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Survey Reveals Family Ties and Traditional Activities Keep Arctic Communities Vital


A newly released survey of indigenous Arctic people indicates that an overwhelming majority of the region’s native people think traditional pursuits such as hunting, boat-building and manufacturing crafts are important to their identity. Unique because it measured quality of life and involved them in data gathering, the survey also says a substantial portion engages in traditional activities in addition to working in the cash economy.

“Four decades ago, as wage work rapidly became more common in the north, scientists and policymakers assumed that indigenous people would take advantage of opportunities to participate in the cash economy, abandoning harvest and traditional food processing activities,” report notes.

The survey results indicate that despite lifestyle changes that have swept into northern communities as non-natives move to remote areas, traditional values still are important to native peoples, and they are willing to use their earnings in the cash economy to support those ways of life. Despite historical efforts by national governments to assimilate native peoples and encourage them to give up native traditions in favor of wage labor, nine out of 10 Inuit continue to think traditional activities are important to their identity.

The findings come from the “Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic (SLiCA),” which was produced through a partnership of indigenous peoples and researchers from the United States, Canada, Greenland, Russia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Researchers hope the study results will provide Native organizations and local governments across the Arctic with information to help make policy decisions. As a major step toward that goal, the team is hosting an international meeting with indigenous policy makers March 22 in Anchorage, Alaska.

The survey results will be posted on the Web on March 22 at

“In Alaska, most products of hunting, fishing and gathering do not enter the market economy. Rather, subsistence products are directly consumed by the harvesting household, given away or exchanged,” the report states. “Cash plays an important role in the Alaska mixed economy, however. Money buys snow machines, gas and ammunition.”

More than 7,000 interviews were conducted between 1998 and 2001 to gather the survey data. In short, the survey concludes, “it takes money to pursue traditional activities. But households with higher incomes can, and do, choose to spend income on these activities.”

“Unlike previous attempts to sample and quantify information about the lives of indigenous Arctic peoples, SLiCA aims to measure the quality of life conditions in ways that Arctic residents find important,” said Jack Kruse, the U.S. project team leader. “It also documents and compares living conditions among the indigenous peoples of various regions of the Arctic and improves the understanding of living conditions in ways that will benefit Arctic residents.”

Kruse also noted that the International Polar Year (IPY)--a two-year, concentrated campaign of field science across a broad spectrum of disciplines which began earlier this month--provides an unmatched international framework for conducting such research by encouraging scientists to work across both national and disciplinary borders.

“I am excited to see the results of this very ambitious effort that is quintessentially the kind of work that IPY should be about, especially through its circumpolar Arctic scientific and community collaboration,” said Anna Kerttula de Echave, director of the Arctic social sciences program in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Polar Programs. “A key element of the project was the inclusion of indigenous people in conceptualizing the survey instrument and collecting data. This research is an excellent example of NSF’s efforts to increase the participation of traditionally underrepresented groups in the sciences,” she said.

NSF is the lead U.S. government agency for IPY.

Of the more than $6 million for the project, $1.4 million was supported by NSF. Other support came from the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council, Statistics Canada, the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Greenland Home Rule government.

SLiCA also is part of the Arctic and Human Health Initiative (AHHI), a project of the Arctic Council. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Arctic Investigations Program and the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center support the the AHHI.

Other major findings of the survey include:

* Family ties, social support of each other, and traditional activities have a lot to do with why indigenous people choose to remain in Arctic communities.
* Well-being is closely related to job opportunities, locally available fish and game, and a sense of local control. Improving well-being may reduce social problems such as depression and related problems like suicide.
* Health conditions vary widely in the Arctic: three in four Greenlandic Inuit self-rate their health as at least “very good” compared with one in two Canadian and Alaska Inuit and one in five Chukotka indigenous people.

“The North Slope of Alaska appears to be a success story; the Inupiat there were successful in forming a regional government funded through taxation of petroleum facilities,” the report notes. “They have effectively used their access to economic resources to influence such bodies as the International Whaling Commission and to manage development.”


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