David F. Pelly   
Writer, Researcher, Historian, Photographer      www.davidpelly.com



                                     Traditional Knowledge

Inuit Qaujimajatugangit, Indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge – what do these terms mean?  A precise definition is indeed elusive.  Perhaps a clue to the real meaning lies in the source of the knowledge.  Traditional knowledge has been passed down through the generations, “taught” usually in the most subtle ways, learned on the land through direct personal observation.  It is the body of knowledge that, traditionally, has enabled a people to live in their physical, social, and cultural environment.

In the majority of cases, “traditional knowledge” refers to the cultural or ethnographic information passed down through the generations and gathered through a lifetime of observation, knowledge which is intrinsically precious but which in fact has no commercial application.  There are some exceptions -  for example, from the pharmaceutical knowledge of the Indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest, who have had their “traditional knowledge” literally copied by drug companies who then make big profits with the synthetic versions of Amazonian natural medicines.

Oral-history is something else again, although the stories and memories preserved in the oral record may well reflect a basis in “traditional knowledge” and serve to illustrate some elements of the profound relationship people had with their environment.  But an oral-history account, in itself, strictly as "story" in the chronological sense, is not necessarily composed of traditional knowledge.

In recent years in Nunavut there have been many efforts to document traditional knowledge, just as there have been numerous projects to record individuals’ oral-histories.  There is a justified concern that, having removed people from the land and terminated their absolute dependence on its resources for survival, the generation-to-generation cycle of empirical learning has been interrupted, and therefore the preservation of traditional knowledge has been jeopardized.  That is why practitioners of traditional knowledge have been working in recent years to document as much as possible of the Inuit Qaujimajatugangit that is still embodied in the elders alive today.

Appropriation of the Native voice is another, not unrelated, matter.  To “appropriate” the knowledge is to represent it as your own, when in fact it came from another.  The correct response is a matter of giving credit where credit is due, and not having the pretension to speak from another’s perspective.  In Nunavut, at least, it has been evident that Inuit elders are anxious to have their knowledge and their stories recorded and disseminated, the more widely, the better.  Done properly, this is not appropriation.

The discussion of traditional knowledge and its use has been highly politicized in recent years, a disservice in effect to its preservation, dissemination and application.  Nonetheless, traditional knowledge remains one of the most cherished elements of northern culture today, well served by those who have sought to record Inuit Qaujimajatugangit for future generations to embrace.

See also “Our Ancestors Are Happy”

David Pelly has been actively engaged in the collection and preservation of Inuit oral-histories and traditional knowledge since the early 1980s.  It all began when an artist in
Baker Lake asked him to write some short stories to accompany her drawings.  For background information, the artist and a varying assortment of other elders sat around the table telling stories, inspired by the drawing.  Unwittingly, David was thus involved in the process of recording traditional knowledge, although the term was barely in use at the time.  Since then, David has become one of Nunavut’s principal practitioners of oral-history and traditional knowledge collection.

Much of David’s writing on the North has been based on the stories and knowledge provided to him by Inuit, most often elders.  His body of work, taken as a whole, amounts to a substantial collection of Inuit traditional knowledge.  His book, Sacred Hunt, published by Douglas & McIntyre/  GreyStone was based entirely on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.  Many of  the major projects  David has undertaken over the years have involved the collection of traditional knowledge.


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