The Inuktitut word Sila is often translated by Westerners as “weather” or “climate,” but to the Inuit the term suggests a much larger and more complex spiritual concept. Timothy B. Leduc explains the ways the Inuit view global climate change in a recent journal article.
Sila is apparently an important aspect of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), the term used to describe the basic Inuit view of the land and their relationship to it. While scientists usually refer to Sila as weather, ethnographers have defined it as a mystic power of the air that suffuses all of creation, a god-like supreme being. The purpose of Leduc’s article is to provide a cross-cultural bridge so scientists can better understand how the Inuit view climate change. The author argues that scientists attempting to gain a broad view of what is happening to the earth should learn how local people understand, and are coping with, this massively important subject.
One problem for the Inuit is that many of their children no longer have a very good understanding of IQ and its related concepts—the meaning of Sila is being lost. But to many adults, it is much more than wind, water, and air. The literature about it varies. For instance, one commentator said that the Inuit “were dependent on good weather, on winds and ocean currents, in other words they were dependent on Sila (p.239).” However, an Inuit elder indicates that Sila includes “the forces which push or pull a person through life, or simply wisdom.”
The author bases his article on an extensive e-mail conversation with an Inuit scholar named Jaypeetee Arnakak. In order to gather information, Leduc hosted a two-day conference in the village of Chesterfield Inlet. He recorded, with the permission of the participants, the entire proceedings, which he shared with Jaypeetee for their further analysis.
Leduc quickly learned that the participants in his conference wanted their understandings of Sila to have an equal standing, or at least be respectfully considered, along with the theories of Western scientists. This decolonizing approach to research does not necessarily mean that they reject the Western scientific method. But it does mean centering the discussion on the approaches and worldviews of the people who are most concerned about the subject. The participants in Chesterfield Inlet, shown data from climate scientists, agreed with the graphs they were shown—they matched their own perceptions of what is happening.
The author reviewed with the participants a quote from the Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen, that “Sila [is] a strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact all life on earth—so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the sea, through all the forces that man fears … (p.241).” The participants rejected it. Sila is not a male anthropomorphic being. The Inuit tell no stories about Sila.
But Sila does have a spiritual place. Jaypeetee tells the author, “Sila is really a no thing because snow is not sila, rain is not sila, wind is not sila, clouds are not sila—they occur in sila … Sila is like empty space (p.242).” He describes Sila as an ungendered entity, an “it” that is both animated and sentient.
Jaypeetee further explains that Sila is not a personification of human beings, but the other way around: “the person is owned by Sila … we are the personification of sila (p.243).” The word for wisdom, Silatuniq, he says, is built on the root word Sila. Tuniq, in Inuktitut, refers to the original people who lived in the Arctic, before the Inuit. The combined word means the wisdom that gives people the practical knowledge for living on the land. Jaypeetee argues that Sila permeates and surrounds Inuit communities as an immanent, constantly-moving, spiritual force. The way to be wise is to allow Sila to own oneself. In other words, human understandings of Sila will help promote human actions that will follow Silatuniq, wisdom.
A related expansion of Sila is the Inuit concept Silarjuaq, an understanding of constant flux, a condition that suggests the way the human mind is always changing. Silarjuat is a consciousness that can include mood swings with no apparent, rational reason. The belief that Sila is sentient, Jaypeetee argues, “changes things in a systemic way because it forces one to think of responsibility to self and the other, and it also contextualizes the self into its environment (p.244).”
Leduc suggests that these beliefs challenge the Western view of climate change as solely an external process that can be controlled, studied, predicted, and perhaps profited from. The constant state of flux in scientific climate research is similar to the changing nature of IQ conceptions in Inuit thinking. Climate changes depend very much on human actions, which are not completely understood, as much as they do on geochemical and physical forces that are also little comprehended. The author concludes his article with the wise words of his informant Jaypeetee: “What we have to learn to do is to listen to the pulse of Sila (p.249).”
Leduc, Timothy B. 2007. “Sila Dialogues on Climate Change: Inuit Wisdom for a Cross-Cultural Interdisciplinarity.” Climate Change 85:237-250