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While romantic problems are frequent causes of suicides by Inuit youth, a recently published study describes other factors in two Nunavut communities that also seem to distress young people. An interesting aspect of the research, however, is that since the results of the project were shared with the two communities involved, they have both taken a much more active role in the affairs of their young people. The communities have developed programs oriented toward fostering the well-being of the youth, and the suicide problem has abated—at least for a few years.

Inuit communitiesThis hopeful investigation of Inuit suicides is one of the better contributions presented in a recent volume of 15 essays by various researchers who specialize in Inuit studies. A few of the contributions to the book seemed a little thin, but most are informative and quite interesting. Rather than prepare a single review of the whole book, individual reviews of three of the more distinguished essays will give a better sense of some contemporary Inuit scholarship.

At a conference on suicides held in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in 1994, one Inuk elder pointed out that while there was a high rate of suicide in her own community, another had almost no suicides, so far as she was aware. She recommended that someone ought to study why there are differences among the Inuit communities. Perhaps that could lead to measures that might help prevent them. Ethnographic research, specifically the gathering of stories, might permit communities with high suicide rates to profit from the experiences of those who did not have the problem as severely.

Inuit participants at the conference suggested that their own youth, and elders, should be essential contributors to any scholarly attempt to address the issue. Research should be conducted the way the Inuit would do it: by working collaboratively, by collecting narratives, and by involving the communities. They urged that researchers investigate not only the issues related to suicide in a high-suicide and a low-suicide community, but also the factors in those communities that make people happy and sad.

The primary author, along with some others, decided to take up the challenge and begin the suggested study. They titled it “Unikkaartuit: the people’s stories,” and they clearly included the perspectives of Inuit communities as well as non-Inuit scholars in the design and execution of the project. An Inuit steering committee recommended that the investigation focus on the towns of Qikiqtarjuaq (at the time called Broughton Island), a high-suicide community, and on Igloolik, one with fewer suicides.

The investigation established a study committee composed of both researchers and members of the two communities. The committee developed a research plan that called for the recording of life histories that would reveal the experiences and meanings, for the Inuit, of happiness, health, wellness, healing, and unhappiness. The stories the people told should also suggest the ways they understood what caused suicides. The participants would be interviewed in open-ended and semi structured interviews—and some, with questionnaires.

Both Inuit and qallunaat (the Inuit word for non-Inuit) field workers conducted the interviews for a month in each of the chosen communities, with the local committees being closely involved in the nature of the questioning. The authors point out that the Inuit had constant, and quite productive, oversight of the project through the constant meetings of the study group and input from members of the two communities. “Our umiaq [boat] had many rowers but the direction was ultimately set by Inuit,” the authors write (p.63). The researchers also spoke on the local radio stations about the project to the communities.

Interestingly, as the investigation proceeded, the researchers noted that the number of suicides in Qikiqtarjuaq were declining, while those in Igloolik were increasing. So the research group decided to also investigate recent social changes in the two towns, as well as the differences between the communities that they had originally envisioned.

The interviews were conducted, at the option of the interviewees, in either Inuktitut or in English. All the elders interviewed chose to speak in Inuktitut, while most of the young people chose English. All were taped and nearly all transcribed, though the identities of the interviewees have been kept confidential.

Three major themes emerged from the data that the researchers amassed. The most significant one was the importance of family to the Inuit. Discussions of sadness, wellness, and happiness were all tied to social lives within the family. The second theme to come out of the interviews was the value of talking within the community, and the third was the importance of Inuit traditional practices, which form the basis for the good life as they perceive it.

Interviewees expressed concerns about the pace of rapid social changes and the growing sense of social distance and anonymity in their communities. Families seemed to be growing apart, and the divide between the generations seemed to be widening. The youth and the elders both felt rejected by the other, and both were waiting for the other to reach out and start repairing the growing gulf between them. Young people continue to learn Inuktitut, but it did not seem to be the same language spoken by their elders. Hunting as a tradition was no longer a shared, cultural pattern among the generations.

The authors present this report on their study of Inuit suicide within the context of a broader movement that they refer to as “participatory ethnography,” which they say is distinct from the older style of “participant observation.” Participatory ethnography developed, for these two authors, not as an academic desire but as a response to the expressed concerns by the Inuit for their own, direct, involvement in the study. They had a very strong determination that the research must be done right, and that it must benefit the target communities more directly than a lot of scholarship does.

The authors situate their scholarship within the context of respect for indigenous societies. “A participatory anthropology is not a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen, anything-goes anthropology but one that we believe rests on the foundation of inclusiveness and respect” (p.69), they conclude.

Kral, Michael J. and Lori Idlout. 2006. “Participatory Anthropology in Nunavut.” In Critical Inuit Studies: An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography, edited by Pamela Stern and Lisa Stevenson, p.54-70. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press