An Interview with David Serkoak Part 2: Inuit and Researchers working together to help further Arctic Science

Shannon Hicks and Dan Weaver

The Arctic and the Inuit have both been changed by events occurring over the last century.  The Inuit have been uprooted, relocated, and their culture forever altered. The Arctic ecosystem and environment is rapidly shifting due to climate change. The second section of our interview with David Serkoak discusses how these developments in the Arctic are impacting the Inuit, and how scientists from many nations can become involved with the Inuit in order to study the consequences of these changes.

One of the first questions I asked David was how the Inuit felt about scientists coming to Nunavut.  According to David, the first groups of scientists came to the Arctic and simply ran away afterwards without crediting the people that made their work possible. Now, the Inuit are starting to develop a working relationship with scientists that come to Nunavut. This is mostly due to the fact that the Arctic College and the government of Nunavut are becoming more involved with the research being conducted there. In turn, more researchers are reaching out to the communities to study Inuit health practices, oceanic ice, and local climate variations. Members of the Inuit communities now act as assistants to researchers in the field and are credited for the work that they do. When asked how researchers can become more involved with the Inuit, David said, “There are dangers out there. So Inuit can play a role using traditional knowledge to help you do your job properly … and I think that is coming along slowly.”  As an example, he mentioned one group that visited Labrador two summers ago:

“I think it was a group from Japan collecting rocks. They would go out every day, and they would have an idea of where they’d like to go, but they’d need protection from bears – black bears, polar bears – every-day things. They had polar bear monitors (local people) with them so they didn’t have to worry about that.”

One of the primary areas that David would like to see scientists work together with the Inuit is in studying climate change. The hotter springs and summers are changing the migration patterns of the animals in Nunavut. Many smaller animals that previously have never been seen above 60 degrees latitude are slowly roaming northward. The once predictable migration routes of the larger animals have also changed. This directly impacts the Inuit hunting communities who rely on regular movements of the local fauna. Additionally, the receding and shifting ice floes have resulted in several instances where hunters have gotten lost or died.

“I’ve been living in Iqaluit since 1989. The ice is almost not there. In the fall, you can still see the ships coming in. It had never been heard of before. By Christmas the ice is still dangerous – you can walk on the ice, but it is dangerous to go across the big bay. It’s changed the way you hunt. Some people have died. For instance, one very good hunter went to the floes and he misjudged a soft spot in the middle of winter and got up again – got up on the ice and survived, but he lost both legs in the end.”

Patterns that the Inuit have relied on for centuries are no longer valid, and a partnership with scientists would help both sides understand climate change’s effects. As David says, “There is change … no doubt. And sometimes, [it’s] not very good. We all know it is not going to go in reverse. We have to go with the flow and learn how to adapt to it. “


David demonstrating drum techniques to CREATE-AAS students and faculty.

David has years of experience in developing programs where Inuit and people from other cultures can work together. As a teacher, and later a teaching VP and later in his career a full time elementary school principal, he has been a huge contributor to adding Inuit culture and language to schools in Nunavut. At one point in time the schools were run predominantly by white Canadians – “the only time [the Inuit community] was invited to the schools was when kids were in trouble.” By getting Inuit families more involved in school activities, such as drum dancing and throat singing, he was able to create a bridge between the white teachers and the Inuit parents. Now there is more of a balance between the two peoples. Both white Canadians and Inuit teachers run schools, and classes are often available in Inuktitut until third grade. There are even a few schools in Pond Inlet, Nunavut that are completely run by Inuit. The combination of all of these changes excites David – “I never thought we’d see that in our lifetime … I think there is a good partnership around the table.”

Another positive change in Inuit culture is directly related to scientists’ involvement with the Inuit over the last few decades – increasing numbers of Inuit students are getting interested in science. According to David, “in the past 10-15 years, there is more emphasis on science [in schools] – looking at medicine, looking at research – the interest is there. One of my former students in Ottawa is doing computer science at Ottawa University.”

This partnership between the Inuit and scientists from all over the world is crucial to solving problems relevant to everyone on Earth.  One of the ways that David believes that people can facilitate this change is by “[leaving] some of the research for the Inuit and the communities. Getting involved [with the community] is very important – not just work, work, work … see the community, mix with the community.” As we gain a greater understanding of the Inuit and their culture, we will be able to utilize their knowledge and experience to further scientific goals. In return, all the work that scientists are doing in the field is opening a new realm of possibilities for the Inuit people and their progenitors. As David put it, student can now say “I want to become a researcher too.”


David and Shannon after the interview. Picture courtesy of Dan Weaver.


In closing, I would like to thank David for providing us with this opportunity to learn about your culture and beliefs. It was an amazing experience and we were delighted to have you join us.


About createarcticscience

The CREATE program for Arctic Atmospheric Science supports researchers and students across Canada. This blog provides a venue for sharing our experiences.
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