icture an Inuit hunter on the
land or sea ice observing a caribou herd or a seal at a breathing
hole. The hunter naturally relates their well-being to his own,
both in the short term and in the longer term.
Now picture a white-shirted man watching the big board at
a stock exchange, forever aware of the impacts of such things
as currency devaluations or commodity market fluctuations on
the other side of the world, and the impact of these on his own
fortunes. Are these realities opposites? Perhaps not. Can one
participate in both worlds? Ideally, yes. The wired world is
here to stay, but, hopefully, so too is the direct and sustainable
relationship between Inuit and the natural world.
The subsistence economy is not typically measured in Gross
National Product, yet the dollar value of the subsistence economy
is astounding. Consider that the replacement-cost value of country
food harvested in Nunavut is estimated at a minimum of $30 million,
or at least equal to the cost of food imports from Southern Canada.
Consider, too, that country food is generally much more nutritious.
|Sarah Kunuk and Christina Choinard
of Iqaluit enjoy the latest from Nunavut's growing sealskin fashion
Then there is the value of byproducts of the hunt that help
to drive Nunavut's arts and crafts industry. There is caribou
antler for carvings, narwhal and walrus ivory for carvings and
jewelry, and sealskins for murals and small garments and toys.
While Nunavut's arts and crafts industry is currently in a slump,
it is nevertheless worth many millions of dollars per year to
We must consider, too, that clothing made from animal skins
has both a replacement value and a survival value nothing has
yet surpassed the insulating efficiency of caribou clothing.
Finally, there is also an important cash-economy element to
the subsistence economy. Cash revenues are earned from the subsistence
economy by selling sealskins within and between communities as
the byproduct of the seal hunt, and by selling arctic char, caribou,
or whatever has been hunted. Some of that money is needed to
buy gas, hunting equipment and supplies to finance the cost of
future hunts. Of 500 pounds of frozen arctic char piled on a
qamutik (a sled pulled by a dogteam or snowmobile), the
hunter may sell 100 pounds of the fish for, say, $1.75 per pound.
This $175 will cover the cost of harvesting the other 400 pounds.
But that 400 pounds of fish has a replacement value or
real value of $2,000 as food on the table (hamburger or
chicken at the local Inuit Co-op or Northern store would cost
the hunter at least $5 per pound). Recognition of this fundamental
reality is one reason the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA)
created Nunavut's resource-management bodies. The NLCA and territorial
government help provide for outpost camps, hunter-support programs,
elder and youth conferences, income reform and more, ensuring
that subsistence uses of wildlife will always take priority over
commercial or tourist quotas when conservation is required.
The importance of maintaining the subsistence economy is nowhere
more tragically obvious than in the decline in the early 1970s
of the eastern Arctic seal hunt, and the dire social effects
of its collapse. What many of the animal-rights activists responsible
for the market's decline choose not to see is that the subsistence
economy represents a relationship of man with the natural world
that has spun a complex web of cultural beliefs, values, and
attitudes that can sustain ecosystems that include man. The subsistence
economy is the tie that binds Inuit to the natural world, and
all over the world it has been shown that "to use is to
The subsistence economy has become a rare treasure. Hunting
is about food on the table, but it is also about respect for
the land, and building and maintaining ties with kin groups and
with fellow residents. The subsistence economy is also the wellspring
of traditional knowledge, or IQ (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit): once
dismissed as the outdated opposite of good western science, it
is now recognized as having value for aboriginal and non-aboriginal
people alike in our attempt to understand how life interrelates
on the tundra or in the sea.
Nunavut will never see Ford plants and other big manufacturers.
Yet the new territory may remain one of the few places on Earth
where people successfully straddle tradition and innovation,
"the land" and the Internet.
Larry Simpson of Iqaluit is a
sector development specialist, renewable resources, with the
Department of Sustainable Development, government of Nunavut.