UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.

Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


‘Voices from the Bay’: Documenting and Communicating Indigenous Ecological Knowledge from the Hudson Bay Bioregion



Community participation, cultural identity, curriculum development, ecological research, ecology, ecosystems, environmental management, learning, resource management, teaching


Introducing the practice

The coastal and island communities of Hudson Bay, James Bay, Hudson Strait and Foxe Basin, covering an area of 1,150,995 km, practise the traditional ecological knowledge of the Inuit and Cree peoples, who are indigenous to the Hudson Bay Bioregion of arctic and sub-arctic Canada.

Twenty-eight communities previously unidentified on area maps of the bioregion participated in the Hudson Bay Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Management Systems (TEKMS) Study: 15 Inuit and 13 Cree communities with populations ranging from 250 to 2,500 persons.

Each of these remote and geographically dispersed communities has its own unique identity and socio-cultural features stemming from its ancestral relations, traditional land use and occupancies, and historical contacts with Europeans and the Government of Canada. Three Inuktitut dialects and five Cree dialects are spoken in the region.

In the early 1990s, concern was expressed in both southern and northern Canada about the cumulative impact that several proposed hydroelectric projects would have on the natural environment and the indigenous inhabitants of Hudson and James Bays. The Hudson Bay TEKMS study was initiated in response to these concerns during the winter of 1991 as part of a three-year initiative undertaken by two non-governmental organizations and the community government of Sanikiluaq. A community-based work plan was developed and grant proposal was drafted.

Thirty communities were identified and invited to participate in the community-led study to document the traditional ecological knowledge of Inuit and Crees living on islands and areas surrounding the Hudson and James Bays. The aim was to inform public policy and environmental decision-making for the Hudson Bay bioregion.

The community of Sanikiluaq on the Belcher Islands in southeastern Hudson Bay hosted an initial regional meeting of nine coastal and island communities in October 1992. At this meeting, the indigenous delegates discussed their environmental concerns, selected communities for involvement in the study, and identified the discussion topics for a series of regionally based meetings. Six regional, community-based meetings were held in 1992 and 1993. Seventy-eight Elders, hunters and women participated in these meetings and shared their knowledge concerning rivers, currents, sea ice, weather, animals, human health, traditional management, and the effects of development in the coastal, marine and some inland areas of the Hudson Bay bioregion.

IK recorded on map overlays, audio tapes and paper was translated and transcribed into English in the host communities and sent to the study office in Sanikiluaq. There it was organized into general topics and synthesized for review and verification by the same IK holders during a second series of meetings in the fall of 1993, and a second regional workshop in January 1994. In May 1994, 12 IK holders from the study presented and discussed their findings on climatic changes, changing current and ice regimes, long-term effects of flow diversions, habitat change and loss, animal population and migration changes, contamination of the Hudson Bay food web, and changing land use patterns. This was done in a joint workshop with an equal number of scientists familiar with or working in the Hudson Bay area. The implications of the environmental changes for social, cultural and physical systems were also discussed.

Contractual obligations were met in 1995 with the preparation of a report and production of GIS-generated maps on environmental changes in the Hudson Bay bioregion. Also in 1995, the community of Sanikiluaq was selected for international recognition by the Friends of the United Nations. The community received one of 50 awards in honour of the United Nations’ 50th anniversary. The award was for promoting cultural integrity and positive multicultural relations among Cree and Inuit of Hudson and James Bays.

Editing of the report resulted in publication of ‘Voices from the Bay: The Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay Bioregion’, which was compiled by Miriam McDonald, Lucassie Arragutainaq and Zack Novalinga and published in 1997 by the Environmental Committee of the Municipality of Sanikiluaq and the Canadian Arctic Resource Committee. A relatively quiet time followed publication of the book. The issue of development and its cumulative effects disappeared with the ‘shelving’ of the Great Whale Hydroelectric Complex project. Members of the Sanikiluaq study team participated in workshops; symposiums and conferences upon invitation, but neither the study nor the book generated much interest or concern either inside or outside the community.

In the year 2000, the Environmental Committee of the Municipality of Sanikiluaq became aware of a resurging interest in industrial development of the mineral, oil and gas and hydroelectric potential in the Hudson Bay bioregion. Interest in ‘Voices from the Bay’ is increasing as a result. This has presented new opportunities to express indigenous ecological knowledge, communicate study findings and participate in integrated management-planning activity for the Hudson Bay region.

