As ice melts, the Inuit strive to keep their culture alive

Amid a warming climate and disappearing traditional knowledge, Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic are grappling to adapt.

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When sea ice ages, the salt sinks into the ocean, leaving fresh, drinkable water on top. Charlotte Naqitaqvik collects a teapot of water at her family’s hunting camp in Nuvukutaak, near the community of Arctic Bay in northern Canada.
This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In the spring, when animals migrate north and the sun never sets, Inuit children join their families on weeks-long camping trips across Canada’s Arctic. They’re taught hunting skills and cultural values passed down for more than 5,000 years. In the past three decades, multiyear ice, the thickest (and oldest) type that supports the Arctic marine ecosystem, has declined by 95 percent. Elders no longer can predict safe travel routes on thinning ice, and animal migration patterns are changing. The future of the ice—and those who live on it—is uncertain.

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A break in the sea ice means a carefully orchestrated crossing for Olayuk Naqitarvik, pulling his grandson in a qamutik, or sled, packed with supplies for a family camping trip. Despite being ill and frail, Naqitarvik’s wife, Martha, insisted on taking part to relay her deep knowledge of living off the land to the next generations.
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In the past three decades, the thickest (and oldest) ice that supports the Arctic marine ecosystem has declined by 95 percent.
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Tagoonak Qavavauq, an Inuit elder, teaches children how to make a bread called bannock on a school field trip. Ancestral knowledge about how to survive on the frigid land is disappearing with the elders. Many are determined to pass down traditions, particularly to children whose families no longer hunt or go camping. Learning how to live with limited resources is key to survival at a time when food insecurity and poor nutrition are increasing problems in Inuit communities.
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Passing down ancestral hunting and survival skills is seen as crucial at a time when such knowledge is disappearing.
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A trail of blood leads to the Naqitarvik family celebrating a young woman’s first ringed seal catch.
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Darcy Enoogoo pulls a toy snowmobile for his daughter, Alana, during a tea break in their nine-hour journey to a fishing lake.
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The idea behind the camping trips is to ensure that inuit traditions will survive, even if the ice does not.
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Before a camping trip, a homemade tent dries on the sea ice in Nunavut.
Acacia Johnson is a photographer from Alaska, focused on human relationships to the Earth’s polar regions. She has made over 55 expeditions to the these regions as a photographer and expedition guide.