When Words Fail, the Land Speaks

As I sit here attempting to process everything from my recent visit to Rigolet, I am amazed, as always, by the stories and thoughts that have been so generously shared with me by this community. To everyone who so graciously opened their heart, who shared with me their deepest loves and fears, thank you. Truly. Thank you for once again allowing me to visit your home, and for teaching me what it means to love and be loved by the land.

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With each visit to Rigolet, I’ve grown more accustomed to life in this community and more confident in my role within this research project. As a result, I can sense people feeling more confident about sharing their stories with me. The interviews I conduct are slowly becoming less like “interviews” and more like opportunities to simply engage in conversations. Conversations that allow me to cultivate trusting relationships and build meaningful research partnerships with this community.

Through these conversations, I’ve heard a multitude of perspectives regarding the bonds between Inuit and the environment. These bonds, although distinct and unique to each person, are all fundamentally rooted in what it means to be an Inuk. Broadly, being an Inuk means having the freedom to go off on the land and spend time in places that connect you to who you are, to who you have always been.

But what happens when this freedom, these connections to the land are threatened?

Inuit in Rigolet, and indeed across the Circumpolar North, have experienced long and difficult histories of violence and oppression resulting from colonization, forced settlement, relocation, land dispossession, and residential schooling. Now, ongoing repercussions of these past (and present) traumas are compounded by the rapid, devastating environmental and human health impacts of climate change.

What’s more, Inuit and Innu throughout Labrador are currently dealing with the impending environmental and human health impacts of the Muskrat Falls hydro dam development project. Results from an independent Harvard study show that unless the dam’s basin is clear cut before it is flooded, methylmercury levels in the water flowing into Lake Melville will increase, contaminating the food that thousands of Inuit and Innu in Labrador rely on, and threatening Inuit rights as well as human rights to culture, health, and livelihoods. 

According to Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk woman from Kuujjuaq who is one of the world’s most recognized and widely respected environmental and human rights advocates, taking care of the environment is essential for Inuit well-being because Inuit are an extension of the land

…the well-being of our environment is in itself a fundamental human right. Without a stable, safe climate, people cannot exercise their economic, socil, or cultural rights. For Inuit, as for all of us, this is what I call the right to be cold.

 

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, ‘The Right to be Cold,’ (p. xii).

Watt-Cloutier goes on to explain that in order to appropriately address the interconnected environmental, socioeconomic, political, and health-related struggles unique to Inuit, the historical context of colonialism and oppression in the North must first be understood.

The ways in which these oppressive forces permeate and threaten the lives and well-being of Inuit are further described by Rob Nixon as “slow violence:” violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous and is instead invisible and incremental.² For Inuit, the slow violence of climate change and resource development essentially involves “displacement without moving,” and is “the normalized quiet of unseen power.”³

Nearly every person I spoke with in Rigolet over the past three weeks talked about how these unseen forces are cutting deeper and deeper into their culture, into their well-being. As such, there is a need not only to bring attention to but call for collective action on these seemingly “invisible” environmental issues. After all, for Inuit, the land is not just a place to live. Indeed, the land is the source of all life; it is the underlying determinant of all aspects of Inuit well-being.

I’ve had the immense privilege of learning about the land from the greatest teacher — the land itself.

I, along with the rest of my research team, have been lucky enough to join our friends in the community on various trips off on the land, ice, and sea. I understand that these little excursions pale in comparison to the lifetimes, the generations upon which relationships between land and Inuit have been built. But, these little excursions have left huge impacts on my heart, and they’ve given me a glimpse of how important it is for Inuit to continue cultivating these land-based relationships.

I’ve seen how being off on the land changes people and awakens parts of their spirits in ways that nothing else in the world can. This concept is something I didn’t fully understand until I experienced it myself, and even after having had these experiences I know there are certain things that will always be beyond my understanding.

Most Inuit I’ve spoken with have struggled to put their feelings about the land into words. I’m beginning to realize that perhaps there are no words that could ever do these feelings justice.

‘It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.’

 

Haruki Murakami

* Read more about the struggle to “Make Muskrat Right” here, here, and here And while you’re at it, check out the “Make Muskrat Right” Facebook page

** For more insights on the land and what it means to Inuit in Rigolet, check out this beautiful reflection by Dan Gillis, one of the Principal Investigators on our project (and also one of the coolest, wisest, and most inspiring people I know).

References:

  1. Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. 2015. The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet. Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada.
  2. Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Nixon, Rob. June 26, 2011. Slow Violence. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://chronicle.com/article/Slow-Violence/127968/

 

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