In May 2002, a joint Municipal Council-Environmental Committee meeting with the Premier of the Government of Nunavut and Deputy Minister of Executive and Inter-Governmental Affairs affirmed the value and validity of the practice, in recognition of the fact that a healthy Hudson Bay is essential for the success and well-being of Sanikiluaq and the other coastal and island communities in the Hudson Bay bioregion.

The practice

‘Voices from the Bay’ as an IK practice originated with the Hudson Bay Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Management Systems (TEKMS) study. The aim of the study from the perspective of its indigenous participants was to put their ancestral knowledge of the environment into writing so that it is appropriately transmitted and incorporated into environmental assessments and policies and communicated effectively to scientists, the interested public, and the youth of the participating communities. The aim of the study from the perspective of those who funded it was to ensure that the traditional ecological knowledge of Inuit and Cree living in the Hudson Bay bioregion is an integral part of decision-making for the Hudson Bay bioregion. The aim of the study from the perspective of the three-year initiative known as the Hudson Bay Programme was to identify and record environmental changes in the Hudson Bay ecosystem from the observations and knowledge of the indigenous peoples living in it.

Current use

Traditional ecological knowledge as an IK practice is still in use throughout the Hudson Bay bioregion on a daily, seasonal and year-round basis. Elders, hunters, women and youth acquire and apply it in pursuit of sustainable livelihoods. Young student-teachers use the ‘Voices from the Bay’ publication as a resource and incorporate it into their course activities and teaching. Youth learn of IK through stories and the sharing of food with Elders on the land and in the communities’ primary and secondary schools.

‘Voices from the Bay’ as an IK practice is at the early stage of entering into a new phase of activity. Its messages are starting to be communicated within the Canadian political world and could well be heeded as agreements regarding hydroelectric development and regional economic development in various jurisdictions are negotiated and implemented over the next 25 years. The IK holders continue to have a role in the affairs of the Sanikiluaq Environmental Committee, and the multi-jurisdictional Hudson Bay Oceans Working Group encourages expression of their views and communication of their knowledge.

Origins of the practice

The indigenous ecological knowledge associated with this practice originates from interaction with animals in the marine waters, islands and lands surrounding the camps and communities of Hudson and James Bays. It began being acquired by the ancestors of Inuit and Cree peoples as they occupied the area after disappearance of the Laurentide Ice Sheet about 10,000 years B.C.

The indigenous peoples’ connection to the lands, waters, animals and atmosphere is a continuous thread through time in the evolution of the Hudson Bay ecosystem. Their indigenous ecological knowledge continues to be generated and expressed in the communities of today through educational activities, cultural pursuits, artistic expression and subsistence activities.

The Hudson Bay TEKMS study originated in the Inuit community of Sanikiluaq. The idea emerged following a national radio interview with Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come, who asked who would be listening to the Cree peoples when they talked about the effects of existing and proposed hydro-electric development on their traditional ways and lands.


Content and approach

The purpose of ‘Voices from the Bay’ is to document and communicate indigenous ecological knowledge in such a way that it will be heard and taken into consideration for responding to changes occurring in social, cultural and physical processes of the Hudson Bay bioregion. Its aims are:

·           To make known the indigenous ecological knowledge of Hudson and James Bay inhabitants with respect to their natural and cultural environments.

·           To support policy and decision-making processes interested in incorporating traditional ecological knowledge in their systems.

·           To advance global knowledge systems by combining traditional ecological knowledge and scientific data for educating and informing people on the dynamics of a particular ecosystem.


Parties involved in the practice

Many parties were involved in the study:

·           The Environmental Committee of the Municipality of Sanikiluaq.

·           The Honourable Peter Kattuk, Member of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly for Hudson Bay.

·           Elder and academic advisors.

·           Regional coordinators.

·           Community leadership.

·           Indigenous-knowledge holders.

·           Linguistic translators.

·           Community researchers.


The Environmental Committee of the Municipality of Sanikiluaq was responsible for the practice. The beneficiaries of the practice are the Hudson Bay Programme, the indigenous participants and peoples of the Hudson Bay bioregion, and environmental decision-makers, policy-makers and educators.

