Science for the People: Northern Field Stations and Governmentality

By Bravo, Michael | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Science for the People: Northern Field Stations and Governmentality


Bravo, Michael, British Journal of Canadian Studies


Noah Piugaattuk, one of Igloolik's most celebrated Elders, was a local icon of indigenous wisdom. Piugaattuk (Figure 1) passed away a few years ago in his mid-nineties, having lived to witness Igloolik life for nearly the entire twentieth century. Among his many experiences, he had travelled the region as a catechist and guide to the early missionaries, witnessing many of the profound changes to Inuit culture from these early days. His knowledge of the language and skills of the land was probably second to none. He was a living repository of Inuit language, history, and culture.

I had the honour to get to know Piugaattuk a little when I spent some months in 1988 living in Igloolik studying how new technologies were transforming oral traditions and recording voices and sounds for a photography exhibition. When I met Piugaattuk, he already had a reputation as a unique source of Inuit traditional knowledge. Equipped with a tape recorder and microphone, I followed in the tracks of previous researchers, listening to stories about his life and times, and asking questions to understand how Inuit expert knowledge about Arctic travel is stored and taught through their oral tradition. Piugaattuk seemed to me not to possess the habit familiar to many of us of communicating dry information; he was too much of a leader and teacher, possessed of a wry sense of humour, which forced us 'researchers' - a label broadly applied to people who incessantly ask questions, whether natural scientists, social scientists or journalists - to reflect on the nature of the questions we put to him. I remember one instance when Piugaattuk (personal communication June 1988) was telling me that contrary to what I had read in the scholarly literature about the remarkable accuracy of Inuit topographical knowledge, he did not consider maps, mental or material, to be a traditional Inuit technology, on the grounds that they were too unreliable a medium for storing geographical knowledge safely. As if to prove their marginal importance, he wryly recalled that that his first map had been given to him by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, who, searching for a lost person, needed Piugaattuk to show him his own location on his map, and then to direct him towards the area where the missing person had last been sighted.

One reason I still remember the story of the RCMP officer is that it captured a truth about knowledge in small communities such as Igloolik: knowledge is virtually always mediated. This flew in the face of a pervasive myth about travel, that one can find out what a distant place is really like by going there to see it first-hand. My own journey to Igloolik had been motivated by a burning desire to see life in a northern community. Much of what I had read back in Cambridge had seemed distanced, dated, removed. I wanted to see things for myself and form my own judgements. What I discovered that summer in northern Canada was that access to life in the community, and no less 'out on the land', away from it all, was mediated by gatekeepers. Perhaps this should not have come as such a surprise for me. In previous summers, I had visited other communities while working as a satellite communications engineer for Telesat, a private company - thereby becoming known to locals as the 'Telesat man'. Sensing that Inuit kept a distance from transitory visitors, I had imagined that behind the scenes was an Inuit culture that, under other circumstances, I would be able to join in as myself once I had shed my professional baggage. This was to prove naïve because the institutionalisation of Inuit culture had been taking place for decades in complex ways that I did not yet understand. Most Inuit had direct experience with institutions both new (e.g. government officials, the Hudson Bay trading post) and old (social institutions such as the extended family). Although some institutions, such as residential schools, were the source of many Inuit problems, other institutions could provide some of the solutions. …

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