What Does Snow Mean to You?

Take five minutes to imagine you are an Eskimo. (According to current research, Eskimo does not mean “raw meat eater” as commonly assumed. The term is of non-native origin, yet an adequate umbrella term is still lacking that would include all peoples intended. Inuit, for instance, refers to indigenous peoples in central and northeastern Canada as well as Greenland.)

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Let’s pretend you’re living in a small village with a population of approx. 1,500 somewhere in Nunavut. You are one of the total 25,000 Inuit living in the north of Canada. When you look out the window of your wooden house on stilts you see a seemingly endless white landscape, permafrost. The ground around you is permanently frozen. Permafrost is from the most recent ice age, around 10,000 years old and can be up to 500 m deep in some places. 10,000 years. That’s a long damn time! Your ancestors came in waves – the first from Asia through the Bering Strait, at that time the land bridge, Beringia. It looked very different then – lush and green, populated with mammoths and reindeer. Today it’s all water, the geographical point, 82 km wide, where Asia and America are closest.

This 10,000 year old layer of permafrost is melting faster than ever. By 2200 two thirds of it will be gone. What remains are bogs, caved-in terrain, a rising sea level and the dwindling of various animal species. However, the larger danger resides below the ground: frozen biomass. If the permafrost melts completely, vast amounts of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. And that’s not all. Methane gas will also escape; its GWP (global warming potential) is 25 times that of CO2.

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Your grandparents probably still wandered from place to place depending on what there was to hunt, providing your tribe with sufficient sustenance. You and your ancestors did not subdue the land. You adapted yourselves to it. Today it is no longer safe to travel across frozen ground, as it could collapse beneath you at any moment. You aren’t concerned with Paleo diets or veganism, or whether or not omega-3 fatty acids are healthy. Your intention was survival, and your body was subordinate to harsh realities. Through your customs, rituals and beliefs you created a way of life and worldly wisdom for surviving in this seemingly cruel region foisted upon you by population growth and forced migration. Your view of life differed greatly from lived experience in industrialized nations. More important than material comfort was respect for nature’s powers. And yet, who has the power to fight human violence?

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You are an Inuit, but you do not live in an igloo. Nomadic life has been over for the Inuit since the 1960s. New laws, modern life and waning hunting opportunities have made your original life way impossible. Your family is long since sedentary in Nunavut, which after continuous Canadian resistance was first established as a relatively autonomous territory in 1999 to protect people like you. Nunavut is anything but an Inuit paradise. A subsistence economy, especially hunting, used to be your life. You generated what you needed, no more no less. Your life rhythms were in harmony with nature – not always as romantic as it sounds, but it worked. Your father was raised as a hunter. Being a hunter was his identity. What to hunt when no prey is left? Wooden containers, grocery stores with imported foods, his life style is becoming increasingly meaningless. Hunting is no more. In its place: alcohol. Looking around your community you can’t blame your father. Disillusion and social despair are a daily reality. Your father did not choose his transformation; he was steamrolled. You see the elderly of his tribe and know, no matter how much you cherish them, their life is not an option for you. So what is the alternative?

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You spend the majority of your youth in front of the television or online, your only connection to the rest of the globalized world. What does the snow in your yard mean when there’s no more reason to go outside? What does the snow mean when you are inundated with the “American way of life,” a life you’ll never live? What does the snow mean when there is nothing in the prevailing Western world you can identify with? Not much, you think. And there you’re not alone: the Inuit have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

You look out the window, knowing soon the snow won’t fall anymore at all. Your home is melting away. And with it your way of life, your culture, your knowledge, your society.

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You turn on the TV because there’s nothing else better to do. You see a program about foodsharing and wonder: Why don’t they ask us? Sharing food, because as they understand it food and all life essentials don’t belong to anyone but everyone, is not only a social gesture but also a necessity. You know that best. You switch the channel and linger on COP21. The UN Climate Conference in Paris grabs your attention, but after a few minutes you notice: not a word about the indigenous, not a word about protecting your habitat, and no binding clause to save your life. It’s all about the industrialized nations. COP21 is a business deal. Hardly any reference, if any at all, is made to indigenous rights. The UN Climate Conference has historically denied indigenous peoples’ right to be heard. As the member of a developing nation with the goal of increased industrial production you would have more of a chance.

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Climate change is largely of human creation. Brought about by a life style you don’t have anything to do with, one that is killing you and your people. Getting a handle on climate change means not only driving better electric cars or donating for polar bears. Getting a handle on climate change means revaluation away from the consumption-oriented capitalism you only know from TV. One of the rare voices of your people is Sheila Watt-Coutier, an Inuit activist who in 2015 won the Right Livelihood Award, or Alternative Nobel Prize. You change channels and see that the world is much more interested in Mark Zuckerberg’s donations. Frustrated, you turn the TV off and look for Sheila Watt-Coutier on YouTube, whose speech at COP21 has a whopping 49 views.

You and your family’s life style was in perfect harmony with nature for a long time and still would be if something wasn’t stopping you. You are among the first who are paying for nature’s unraveling. You don’t have much time. Five minutes are up.

Pictures by John Tyman: “Inuit: People of the Arctic“, Bill Hillman’s EduTech Research Project at Brandon University, Canada, 2009. 

© Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford 


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