In the study, an average of two or three TEKMS holders participated from each of 28 communities. Most were either Elders or active hunters, and the average age was 56 years. The youngest contributor was 26 years old and the eldest was born in 1909. More men (72) than women (6) participated in the study because of its focus on understanding the dynamics and changes occurring in the Hudson Bay ecosystem, which is generally but not exclusively gender-based knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is used in both the planning and the execution of the practice.

A community-based, participatory research approach was used for developing the initial study. Indigenous peoples from two different cultures became involved in the design, development, implementation and research aspects of the study as well as being the only contributors of information to it. The Study Coordinator was an indigenous resident of Sanikiluaq, and the Research Coordinator a non-indigenous resident.

The first step was to identify the communities in the coastal and island areas of the Hudson Bay bioregion and to develop a work plan which would become a funding proposal and guide for implementation of the study. The purpose of the study was to place the ecological knowledge held by indigenous residents of the Hudson Bay bioregion in the spotlight and to show the contribution it can make to advancing global knowledge systems related to the Hudson Bay ecosystem.

‘Voices from the Bay’ has to date remained apolitical. It is not self-promoting and has not developed an ideology. Respect, perseverance and teamwork are cornerstones of the practice.


The role of Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is at the core of the practice and its value is immense. It was both the premise for and basis of the study: an historic, empowering and rewarding experience for many of the IK contributors. It was historic in that the IK contributors were cognisant of putting their orally communicated traditional ecological knowledge into writing for the first time in history. It was empowering in that they shared this mission with peers from many communities sharing the same environmental outlook, and they believed it would make a difference in the way decisions affecting the environment and communities of the Hudson Bay bioregion would be made. It was rewarding in that for many it was the first time they had the opportunity to formally meet with their peers to discuss in their own language and amongst themselves what they know about the natural environment and the changes occurring within it and their cultures through the introduction of western industrial systems and practices.

Indigenous knowledge can contribute to a better understanding of the Hudson Bay ecosystem and can help to identify changes and indicators of change within it. It can also provide indigenous insights into the growth and effects of human activity in the bioregion. This information is valuable for the management and protection of the Hudson Bay, and for ensuring that human activity does not exceed certain limits.

Indigenous knowledge is also contributing to the formation of new partnerships which could result in development of a unified approach to addressing the increasing effects of human activity and to developing a multi-jurisdictional framework for managing and protecting the Hudson Bay.

‘Voices from the Bay’ honours the expression, and endorses the socio-cultural values, of two distinct cultures, recognising that their societies, cultures and politics differ but they have unifying values concerning the natural world and human-animal relationships.

It has been beyond the scope of the practice to document in detail the socio-cultural values and spirituality of the two cultures with respect to the natural environment. Some IK contributors have suggested that this should be done.

The traditional ecological knowledge of Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay bioregion is specialized knowledge in that it is acquired and refined through an accumulation of concrete, personal experiences. It is practised in the course of traditional land-use activities, and acquired from observing, listening to, and interacting with other people and with the land, water, rivers, sea ice, currents, atmosphere, climate, and animals on a regular and frequent basis.

The holders of traditional ecological knowledge in the Hudson Bay bioregion have few opportunities to earn money from their knowledge because there are significant barriers to their entry to the wage economy. They do use it, however, to alleviate poverty in the subsistence economy.

Some IK holders are paid for the cultural education work they do in schools and for the services as guides which they provide to tourists and scientists.

The transformation of knowledge

The IK of this practice is transmitted between the members of communities primarily through participation in land-based activities, conversations, meetings and gatherings.

Traditionally, it is transmitted between generations through the observation and play of young children and then, from the time the children start taking their first animals at around the age of eight, through active participation in land-based activities. There is a strong reliance on observation and allowing children to make mistakes. As the children get older, their elders start correcting them for their mistakes. As young men, Inuit are encouraged to go out and learn directly from their natural surroundings under various circumstances. In James Bay and western Hudson Bay, Cree youth used to spend a specified period alone on the land, during which time they became men.

Both Cree and Inuit contributors said it is currently a challenge to transmit their knowledge to young people, who now learn primarily from being taught in classrooms and not from observing in the outdoors. Today it is difficult for the young people to actively participate in the full cycle of annual traditional activity, and they are unable to observe the land-based activities of their parents during much of the school year. Recent gun regulation laws are also having an impact on the transmission of knowledge in that it is now illegal to use a gun until a gun registration license is obtained at 18 years of age.

