The Fan Hitch Volume 12, Number 1, December 2009

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog
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Evolutionary Changes in Domesticated Dogs:
The Broken Covenant of the Wild, Part 4

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog, Part 1

Greenland Dogs of the Eiger Glacier

Boss Dogs and Lead Dogs

Tip: Pack Your Parka

IMHO: Two "New" Dogs

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Part 1 of 4....

Inuit family loading a komatik (sled) with their dog team,
Eskimo Point (now Arviat) 1926-1943
Photo: D.B. Marsh / Library and Archives Canada

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:

The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog

by Kerrie Ann Shannon

Winner of the 3rd annual ARCUS* Award for Arctic Research Excellence, 1999

Table of Contents

    Brake / Anchor
    Lines / Traces
    Booties / Paw Protectors
    Hunting with Dogs
    Lead Dogs
    Food and Feeding Practices
    Weather Predictor
    Connection to Human Health

*Arctic Research Consortium of the United States

This paper suggests why traditional knowledge is relevant for examining the social and cultural importance of sled dogs within Inuit culture. It also examines traditional knowledge surrounding the care and maintenance of dog teams.  Data were gathered during a research project in a Northwest Hudson Bay Inuit community in the winter of 1995/19961.  Respondents were interviewed with respect to traditional knowledge concerning dogs and dog teams.  This paper focuses on aspects of this traditional knowledge.  It was observed that considerable inconsistencies were reflected in the responses and this paper explores some of the possible reasons for these inconsistencies. 

This paper situates the topic within the context of other research and will: 1) define traditional knowledge as used in this paper, 2) explain why traditional knowledge is a relevant aspect of culture to consider, 3) briefly describe research methods used, 4) give an overview of some interview results, 5) examine sources for inconsistencies in some aspects of traditional knowledge.

Sled dogs have served a number of important functions in Inuit society.  However, in recent times sled dog use, and hence the number of dogs owned, has been reduced as snowmobiles have become widely adopted.  The multitude of uses and extensive traditional knowledge associated with dogs until relatively recently, suggests dogs might continue to have cultural and social importance at the present time. 

Many authors have dealt with the subject of dogs in varying detail.  Some authors, whilst including information specifically on dogs as part of a larger inquiry, nevertheless recognize the limited scope of their attention.  For instance, Gubser begins a small section on dogs by stating;  "The subject of dogs among the Nunamiut would make a book in itself"  (Gubser, 1965  p. 289).  In his work on the Hare Indian, Savishinsky devotes a section to dogs.  He explained that:

At first glance, a study of the cultural significance of the dog would seem to need little justification because of the ubiquity and economic importance of the animal. Perhaps it is the obvious nature of this situation which has led to the ethnographic neglect. (Savishinsky 1994, p. 191)

In addition, Nelson is concerned that knowledge about dogs and dog sledding will be lost with the increasing popularity of snowmobiles.  He states:

The entire complex of dog technology deserves a thorough study while it is still actively carried on, both as to historical changes and as to the economic and cultural influences of recent changes. (Nelson, 1969, p. 265)

Before the snowmobile became a popular means of travel in the 1960s, most people relied on their sled dogs for transportation to other camps, trading posts, trap-lines and hunting grounds.  However, dogs were not only used for traveling but rather in a multitude of ways, including  for weather prediction, protection, companionship, hauling, fur, as pack animals, and in hunting.

The multitude of uses suggests that Inuit probably acquired extensive knowledge about canines.  The training, care and maintenance of sled dogs, their uses in many aspects of daily life, as well as in myths and stories, result in a great amount of traditional knowledge being built up around the subject of dogs.  Many oral history accounts often include stories about dogs or dog teams (Blackman 1989; Bodfish 1991; Recollections of Inuit Elders 1986; Mendenhall et al. 1989/1990; Puiguitkaak 1978; Qiniqtuagaksrat Utuqqanaat Inuuniagninisiqun 1980).  It is not surprising to have dogs incorporated into Inuit stories or even for them to be the subjects of such stories.  Furthermore, dogs are also part of myths and origin stories.  Sutton retells a story told to him while he was on Southampton Island: 

...the Aivilik Eskimos tell the story of a man who hunted Nanook [polar bear] on Shugliak a long time ago. Being poor this man had but one dog. He was very fond of his Kingmik [dog]. In battle with a huge bear, Kingmik [dog] was killed. The man crouched on the ice and mourned. Nanook, beholding from afar the grief of the stricken hunter, walked over to the dog’s carcass and lay down beside it. The bear’s spirit entered the dog’s body. Kingmik rose with a joyful whine and returned to nuzzle his master’s hand. Together they went back to the bear and skinned it. (Sutton 1934: 104-105)

This story appropriately explains the different relationship humans have with hunted animals and dogs.  There are many stories where a woman and dog are married (Bloomfield and Nichols 1991; Boas 1888/1901; Brody 1987; Gubser 1965; Hall 1975; Rasmussen 1908, 1929; Sonne 1990 and others).  In most of these stories, the woman that marries the dog turns into the powerful sea spirit, Sedna, and is the creative force that controls sea mammals.  In some unions between a woman and dog, the woman gives birth to pups or humans or to human-dog hybrids; these myths usually talk of the shame and humiliation surrounding the birth of a part human-part dog.  Often the couple (woman with dog husband) is banished to an island and the offspring are often killed.  These myths seem to suggest that dogs should be kept separate from the human world, or they may reflect the anomalous position occupied by dogs between human and animals.  The inclusion of dogs in stories and myths may be reflective of their placement in relation to the human world. 

