People & Culture

Inuit-led project tells the story of Inuit connections with caribou

After a total hunting ban was issued on caribou in 2013, Inuit across Labrador are sharing their experience and thoughts about caribou-related change

  • Aug 08, 2022
  • 986 words
  • 4 minutes
A group of the George River Caribou Herd outside of Nain, Nunatsiavut, 2018. (Photo: David Borish)
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For millennia, Inuit across the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador have relied on caribou as a primary source of food, land-based knowledge, and cultural connections, among other aspects of life. But now the population of the region’s George River caribou herd, once the largest herd in the world, is crashing, altering the lives of the people who rely on them.

The George River caribou have seen an extraordinary downfall – since 2001, the herd’s population has declined by more than 99 per cent, resulting in a total hunting ban issued by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2013. With this ban in place, Inuit have been unable to exercise their right to hunt and interact with the caribou as they have for thousands of years, with devastating consequences for communities across Labrador. From supporting social connections within and between communities to providing physical sustenance and nourishment to the people in the area, caribou are integral to the way of life. But now, individuals have been left to cope with a new reality: life without caribou.

One project aims to preserve the story of the Inuit connections with caribou in Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut for future generations. HERD: Inuit Voices on Caribou is an Inuit-led research initiative that serves as a living legacy of Inuit knowledge. Led by the Nunatsiavut Government, the NunatuKavut Community Council, and the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board, it uses visual media to document, analyze and share Inuit perspectives on caribou. This project, which also includes support from a multi-disciplinary team of Inuit and non-Inuit researchers, has produced full-scale and short-length documentary films, as well as research material.

In First Nations and Inuit cultures, there is an emphasis on passing stories from generation to generation through oral storytelling, explains Inez Shiwak, co-producer of the film and Inuit community researcher from Rigolet, Nunavut. “In this way, we actually have something that’s on film and people are able to see and listen to what has happened and the story doesn’t change,” she says. Part of Shiwak’s role in the project was to help conduct interviews and ask community members questions. She explains that people have always talked about caribou and how the animal is missed, but HERD brings to light how people are feeling about the change and its effects. “Sharing is a big part of family time,” she says. “Being able to go out on the land with families is being able to hunt caribou. You can’t do that anymore.”

Working with Inuit communities, Inuit government and Inuit partners, film director David Borish says the idea of creating a documentary film was central to the project. Borish, who has a background in Indigenous-related social science research and film creation, was asked by the Inuit communities, government and people involved to work on the project and help to bring together a variety of disciplines. “[The film] was very much looking at this conservation crisis, or this ecological crisis, from a social, health, and well-being lens,” he says.

 

Inez Shiwak and David Borish filming in Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, 2019. (Photo by Andrea Andersen)
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From left to right: Henry Lyall, an Inuk knowledge holder from Nain, Eldred Allen, an Inuk drone pilot from Rigolet, and David Borish.
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The goal, says Borish, was to co-create both storytelling and research material with communities, exemplified in the film and in an article published in Global Environmental Change. Figuring out how to do both at the same time, however, was a challenge. In the end, Borish believes the result was successful because of how the team has been able to publish research by analyzing video interviews as a form of data. Video interviews became core pieces of the documentary. “We developed a new process that engages community members while repurposing video editing software for actual qualitative analysis,” he says. 

“We’re losing language. We’re losing traditional ways. And the loss of a food, a cultural food, is just as high of an importance as language, as craft, and art, and all the rest of it,” says Judy Voisey, a community member from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., in an interview for the project. “I’m 48 years old, and my chances of ever eating caribou again, and I’m hoping I live a decently long life, is very, very slim, you know? And I’ll never have my marrow bone — the thing that I want more than anything on Earth, I will probably never, ever get never again. So, you can’t help but feel that sense of sadness and loss. It’s hard enough for someone to be sick, and for their life to end, and then to know that the final blow is that you’ll never get to have what you always had.”

A male caribou outside of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, 2020. (Photo by David Borish)
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Voisey is one of the dozens of community members who were interviewed by Shiwak and represents one of the 8,100 people who reside in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the largest town in Labrador. 

Being able to document this story is important, says Shiwak, since it shows people what is happening while also opening up conversations about other species. “We might not have a ban on [other species], but it’s being able to document these stories that we’re losing.” For viewers and readers, the hope is that people will listen and try to understand how important caribou are to Labrador or Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut beneficiaries. “We just can’t go to the store and buy chicken, beef, or pork,” says Shiwak. “We really want to have foods that come from the land, and that means so much to us. It connects us to family.”

To date, over 80 Inuit from 11 communities in Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut have taken part in this HERD, as it turns into a full-scale documentary. HERD: Inuit Voices on Caribou premiered on CBC on August 6, 2022. To learn more about the project and read about some of the research being conducted, visit https://www.inuitvoicesherd.com/about and follow @inuitvoiceherd on Instagram and Twitter. 

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