The Cree and Inuit contributors expressed regret that they had lost control of the education of their young to the Government of Canada. They also questioned what type of future their young would have if their knowledge fails to be adequately transmitted.

Schools are becoming increasingly active in developing cultural programmes and engaging students in land-based activities. Elders, hunters and women participate in these programmes and activities as instructors. The traditional principles and methods of transmitting knowledge also continue to be applied but under very different circumstances than two or three generations ago.

The Hudson Bay TEKMS study produced a volume of information that only scratches the surface of the great depth of knowledge held by the IK contributors.

The IK was recorded on audio tapes that were translated and transcribed for the production of written documents and a hypertext database, which searches and links keywords in the original transcripts. It was also documented on a series of multi-layer map overlays for the generation of regional maps and a GIS system and database. The environmental concerns, observations and perspectives of several indigenous contributors were documented on videotape as well.


Achievements and results

The approach and methodology developed for the study resulted in the active participation and commitment of a number of indigenous communities and individuals living in a large, remote and sparsely populated biogeographical region of Canada. It was community-based and community-driven, which means that indigenous peoples were actively involved in all aspects of the research process: design, development, compilation, synthesis and the production of results. The combination of active participation and involvement resulted in indigenous thinking and knowledge being integral to the study.

‘Voices from the Bay’ demonstrates what small, isolated communities can achieve when they are given the opportunity to contribute to identifying and understanding the ecological processes and dynamics of the Hudson Bay ecosystem. This is a necessary prerequisite for pursuing and practising sustainable development. From ‘Voices from the Bay’, scientists and other interested persons have become aware of how weaker currents are changing sea-ice regimes, of the departure of belugas whales from river mouths that have become too shallow for moulting, of the sensitivity of sturgeon to changing water quality and river diversions, and of the type of damage caused by freshwater diversions. They have also learned that many environmental indicators used by IK holders can no longer be relied upon for predicting the weather and forecasting seasonal events, and they have read about how much the Inuit and Cree peoples value and revere the natural world.

The Hudson Bay is referred to as ‘the black hole of Canada’ because so little is known about it despite its domination of the Canadian landscape. ‘Voices from the Bay’ is starting to fill this ‘black hole’ with the knowledge of its indigenous peoples who, in the words of one reviewer, clearly convey the fact that the Hudson Bay bioregion is ‘not the pristine and untouched wilderness of southern imagination.’

Although it is taking at least ten years for ‘Voices from the Bay’ to reach its intended audiences, the initial work is withstanding the test of time and proving itself a credible study. It shows how traditional knowledge can complement scientific data for better understanding of the environment and the effects of development. As a result, the book is establishing a basis for indigenous leaders, government regulators, public policy-makers, industrial decision-makers and scientists to seriously consider the importance of 1) managing the effects of industrial development, 2) protecting the Hudson and James Bay marine ecosystems, and 3) developing a unified approach amongst the stakeholders for addressing the problems that will arise from further increases in development activity over the next 25 years.

‘Voices from the Bay’ has been sustainable, cost-effective and locally manageable for the past ten years, resulting in the protection and safeguarding of proprietary knowledge. Local peoples benefited from being employed for the study and from playing key roles in its development and evolution. The younger Inuit and Cree involved in the community meetings benefited from being exposed to and becoming aware of the rich and detailed traditional ecological knowledge held by their elders. They found a new pride and value in their culture, their elders, and the traditional ways of life. The IK contributors benefit from knowing that their knowledge is now considered important, and from having the opportunity to meet with their peers to discuss matters of importance to them.

The activity surrounding the initial study created some potential opportunities for local individuals. This potential is not being realized, however. The situation would benefit from capacity-building within the community, from adoption of a unified approach to sustainable development of the bioregion, and from creation of new institutional arrangements for monitoring and managing human activity in the bioregion.

Development of the two databases, creation of a network for monitoring indigenous ecological knowledge, and the training of local persons in how to access the databases, and compile, synthesize and disseminate the information they contain, are four more areas where the investment of capital and human resources in sustainable, cost-effective initiatives could produce useful results. These possibilities have not been properly explored yet for several reasons, however: the isolation of the host community, the lack of genuine interest in the Hudson Bay on the part of provincial and federal governments, and the lack of communication amongst the stakeholders.

