One Health: Arctic Indigenous Voices and Perspectives

Notes from the 'One Health: Arctic Indigenous Voices and Perspectives' gathering in Iqaluit, Nunavut in February 2024.

Written by
Carol Devine
Published on
Mar 11, 2024

“One Health is shared in different ways across the Arctic,” says Nancy Mike, Research Associate of Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre (QHRC), and a talented Inuk artist. “But we are intertwined with animals all around us as Inuit, Indigenous people. Everything is interconnected – humans, animals, the environment, health, spirituality, and beyond.”

Nancy’s welcoming words set the stage for the One Health: Arctic Indigenous Voices and Perspectives gathering in Iqaluit, Nunavut in early February 2024.

She introduces the Elder Annie Petaulassie who lights a qulliq, the Inuit soapstone lamp, which is lit by seal fat. “We use up every part of the animals we harvest,” says Nancy.

“I never thought I’d see a white person in my life. I remember my mother in the sod house where we used to live. She pounded seal blubber on a rock in the summer, to light the qulliq. She used to rub Arctic cotton and moss and mix it. The lamp stayed lit overnight while we were sleeping. She also used it to dry our clothes on a rack she made above it,” says Annie.

While Annie speaks, the grey-black soapstone lamp lights up a band of yellow triangle-shaped flames in a half-moon circle like little mountain peaks.

Another Elder, a man from Rankin Inlet, shares his story. I grew up in snow houses, igloos, and in spring and summer we lived in tents. We used the qulliq for warmth. Our only heat was an oil lamp when I was born. As long as you have oil, it will give you life.”

This precious invention kept Inuit families warm for millennia in this beautiful land here in the far north where temperatures can dip below -30 degrees Celsius with the windchill. There are no trees here, only seal and whale blubber for fuel. Before white people arrived, Inuit families were self-sufficient - until they were forced into settlements, dependencies were created, and a litany of terrible harms heaped upon them that has created intergenerational trauma that reverberates today. Despite colonial efforts to suppress Inuit culture, traditional knowledge is still passed down through generations.

Annie shares the wisdom her Elders have shared with her: “Don’t kill an animal if you don’t harvest and use it. Respect the animal. They are precious, important to Inuit, no matter what species.”

One Health: New Framing, Ancient Inuit Indigenous Knowledge

Before the term One Health was coined, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, who steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity, had long known the importance of stewarding the land sustainably and respecting living things; one’s life and the community’s well-being depended on it.

One Health was devised as a concept in Western medical and academic worlds in 2003, when it became associated with Severe Acute Respiratory Disease (SARS), and subsequently by the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1.

What followed was the ‘Manhattan Principles’ strategic goals created at a meeting of the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2004. The meeting recognized the link between human and animal health, creating strategic goals recognizing the importance of “collaborative, cross-disciplinary approaches for responding to emerging and resurging diseases, and…for the inclusion of wildlife health as an essential component of global disease prevention, surveillance, control, and mitigation.”

The Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council, a partner hosting this gathering with QHRC, shares the One Health description on its website: “A theoretical concept and practical approach for developing and sustaining broad interdisciplinary collaboration – to identify, prevent, and mitigate health risks in humans, animals, and the environment.” One Arctic, Once Health, is their tagline.

Logo of the One Health gathering, designed by Nancy Mike

The goals for this gathering included spotlighting Indigenous knowledge and practices, local contexts and community voices; and community empowerment and action on One Health research and policy. I was honored to meet participants and Inuit leaders from Nunavut, Greenland, and the US who are working on these topics.

Some of us may think of zoonosis when thinking of One Health and the Arctic. I did. Zoonosis, animal-to-human disease transmission, may be better known in the Arctic because of the case of a lethal anthrax outbreak in Siberia. It occurred in Russia’s Yamal-Nenets autonomous region largely inhabited by the Nenets Indigenous peoples, nomadic reindeer herders, similar to the Sami of Scandinavia.

It is hypothesized that a century-old reindeer carcass, along with dormant spores of anthrax bacteria, apparently thawed during a heat wave in the summer of 2016. Dozens were hospitalized and a Nenets child died.

It was refreshing that the One Health gathering in Iqaluit did not immediately delve into case studies, but rather the Inuit ancient meaning of One Health in the Arctic emerged through stories. We did, however, discuss zoonosis later at the gathering – particularly trichinosis, the trichinella parasite found in wild animals in the Arctic such as polar bears, walrus, and orcas, causing serious infection in humans who eat raw meat. Sadly, or cleverly, the parasite is immune to freezing.

Inuit participants at the gathering such as Igah Sanguya from Clyde River, with the Nunavut Research Institute and University of Alberta School of Public Health, emphasized the importance of country food - traditional Inuit food that includes game meats, fish, and foraged foods - for their physical and mental health, well-being and self-sufficiency.

