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Science & Tech

How a new northern mapping project is preserving Inuit traditional knowledge

Set to launch later this year in Clyde River, Nunavut, digital atlases of Inuit place names, wildlife habitat, scientific studies and more are already benefiting communities in the Arctic

  • Jun 29, 2017
  • 558 words
  • 3 minutes
Mapping, atlas, Inuit, traditional knowledge, Carleton University, Nunavut, Clyde River, science, wildlife Expand Image

A new mapping project in Clyde River, Nunavut, is bringing generations of Inuit knowledge and decades of science together at the click of a mouse. 

Clyde River’s Ittaq Heritage and Research Centre is creating an interactive atlas with help from the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University. The atlas provides easy access to information that was previously hard to find or simply hadn’t been recorded, including scientific studies from the area and local knowledge about the environment and wildlife habitat, history and place names. 

Over the centuries, Inuit have overlaid their land and sea-ice with thousands of place names, most of which do not appear on any map. Knowing those place names can be the key to survival in an emergency such as a snowmobile breakdown in an isolated spot. 

“We use GPS and other devices,” says Mike Jaypoody, a researcher and IT technician at Ittaq, “but if they fail, you need to be able to radio your location to the community. Once they know the name of the place the experts can tell you where to find shelter, where to find game and so on — and they know where to find you if you need to be rescued.” 

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Robert Kautuk (front, right) and Mike Jaypoody of Ittaq meet with Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre researchers Peter Pulsifer and J.P. Fiset at Carleton University to work on module designs for the Clyde River Knowledge Atlas. (Photo: Dwayne Brown).

The online atlas, which the community will be able to access later in 2017, shows more than 300 place names in the Clyde River area, and adds more information that Jaypoody and his colleague Robert Kautuk have collected: videos of elders talking about the significance of places, their important features, what they were used for in the past, as well as photos that younger people can use to familiarize themselves with these points on the landscape. 

“The map presents a huge amount of information in layers,” says Shari Fox Gearheard, a geographer and research scientist with Ittaq. “For instance, you can click on a narwhal migration route and then listen to an expert Clyde River hunter discuss why narwhals are important and how they behave. Once it’s ready, people in the community will be able to use the information in many ways — for planning, education and essential background when considering proposals for new development projects on their land.”

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The technology can easily be transferred from one community to another, and the same mapping system is now being used in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and in other Arctic Inuit and Alaskan Yupik communities. Pond Inlet, at the northern end of Baffin Island, is planning a similar atlas, and Gearheard and her colleagues will be travelling there to teach people how to use the technology.

“Ittaq is dedicated to Inuit leadership in research — true community-based research led and done by the community,” says Gearheard. “This is a tool for that kind of research: cutting-edge technology that’s supporting valuable Inuit knowledge.”

This is the latest in a blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic and Polar Knowledge Canada, a Government of Canada agency with a mandate to advance Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and strengthen Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. Learn more at
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