either (a) practical skill, or ilihimayuq, (b) concern and empathy for others, or kangihiyuq, or (c) the developing awareness of one’s place in the world, or qauyima. When Ulukhaktomiut said they lacked knowledge about beluga, they were acknowledging only that they had limited practical experience hunting these animals. We found that knowing in the other ways, kangihiyuq and qauyima, were more important ways of knowing.

If a person is aware of the world around them and their place within it, and if they are properly concerned about and connected with others in the community, then practical knowledge about a species follows quickly and easily. These different meanings of “know” in Ulukhaktok provide insight into how researchers collect and interpret TEK and how researcher inquiries of knowledge are understood by Inuit.

Read the full paper in Arctic Science: "We don't know anything about whales": ecological knowledge and ways of knowing in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada

Corresponding author: Peter Collings, pcollings@ufl.edu

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