The Fan Hitch Volume 12, Number 4, September 2010

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog
In This Issue....

From the Editor: An Outsider's Perceptions

The Gaze of Animal Life

In the News

Conducting Dog Feeding Trials on the Antarctic Huskies:
a behind the scenes look at how it got done!

Further Experiments on the nutrition of sledge dogs

How Use of the name Inuit became official

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
the case of the Inuit Sled Dog, part 4

Chinook Project visits Northern Labrador

Media Review: Qimmit - A Clash of Two Truths

IMHO: In Transition

Index: Volume 12, The Fan Hitch

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The Inuit Sled Dog International

The Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI) is a consortium of enthusiasts whose goal is the preservation of this ancient arctic breed in its purest form as a working dog. The ISDI's efforts are concentrated on restoring the pure Inuit Dog to its native habitat. The ISDI's coordinators welcome to your comments and questions.

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Part 4 of 4....

Sled dog team tied up.
Henry A. Larsen / 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

The previous sections of this paper provided an overview of some research results investigating the traditional knowledge of dogs and dog teams.  The responses were not always consistent.  The following will briefly highlight some of the greatest diversities in the responses.  In exploring these inconsistencies in traditional knowledge concerning dogs and dog teams, possible reasons for the inconsistencies are given.

One of the most notable areas of discrepancy was in criterion for choosing a lead dog for a team.  Some people believed that it was always best to use a male dog while others stated that it was best to use the mother of a litter of pups.  Yet, other respondents would choose a leader regardless of the sex of the dog and the lead dog had to be a calm dog.  In contrast, other respondents highlighted the importance of having a dominant dog as the leader.  Furthermore, some people explained that in order to prevent fights among dogs in a team or to stop dogs from chewing on harnesses and traces, teeth were removed.  However, when I specifically asked other respondents if dogs’ teeth were removed, they said that this was never done.  When asking about anchors or brakes to stop sleds some people stated that they were a necessity for travel, to prevent the dogs from running away. In contrast, other respondents thought that these devises could pose a danger to travel. Thus, there are many variations in traditional knowledge about dogs and dog teams; these examples are not exhaustive, but simply serve as examples of discrepancies in knowledge.
Four possible reasons are offered to explain inconsistencies in traditional knowledge concerning dogs:  1) the individualistic nature of dog teams, 2) the different geographic and cultural affiliations of Inuit in this particular community, 3) the dynamic nature of traditional knowledge, and 4) gender-related differences in the retention and transference of traditional knowledge. 
This research illustrates some of the general components of traditional knowledge, by proving an example of the cumulative, dynamic, experimental and experiential aspects of traditional knowledge concerning the care and maintenance of dogs and dog teams.  The individualistic nature of dog team care, training and maintenance should be noted.  Because traditional knowledge is largely experiential, such knowledge will differ as a result of differing past and present experiences and circumstances.  During interviews, respondents would sometimes explicitly stress that the information he or she provided was his/her way of doing something.  In addition, my interpreter was also a dog team owner and sometimes remarked, “I did not know that, I will do that with my dogs.”  His reaction to new information illustrated that not everyone in the community held the same knowledge.  The inconsistencies in the traditional knowledge of dog teams may stem from both opposing opinions as well as lack of awareness of some knowledge.  Although not everyone holds the same information, and opinions might conflict about dog-related issues, one person’s information does not necessarily discredit someone else’s knowledge.  It is accepted that within the definition of traditional knowledge, not every individual possess the same knowledge.  These contradictory opinions also seem to demonstrate another characteristic of traditional knowledge, namely tolerance of diversity. 
Another cause for inconsistencies may be due to the fact that the respondent group was comprised of Inuit from different eastern Arctic locations.  On Southampton Island the indigenous population of the Saldlermiut died out around 1902 or 1903.  (Freeman 1969/70, Mathiassen 1928 and 1921-24, Moyer 1970, and Sutton 1932).  Today, the population largely consists of the Aivilimmiut from the west and Uqummiut from the eastern Hudson Strait area (Freeman 1969/70).  There are many cultural differences between these groups, therefore one could expect that there might also be differences in the traditional knowledge about dogs.  Traditional knowledge is cumulative, geographically specific, and shared mainly within kin groups.  Location has a great influence on experience and hence on the traditional knowledge possessed.  Moreover, the cumulative nature further enhances these differences that originated because of different environments.  The distinct origins and experiences may thus explain differences in the traditional knowledge about dogs on Southampton Island.
A third reason why there may be inconsistencies is related to the dynamic nature of traditional knowledge.  Most definitions of traditional knowledge incorporate the idea of change, causing some authors to prefer the term indigenous knowledge rather than debate the notion of change within the concept “traditional” (Berkes 1993, Johnson 1992).  In this paper the term traditional knowledge will be used despite ambiguities about the allowable extent of change.  There have been various changes in technology involved in dog team travel; such changes are first initiated and adopted at an individual level. People have different ideas and experiment with different technologies.  Therefore discrepancies in dog team practices will likely exist between individuals.  For example, someone may have tried a metal ring to serve as the connector between the main lines and the dog lines and think that this is an easier alternative to carved ivory or carved antler pieces.  Yet, another person may believe that the purchased metal connectors do not work very well.  Although the nature of traditional knowledge is dynamic and tends to change in a common direction, there is a period of flux when new technologies and resources are tested and admitted to the realm of traditional knowledge.  Traditional knowledge allows for change. However not everyone is required or even expected to adopt change at the same time. 
Finally, the role that gender plays in the retention and transmission of traditional knowledge should be considered. Since traditional knowledge is most often maintained orally, certain people are sometimes responsible for retaining and transferring specific aspects of knowledge. In addition to the individualistic nature of dog team knowledge, specific information is sometimes divided between men and women. Wolfe et al. comment on how traditional knowledge is maintained and transmitted:
    “Certain categories of knowledge, however, are regarded as the preserve of particular types of individuals. Women hold a different specific body of knowledge from that held by men.” (Wolfe et al. 1992, p. 16) 
Women and men may indeed have retained different knowledge about dogs.  Many female respondents told me that raising the puppies was their responsibility until the dogs were old enough to run with the team.  In one interview, an elder explained that he never had good dogs until he was married. He thanked his wife for always raising good puppies for him.  Maintaining dog teams is very labor intensive, with a division of labor where women raised the puppies being common. 
Today the involvement of women with dog teams has changed.  Before the availability of snowmobiles, dogs were an essential part of Inuit life.  Both men and women traveled by dog team and maintained the dogs. Currently, however, a dog team is a choice rather than a necessity.  Men may choose to have a dog team and women may choose to become involved with their husbands’ dogs.  Other women may have minimal or no involvement with their husbands’ team. Men might have difficulties in accessing some information about dogs when 1) the knowledge was predominately retained by women and 2) the transference of knowledge occurs during gender specific activities where it is predominately women present.  During the radio call-in show previously mentioned, a female elder called in to describe how to feed puppies when the mother dog refused to nurse them.  Later a man called in and thanked the elder for sharing that information because that was the problem he currently had with his own puppies.  Since women’s involvement with dogs has decreased, it may effect certain portions of the traditional knowledge about dogs.  Different channels for information may need to be developed within the community in order to transfer the traditional knowledge.  The specific roles of men and women in the retention of certain aspects of knowledge of dog teams are changing.  As these changes occur, some people may have greater success than others at attaining traditional knowledge, therefore, inconsistencies may result. 
Although all four of these possible reasons can lead to inconsistencies in traditional knowledge, it is difficult to isolate one reason as the main cause.  By exploring these reasons, certain properties of traditional knowledge have been confirmed, such as the cumulative and dynamic properties, experimental and experiential aspects, as well as the role of gender in the retention and transference of knowledge.  These different sources of inconsistency are not antithetical to a definition of traditional knowledge.  The distinct manner in which traditional knowledge is acquired allows for these inconsistencies to be incorporated into the body of knowledge.  The definition of traditional knowledge includes properties that make it flexible enough to incorporate differences.