After a public interview (a radio call-in show) focusing on stories about dogs and dog teams, some residents commented that a few of the stories were familiar, indicating that they had been told before.  Not only during the radio call-in show, but also in visiting people, I would hear stories about dogs.  Because these stories are well known within families, I would hear the same story told by different family members.  My research objectives had an influence on the telling of these stories; however, familiarity with the stories among different family members suggests that stories about dogs are fairly common. 

Savishinsky also mentions how dogs are often the central figure in stories among the Hare (Savishinsky 1974).  The stories he relates are similar to the stories that were collected during the radio call-in show and interviews.  The dogs usually perform some heroic feat such as returning home during a blizzard or white out.  During interviews more than one elder told a story of a lead dog disobeying a command and thereby saving his life.  When I asked one dog team owner why he thought that there was a renewed interest in dog teams he stated, “folk tradition, about how dogs were heroes and all those stories then that we have about dogs,” influenced people to keep dogs in the present.  Savishinsky views these stories as highlighting the special sensory abilities of the canines.  In my view, the stories point out the special abilities of the dogs, but also operate as a mechanism to incorporate dogs into the social interactions of humans.  People are proud of their dogs’ abilities and place prominence on dogs by telling stories about them.
Why is traditional knowledge important in understanding the social and cultural importance of dogs in Inuit culture? In defining traditional knowledge, there is often an assertion that it is embedded and interwoven in the cultural tradition of a society.  One definition states that:  traditional knowledge is based on the conviction that traditional knowledge is a dynamic, evolving phenomenon, which is integrally linked to aboriginal cultures, and to the land which supports those cultures.  (Kakfwi 1993, p.2)

There are many definitions of traditional knowledge but in general it is considered to include the following characteristics. It is:

a)  cumulative, drawing on many generations of experience;
b) dynamic, having the ability to incorporate improvements and change;
c)  experimental, often being the result of successive trial and error knowledge;
d) experiential, transmitted and learned by doing; 
e) embedded in societal values, spirituality, and the relationship with the land.

These characteristics have been drawn from descriptions and definitions found in the literature (Brockman 1991, Bielawski 1992, Fast and Berkes 1994, Freeman 1985, Freeman and Carbyn 1988, Inglis 1993, Johnson 1992, Kakfwi 1993, Reichert and Spigelman 1991, Wolfe et al. 1992). The question remains how knowledge and culture are related. Feit addresses this question when he investigates knowledge in different cultures.  He states:

Human beings strive to create knowledge, a coherent world, out of their complex and continuously novel experience, and only through such an organization of knowledge, or culture does human action and survival appear possible. (Feit 1988 p. 77)

He continues,  "That is, the knowledge is the result of a process of interpreting phenomenal experience, and it is both 'natural' and fundamentally and inseparably cultural as well" (ibid.).  Although Feit discusses the differences between Western and traditional knowledge, these statements illustrate some important aspects of how knowledge systems develop and how they are related to culture.  There seems to be a common conviction that traditional knowledge is an important component of culture.  Therefore, in order to understand the cultural significance of dogs, one must also examine the traditional knowledge surrounding it.

Many functions of dogs are specifically tied to traditional knowledge, and understanding this knowledge assists in assessing the importance of these functions.  For instance, without knowing how dogs’ behavior was observed in order to predict a storm, I would not understand the dogs’ function as weather predictors.  Through understanding the different aspects of the traditional knowledge surrounding the care and maintenance of dog teams, insight into functions of dogs was gained.  Although not a definitive list, the following are suggestive of the importance of dogs in Inuit culture.  The functions specifically examined were: transportation, aid in hunting, fur, racing, release of emotions, utilizing of spare meat, weather predictor, protection, safety, guiding, and connection to human health (Shannon 1997).  The understanding of these various functions can lead to a better understanding of the place and importance of canines in Inuit culture. 

This study is based upon formal interviews and a public interviewing technique collecting stories and information about dogs and dog teams.  Local radio plays an instrumental role of practical exchange of community communication on a daily level, as well as a forum for exchange of information and stories.  During the period of fieldwork, in cooperation with the radio operator and an interpreter, I conducted a radio 'call-in' show.2  During the show, people shared stories about dogs and dog teams.  This approach proved to be rather successful not only in gathering data but also in exposure to the community about the research project.  Furthermore, this interviewing technique allowed for immediate return of the traditional knowledge shared.   

I also conducted formal interviews with local residents who agreed to be interviewed.  Questions focused on aspects of traditional knowledge surrounding the maintenance of dogs and dog teams.  Not every aspect of traditional knowledge is shared outside of kin groups, making inquiry into traditional knowledge difficult at times.  Names of dogs, for example, are a sensitive topic.  Frequently, respondents did not reveal the names of dogs they had owned in the past.  Despite the lack of information, the importance respondents placed on names of dogs was suggested.  The various topics discussed in interviews included: care for puppies, training, equipment needed in running a dog team and others, as will be discussed in the next section of this paper.  Although some questions produced concordant results many questions produced rather inconsistent responses.  Possible reasons for the inconsistencies are given and evaluated in terms of traditional knowledge. 

1 Research was possible through a Canadian Boreal Alberta Research Grant.

2  Conducting a radio call-in show was a suggestion of Mr. Ken Beardsal, a local resident, researcher and school teacher.

Next in Part 2, Section V: "Brake/Anchor" through "Hunting with Dogs"


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