Solutions related to trichinosis are being innovated in Nunavut through a laboratory diagnostic and awareness program working with communities, as we heard from Jamal Shirley and Sharon Edwards of Nunavut Trichinella Detection Program. This novel program, a collaboration between Nunavut Arctic College and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) could benefit from more championing and support.

Fellow neglected disease advocates and innovators, take note!

Climate change and One Health are of course interconnected - animals and humans are impacted by the climate crisis and the degradation of the natural environment. A One Health approach means concurrently protecting all species and nature from the impact of climate change and environmental degradation.

A takeaway for me is the significance of and respect for animal-human relationships that Inuit participants shared, the cultural, nutritional, and mental health value of country food, and the contribution of hunting, harvesting, and sharing country food for self-sustaining healthy communities. You can not separate action to tackle toxins in the land, sea, or atmosphere and the harm of extractive industries from the real losses and damages of climate change on the Inuit and their livelihood, and the fact that those who contribute least to climate change and destruction of nature, such as Inuit and Indigenous peoples, suffer most.

One Health action and solutions considering Arctic Indigenous voices and perspectives require more than medical and technological solutions. They also require remembering and understanding Inuit history and knowledge, and a deep understanding of the Inuit interconnection to the land, animals, plants, the ice, seasons, and spirituality.

Naomi Tatty from Iqaluit and Arnarak Patricia Blok, an Inuk from Greenland, compare the design of each other's kamiks, sealskin boots

The Arctic is the Pulse of the Planet

Siila Watt-Cloutier, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and former International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) was the gathering’s keynote speaker. I was excited to hear Siila speak. I’m a fan of her game-changing book, The Right to Be Cold, about the effects of the climate crisis in Inuit communities and framing climate change as a human rights issue – and much more.

“The Amazon may be the lungs of the world, but the Arctic is its pulse,” says Siila, “if you want to know the health of the planet, take its pulse.”

She tells us that ice, snow, and cold are the Inuit’s life force. “We need to protect them, and if not, we will have havoc in our world, and major health problems in the wider society. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. We have hurricanes, droughts, and more when the Arctic air conditioner breaks down.”

Siila emphasizes timelines. Fast timelines. “Changes that matter to us all are happening fast,” she says. The Arctic is the fastest-warming place on earth. The adaptation of other societies to change often took place over several hundred years. “But for the Inuit, rapid change happened within one or two generations only,” says Siila.

And the changes dovetailed with and were exacerbated by extractive colonial activities, such as commercial whaling of bowhead whales to near extinction, and suppression and oppression of the Inuit and their traditional practices.

Following early contact with Europeans, when Inuit became fur traders, colonial policies forced Inuit from their traditional land to live in fixed settlements in the 1950s, creating the dependencies that Annie also spoke of.

“This colonial act diminished the Inuit who had stood on their own feet for millennia,” shared Siila. “The fifties brought more trauma with Inuit being sent to residential schools and TB sanitoriums.” Siila herself was sent away at 10 years old to Nova Scotia and then to Churchill, Manitoba to a residential school.

Siila tells us about the forced relocations and the slaughter of sled dogs from the 1950s to the 1970s by the RCMP that particularly “stripped the men’s, the hunter’s integrity.” She also says that the ban on seal hunts was emotionally manipulating and “full of misunderstanding and miscomprehension of what the seal hunt meant to Inuit who depended on seal meat for survival. They respected these and all other animals, and knew how to hunt sustainably for thousands of years.”

“This is all part of historical traumas bleeding into today, through generations,” continued Siila. “It has led to addiction to substances and created profound wounds.”

She says the Inuit recognize the need to address root causes. “We need to address trauma and colonization. If you don’t address the root causes, that can become part of the problem,” says Siila.

Then came the long land claims agreement negotiations. Nunavut became Canada’s newest territory, on April 1, 1999. While the Inuit advocated for self-rule, another harm to the Inuit in the form of toxins was arriving. The land, water, and air they lived and breathed were being polluted from elsewhere, negatively affecting their health.  

Chemicals such as flame retardants used to ensure furniture was not flammable were detected in traditional Inuit food sources, especially those coming from the sea. The ocean currents and atmosphere transported contaminants all the way to the Arctic.

Siila described how persistent organic pollutants (POPs) were discovered in the food chain in the 1980s,  appearing in Inuit women’s breast milk. Mothers’ nursing milk was laden with toxins – Inuit women had to think twice about breastfeeding their babies, Siila shares. She says that this was one of the countless examples of people who contribute least to environmental harm bearing the brunt of it.