Understanding and collecting traditional knowledge of dog teams is an important step in assessing the significance of dogs in the past, as well as today.  Comprehending the substance of traditional knowledge about dogs helps to determine their functions. Traditional knowledge continues to be salient and transmitted about subjects of physical or social significance.  By examining the contents of traditional knowledge about dog team use, it is possible to derive a clearer perception of the significance of sled dogs in Inuit culture.  Categories of traditional knowledge included an examination of:  sleds, brakes or anchors, whips, harnesses, lines and traces, booties, hunting, teeth, lead dogs, feeding practices, names and connection to human health.  Although this collection of traditional knowledge is not completely comprehensive, the information collected provides insight to the large amount of knowledge surrounding the care and maintenance of dogs and dog teams and suggests the importance of dogs in Inuit culture.  Both the amount and the detail of information allude to the importance of canines.  The information collected provides a useful record for the community and also fills a gap in Arctic literature. 
When specifically examining some of the traditional knowledge involved with dog teams, many inconsistencies were noted in the information.  Definitions and notions of traditional knowledge do not specifically address inconsistencies in traditional knowledge.  Traditional knowledge can be considered to hold the properties of being cumulative, dynamic, experimental, experiential and embedded in societal values.  The discrepancies in the traditional knowledge involved in the care and maintenance of dogs were evaluated in terms of these basic characteristics of traditional knowledge.  Four possible sources for inconsistencies in the traditional knowledge were discussed.  The traditional knowledge about dog teams may differ because:  1) the individualistic nature of dog team ownership and use, 2) the differing cultural background of Inuit respondents, 3) the dynamic nature of traditional knowledge, and 4) the role of gender in the retention and transference of traditional knowledge.  It would be difficult to determine which of the four is the cause for any discrepancy in the knowledge.  Investigation into the traditional knowledge of dogs and dog teams has provided a valuable case study for exploring traditional knowledge.  An examination of the inconstancies in responses concerning knowledge about dogs has helped to broaden and understanding of the concept of traditional knowledge. 

I am very grateful to the community of Coral Harbour, Canada and those people who shared their time and knowledge during interviews.  In addition, I am indebted to those who took me out by dog team and taught me about dog team travel by showing me. Thank you: Leonard Netser, Aaron Emiktowt, Joannassie Nakoolak and Oleekie Nakoolak.  Research funding was provided from a Canadian Boreal Alberta Research Grant. 


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