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  Current issues in subsistence - in the context of Inuit

 by Carl Chr. Olsen

Inuit societies have survived based on subsistence hunting and subsistence economy.
The hunting culture and technology necessitate adaptability to the environmental conditions of the utilized area. The subsistence economy also necessitates mobility, not only to find a variety of sorts of resources fit to the season but also not to wear out the land and over-exploit the resources. The hunting cultural base necessitates sustainable economy. In order to satisfy dietary and material needs, the subsistence economy also necessitates trade relations with other areas to exchange resources which the different areas need mutually. The dependency on the trade relations with other parts completed the utilization of the resources needed to satisfy the needs of the community at all levels. This interchange and exchange activity fosters adaptability to and possibilities of innovations as well as a cultural flow of information.
The community is a social institution. It defines itself by the knowledge of people, the language, the customs, the traditions. The culture of the community is the comprehensive summary of living standards, values, patterns of behaviour, attitudes. The culture must have a material basis, and the subsistence economy, the land and the sea form the basis of the resources.
We tend to say that subsistence lifestyle is different from that of the ideological or political categories. Based on ecological dependency and being inextricably linked to the environment, it is both innovative and vulnerable at the same time.
The innovative character of the subsistence lifestyle and the adaptability of the Inuit people to different environments did not necessarily cause serious problems in the contact with the European and other Western societies and their premises. For the Inuit, those contacts extend the expansive possibilities and innovations in the technological development having access to new materials.
On the other hand, the settlement structure had changed through the establishment of permanent trading posts and colonies as well as technological setting during the postwar period. The changes were changing Inuit from being independent into dependency relationship.
In this context it should be noted that the Danish Trade had the policy not to disturb the mobility of Greenlanders in practising their hunting, while some groups of missionaries insisted on permanent settlement from the beginning.
In these years we are experiencing the situation where Inuit societies are to some extent in a position to shape their own future: politically, jurisdictionally, economicallyand culturally.
We are now in the crucial situation to understand the concept of self-determination in its literal sense.
* The majority of the Inuit will have political platform enough to have a fruitful dialogue with their Nation-States.
* Inuit is in a position to promote Inuit interests and concerns internationally through the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, for example.
* Inuit is part of the bodies to promote the rights of the indigenous peoples at UN level in concurrence with the Human Rights Conventions as well as other conventions.
In fact, a Greenland delegation took part in the wording of UN-Document E/CN 4/sub.2/1993/29, where paragraph 31 reads:
" Indigenous people, as a specific form of exercising their rights to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, including culture, religion, education, information, media, health, housing, employment, social welfare, economic activities, environment, and entry by nonmembers, as well as ways and means for financing these autonomous functions."
By the interaction with the Nation-States under the stage of lack of self-determination Inuit have gradually taken for granted that the systems work as that of the Nation-States. The systems referred to are the ones which are mentioned at the above stated document.
With the gradual introduction of the literacy, the educational systems have been introduced as the education, including learning of languages and the legal and judicial systems. It should be said that the Inuit has had an enormous benefit from the education. The education, however, did promote specific skills relevant to participate within in the Nation-States. Traditional knowledge - including the knowledge of the subsistence lifestyle, which was introduced through participation - is not necessarily incorporated in the skills to be taught in the Inuit schools systems of today.
By the advance of the urbanization and consumer mentality based on the monetary economy as well as the information technology along with scarcity of the game due to population growth, skills relating to the practising of subsistence activities are known to a limited part of the people. Even though there seems to be a willingness to retain these, the time delimits the practice.
This is true despite the fact that jurisdiction of the game has been transferred to Greenland Parliament and the Greenlandic municipal authorities.
In the early 1980s we have been protesting against the ban of the sealskin in the European countries, we have been making efforts to persuade the International Whaling Commission on the Greenlandic Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling issue with success. We have been helping other indigenous communities in protesting against trapping campaigns.
In the present situation in Greenland, I am not worried about the implementation of the subsistence rights. Greenland-Denmark have been in the forefront in promoting these rights as they have been stated in the Human Rights Conventions. Denmark-Greenland have also been participants in promoting the Rio-Declaration and its Agenda 21, which gives further opportunities of promoting environmental safety, the sustainable development, and the right to development of the indigenous peoples.
Greenlandic identity is very much connected to the subsistence activities.
Sustainable development contains the monetary economy to a great extent. Subsistence economy does not necessarily exclude the monetary economy as the support.
By the definition of the aboriginal subsistence whaling, Greenlandic hunters can hunt the whales for the subsistence use, harvest them and transform the value monetarily to the local community, and secure the distribution of the meat within Greenland - not for the purpose of marketing it outside Greenland. Since the dietary needs are crucial and are part of the identity marks, a Greenland delegation to the International Whaling Commission has to document the need for meat to be 640 tonnes.
Subsistence livelihood is sometimes mistaken by several people outside Greenland for being backwards and outdated. Subsistence economy has to be thoroughly analyzed and be valued as a system fit to the environmental setting and be developed within the promotion of the sustainable development, along with the monetary economic setting based on the market economy.
As far as I can understand the Greenlandic historical development, subsistence livelihood can be the basis for the economic development in a modern sense.
During the industrial developmental stage of Greenland in the 1950s and 1960s Greenlanders agreed to initiate industrially based infrastructure. During this period up to now, Greenlandic people have spent many financial resources building up the infrastructure in terms of fishing facilities, housing, transportation, communication and administrative facilities. During this period there has been a migration from small communities into the township in order to keep up with the trends.
We are now in the stage of transition where we are in the process of fullfilling the infrastructure. And we are now in the formal position where we can shape the institutions and systems which we find fit to Greenland. Reinstitution of the subsistence economy with support economies will be one of the viable trends, provided that our awareness of identity is intact and is informed about through the educational system.
To realize this, one of the tasks will be to make the surrounding societies understand the importance of the cultural integrity of the Inuit.
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Updated August 14, 2002