I had heard of POPs in Inuit women’s breastmilk a few decades ago when studying human rights, and it is one of the reasons I wanted to work on health and environmental issues. Today, we know that microplastics are found in nearly all seabirds and even in the human placenta. Many of us, especially in Western societies, industry, and governments, have lost a grip on our respect for nature, viewing it as a source of ‘infinite resources’ and treating the atmosphere, oceans, and rivers as garbage cans.

To address POPs, the Inuit set up committees. “They were not just to deal with environmental problems and chemical pollution, but to say that the health of the Inuit matters first and foremost,” says Siila.

Indigenous Impact on Climate Action

An extremely important contribution of Inuit knowledge and experience was the remarkable work of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) under the Arctic Council, shares Siila. “We worked so hard on that highly politicized work we did try to get traditional knowledge and the dire impacts and predictions of climate change on the Arctic and its effects on the world into every chapter of the ACIA report.” The findings on climate change of the circumpolar world were released even before reports of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body assessing science related to climate change, came out, Siila tells us. “This was an unprecedented spotlight on the Arctic.”

Iqaluit, Nunavut

At the sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP6) in 2000 in The Hague, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) annual conference to assess progress in climate action, Inuit Elders and hunters spoke in a video about climate changes already observed, including melting permafrost, longer sea ice-free seasons and emerging or invasive new species of birds, fish, and insects.

The assessment by the ACIA, carried out by some 300 scientists from 15 countries, assisted by Arctic Indigenous peoples, was the centerpiece of the 2005 Conference of the Parties (COP) and significantly influenced the IPCC summaries in 2007 for policymakers on the physical science of climate change mitigation and impacts effects and vulnerabilities.

Colonization was cited in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) Sixth Assessment Report in 2022 as a historic and ongoing driver of climate change. Furthermore, the significance of Indigenous Knowledge was finally, belatedly, recognized by the IPCC, an international body for assessing the (western) science related to climate change. Not only are the specific vulnerabilities of Indigenous peoples to climate change recognized, but also their role and knowledge systems.  

The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), a global human rights organization promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights, says the IPCC reports “play a decisive role in how climate policy is defined, what issues are prioritized and what responses are made visible and promoted. It is therefore crucial to understand what they say about Indigenous Peoples.”

However, the IWGIA and others share critiques of how Indigenous Peoples are included in the latest IPCC report and what’s missing. One includes the need for “considering diversity and intersectionality among Indigenous Peoples. There are scant references to specific groups, such as Indigenous women, elders, and children, who, besides being highly vulnerable, are central to the intergenerational transmission of knowledge.”

A second critique is about the reduction of Indigenous knowledge systems to ‘local practices’. “Indigenous Peoples’ values and worldviews, which underpin these actions – and contribute to rethinking the social and cultural causes of climate change – are still not explored in depth by the IPCC,” writes the IWGIA.

But it appears the hard work by Inuit and Indigenous leaders such as Siila Watt-Cloutier in the circumpolar and multilateral climate action and policy space is finally heard by scientists – and it remains to be seen how seeking, integrating and respecting this knowledge is done more rapidly and hopefully, truly collaboratively.

Indigenous peoples have long known about how humans need to respect animals, understand our interspecies interconnectedness and interdependence, and that human health requires animal health. We are behooved to listen and act, but in a way that does not do more harm, that pays attention to history, and is respectful, ethical, and non-extractive.

With oil, gas, and minerals abundant in the Arctic, the risk and reality of new colonialism are real.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg about what Inuit and Indigenous Peoples have to face and protect, how they can contribute to contemporary solutions, and the intergenerational, history-informed, and multi-disciplinary collaboration and personal transformation required to tackle climate change, One Health, human rights violations and more.

Imagination: The Human Side of Climate Change

Siila Watt-Cloutier urges using imagination for acting and innovating differently.

“We need to see culture clearly as the medicine we seek and need to address health issues. The medicine the world needs is Indigenous knowledge and wisdom to have a sustainable world,” says Siila. “Inuit are ground truthers as we are affected every day. We can find a new way forward to realign ecological values, Inuit values and not keep adaptation limited to Western society ideas.”

Siila says that the Inuit don’t need saving from outsiders, but that changes on issues impacting the environment in the North need to be made in the South, and that there needs to be greater personal transformation to address greed and apathy. This is when reconciliation happens, she adds, with decolonization in real-time.

Drum dancers of Inukshuk High School in Iqaluit perform at the gathering

Siila says that Inuit youth can play an important role in creating solutions. “Inuit youth are gifts to the world today. They are artists and filmmakers. What they do is commendable and makes me deeply proud.  They can help us teach the world who we are in bigger ways than before.“

Thank you, One Health Gathering, all speakers and participants for addressing the vital theme of “Elevating Indigenous Voices in One Health Research in the Arctic”.

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