The study’s methodology is the strength of the practice. It has been replicated and improved upon since 1995. The semi-directed workshop/meeting format has the following advantages:

·           Small groups of people can hold focused discussions on topical areas of interest. These generate considerable information and take into account a range of geographical, climatic, historical and cultural factors that an interviewer may not be aware of.

·           Participants have the opportunity both to contribute and to learn from each other, thereby augmenting their own practical knowledge.

·           The methodology can be used to document indigenous knowledge in cross-cultural settings and over large geographical areas. Contributors will question, verify and build upon the information provided by other contributors.

·           IK holders find meetings more interesting than interviews because of the interaction and exchange of information that take place within the group.

Another strength of the study is its demonstration that traditional ecological knowledge can complement scientific data. A potential advantage of this strength in the present case is that indicators could be developed and baseline information collected for monitoring changes in the Hudson Bay ecosystem which are not yet being measured by western science.

Room for improvement

The practice has not been effectively communicated within the local communities so that community awareness and support are lacking. The practice could be developed further if its purpose and aims were reaffirmed, if resources were allocated to developing a database for disseminating information to targeted audiences, and if its tangible benefits were demonstrated to the participating communities.


Source of inspiration

It is imperative that the ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples be demonstrated and incorporated into environmental decision-making and sustainable development initiatives throughout the world.

The practice would be rather easy to transfer because it is flexible and adaptive and based on listening, working together, and learning by doing. Some adaptations might be necessary depending on the subjects of inquiry, and the communication modes and availability of computer hardware and software.

Features of the study’s methodology have been replicated and refined in other parts of Nunavut by the South Baffin Bowhead Whale Committee, the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, and in Alaska for the Barrow Symposium of Sea Ice.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Additional remarks and information

Students enrolled in the three-year Nunavut Teachers Education Programme in Sanikiluaq have incorporated information from the ‘Voices from the Bay’ publication into their learning and planning activities.

The Curriculum Division of the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Education is examining the publication’s usefulness for the design of senior secondary science curricula on terrestrial systems, marine systems, climate systems and conservation.

There are many structural barriers in place that impede development of the practice. The Environmental Committee is limited in what it can achieve without more community support and new partnerships, for example.

It is not an explicit objective of the IK practice to have a sustainable effect on poverty eradication and social exclusion. However, it is recognized and communicated when appropriate that the traditional ecological knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the Hudson Bay bioregion can contribute to eradicating poverty and creating a more promising future for young people if it is incorporated into the development of new political and economic systems that support and encourage its transmission. An excellent example of this would be the development of a community-based marine environmental quality monitoring system for the Hudson Bay.


Administrative data

Organization involved

Environmental Committee of the Municipality of Sanikiluaq

General Delivery

Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, Canada X0A 0W0

Tel.: +1 867 266 8929

Fax: +1867 266 8837

E-mail: mfleming@arcticdata.nt.ca


Contact person

Mr Lucassie Arragutainaq

Sanikiluaq Hunters and Trappers Association

General Delivery

Sanikiluaq, Nunavut Canada X0A 0W0

Tel.: +1 867 2668709

Fax: +1 867 2668131

E-mail: sanihta@polarland.com


Other partner(s) involved in the practice

·           Mr Brian Fleming and Mr Zach Novalinga
Municipality of Sanikiluaq
General Delivery
Sanikiluaq, Nunavut Canada X0A 0W0
Tel.: +1 867 2668874
Fax: +1 867 2668903
E-mail: bfleming@arcticdata.nt.ca


·           The Honourable Peter Kattuk
Member of the Legislative Assembly for Hudson Bay
Government of Nunavut
Iqaluit, Nunavut Canada X0A 0H0
Tel.: +1 867 9755038
Fax: +1 867 9755095



Total budget (in US dollars): USD 545,000   

Period to which the budget applies: 1992-95

Sources of funding: Private foundations, Government of Canada

Government of Nunavut, Regional Aboriginal Organizations, Public Utilities.


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Miriam McDonald

Environmental Committee, Municipality of Sanikiluaq, Canada

Tel.: +1 867 2668929, E-mail: mfleming@arcticdata.nt.ca

To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion

To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

To MOST Clearing House Homepage