Indigenous Perspectives on Snow and Ice

by Patricia Cochran

“All things are connected…”

In indigenous cultures, it is understood that ecosystems are chaotic, complex, organic, in a constant state of flux, and filled with diversity. No one part of an ecosystem is considered more important than another part and all parts have synergistic roles to play. Indigenous communities say that “all things are connected” – the land to the air and water, the earth to the sky, the plants to the animals, the people to the spirit.

Indigenous ways of knowing have evolved over thousands of years and can generally be characterized as being non-linear, qualitative, holistic, organic in character, and based on a spiritual worldview. Wisdom, knowledge and information are passed down through the generations in oral traditions, and they are modified by personal experiences and collective observations. Traditional ways of knowing are not used to manage the natural environment, but to help indigenous communities adapt to the existing and emerging environmental realities, whatever they may be.

Western based science systems, for the most part, are not equipped to validate traditional knowledge observations and conclusions about the natural world, thus unwittingly marginalizing indigenous peoples, world views, ways of knowing, and an invaluable source of information and guidance.

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The Arctic may be seen as geographically isolated from the rest of the world, yet the Inuit hunter who falls through the thinning sea ice is connected to melting glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas, and to the flooding of low-lying and small island states. What happens in foreign capitals and in temperate and tropical countries affects us dramatically here in the North. Many of the economic and environmental challenges facing Inuit result from activities well to the south our homelands, and what is happening in the far North will affect what is happening in the South. If the Greenland ice sheet melts (as it seems to be doing now), not only do world water levels rise, but scientists speculate that dumping such massive quantities of cold water into the Atlantic may very well affect what is popularly known as the Conveyer Belt. This circularly moving body of cold and warm waters regulate climate in much of the Northern Hemisphere. We are all connected on this planet and the Arctic plays an important role.

Patricia Longley Cochran is an Inupiat Eskimo born and raised in Nome, Alaska. Ms. Cochran serves as Executive Director of the Alaska Native Science Commission (ANSC), a public, not-for-profit corporation. The ANSC provides a linkage for creating partnerships and communication between science and research and Alaska Native communities.

Ms. Cochran previously served as Administrator of the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage; Executive Director of the Alaska Community Development Corporation; Local Government Program Director with the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Director of Employment and Training for the North Pacific Rim Native Corporation (Chugachmiut).

Ms. Cochran currently serves as Treasurer and Past Chair of the American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian Caucus of the American Public Health Association; Science Advisor to the Arctic Research Commission; Member of the Alaska Global Change Planning Team; Past Member of the Office Advisory Committee for NSF Office of Polar Programs; Program Chair for the Indigenous Program of the International Congress on Circumpolar Health; former Treasurer and Governing Council Member of the International Union for Circumpolar Health; Member of the National Native Science Education Advisory Council; Member of the National Research Council Committee on Environmental Effects of Oil & Gas Activities in the North Slope Alaska; Board Member of the American Society for Circumpolar Health, President of the Albrecht-Milan Foundation, Board Member for Native American Cancer Research, Steering Committee Member of the Northern Research Forum, Program Steering Committee Member of the Native American Cancer Research Partnership, Advisory Panel Vice Chair for the North Pacific Research Board, President of Spirit Days Incorporated, and U.S. member for the Youth and Elders Initiative of the Arctic Council.