Inuit perception, knowledge and use of the sea in Arviat, Nunavut
The Inuit community of Arviat is situated on the north-west coast of Hudson Bay. Living along the coastline, Arviarmiut (the people of Arviat) take advantage of the affordances offered by land and sea in hunting, travel and leisure. During one year of fieldwork, employing participant observation as my predominant methodology, I set out to understand the role of the sea in the lives of Arviarmiut. At this high latitude the sea is in a constant state of change throughout the year, from open water to sea ice and back again. This marked seasonality is central to Arviarmiut interaction with the sea, based on the fluidity and adaptability of individual and social practices. Knowledge, perception and use of the sea are grounded in these practices both within the community and at sea. In both contexts, knowledge of the sea is intimately tied to identity, and embodied in performance. Adopting a dwelling perspective, I examine how knowledge of the physical characteristics of the sea and of marine animals is acquired, how it grows throughout a person's lifetime, and how sensory perception and embodied orientations are central to movement and wayfinding while at sea or on the sea ice. The detailed knowledge of marine environmental phenomena (tides and currents, winds, sea ice, waves, the movements of seaweed) and of the behaviour of marine animals (beluga whales, seals, polar bears and fish) possessed by Arviarmiut is essential to safety and success. The tools required for activities at sea and the animals harvested from it are shared and passed around the community through kin, church and community-based networks. Thus socially, economically and symbolically, the sea plays an important role in community life. However, Arviarmiut have a number of concerns regarding their future as sustainable mariners. Three cases exemplify this point. The imposition of quotas limiting the hunting of important marine species is considered to be a threat to a way of life dependent on adaptation and fluidity. In the case of polar bears, the quota is deemed to place Inuit lives at risk, and in the case of beluga whales, there is a fear that the future imposition of a quota will adversely affect social relations and impact on hunting practices. Climate change is viewed by many Arviarmiut to lead to more danger at sea, as conditions are no longer as predictable as they once were. Animals are perceived to be moving around and behaving differently as a result of these changing sea conditions and weather patterns. Finally, there is a growing concern over contaminants in the food chain. Inuit fear that nutritionally and socially important foods are no longer safe to eat and are threatening the very health of those who rely on them. Arviarmiut are dealing with these perceived threats to their way of life in novel ways. While perception, knowledge and use of the sea are affected by these changes, Inuit are attempting to adapt and to incorporate them into their ways of being and dwelling within the marine environment. Ultimately, despite their impact on social relationships and relationships with the environment, many Arviarmiut are confident of their ability to adapt to the changes taking place around them and to retain the resilience of their way of living within their environment.