Learning by Doing: Lessons from my Inuit Teachers

Learning by Doing and Living with the Inuit

Learning by doing, while living in an Arctic community, has provided some insight, years later, into how a scientist’s unschooled daughters learn experientially.

By Martina Tyrrell

How do we learn to make our way through the world? How do we learn responsibility towards other humans and towards the natural world around us? How do we continue to enhance our knowledge of the world through the course of our lives?

In 2002, I went to the Canadian Arctic to undertake research for a PhD in social anthropology. I was interested in the role of the sea in the life of an Inuit community. Little did I realize that questions about embodied knowledge and skill, and about learning to be a respectful and responsible human being, would lie at the heart of what I discovered over the ensuing decade. And, in discovering how Inuit learn about the world around them, I was given the opportunity to reflect on how I learn as I move through life.

Learning by Doing

Anthropologists don’t like to ask direct questions. We shy away from surveys and statistics. Instead we immerse ourselves in our chosen field of study, learning by doing, and learning though our bodies as much as our heads. Our method is known as “participant observation,” but the anthropologist Clifford Geertz best captures what we do with the phrase “deep hanging out.” In order to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, and to answer the questions that keep us awake at night, we live among the people we are studying, learning their language, living in their homes, working and playing alongside them. We are like children, learning basic life skills from our hosts. And in the course of learning, we often discover that the questions we have are not necessarily the most important or interesting ones. Our conversations with our hosts, often taking place in the course of working or relaxing together, give us an insight into local interests and concerns. The people we have come to study become our teachers, our friends and, if we are very lucky, our families.

So it was that in 2002 I flew into Arviat, a town of two thousand people, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, for one year of immersive “deep hanging out.” I had already lived in the town for a year between 2000 and 2001, volunteering at the local elementary school. It was while volunteering that my curiosity and interest in the sea developed, and I wanted to learn more about the sea as a social, cultural, and spiritual space. After a year of reading and planning and formulating my research questions at a Scottish university, I was ready.

Immersed in the Life of the Sea

For twelve months, I lived in Arviat, leaving only once on a two week visit to another community farther north. In order to learn about the relationship between Inuit and the sea, I had to immerse myself in the life of the sea. Inuit rely on the sea for food, clothing, and for psychological nourishment. The sea permeates the life of the community. Relationships and identity are expressed through hunting and fishing, in the making and sharing of food and clothing procured from the sea, in celebration, and in the maintenance and repair of hunting equipment.

I spent the year hanging out with a purpose with hunters. I went seal hunting on the sea ice in winter and on the open water in fall; and beluga whale hunting, arctic char fishing, and mussel picking in summer. I learned how to soften and sew seal skins to make mittens and boots. I was a novice in all these things, but through the course of the year I learned to handle boats, to drive snowmobiles and quad bikes, to set fishing nets and fire rifles, to cut and scrape and sew. I learned to skin and flense and butcher the animals I assisted in hunting. And I learned to read the weather, to understand the behavior of animals, and to respond to the subtle non-verbal cues of the hunters I accompanied.Learning by Doing - Lessons from the Inuit

It was a steep learning curve. Deep in winter my fingers and toes ached with cold as I stood on the floe edge in -20°C temperatures. In summer, I flensed belugas and checked fishing nets while polar bears prowled nearby. My muscles ached from long days on quad bikes and from skinning and butchering our harvest, and my fingers stung from cleaning fishing nets in cold salt water. I learned through bodily practice how to move and work and be useful in an environment once so alien to me. I learned from my mistakes of saying and doing the wrong things. And I learned from my patient hosts and teachers, who encouraged me and set me straight.

I spent time hanging out in local homes, drinking coffee, talking and listening, and at community celebrations, feasts, and dances. I learned about social relationships, and the importance of sharing above all else. I learned about hunting animals with respect and dignity, not hunting more than one needs, and showing respect for animals by generously sharing meat and pelts.

In learning and practicing the skills of living by and from the sea, and in listening to the stories that Inuit shared (with me and with each other) about the sea, my initial research questions grew less important, and were replaced by, among other things, a growing interest in how Inuit acquire their very deep and detailed knowledge of the sea and of marine animals. I discovered that for Inuit, patience, practice, experimentation, and risk-taking are the paths towards life-long learning and the ongoing enhancement of knowledge and skill.

Frank and the Whale

It’s August 2006, six years since I first lived in Arviat. Over the years, as my knowledge of the people and the place have become more refined, so have my research questions. I’m in town for a few months, carrying out research specifically related to the relationship between Inuit and beluga whales. I have been here since June, hunting with my old friends and teachers, sometimes spending twelve or more hours at sea in small boats during these long summer days. Most of that time is spent waiting patiently for signs of beluga whales – watching for their white backs, listening for their breathing, watching for and feeling changes in weather. These long spells of “alert idleness,” passed in silence or occasional conversation, are punctuated by sudden bursts of activity when a pod of whales is sighted.

Much of my time is spent with Frank, his brother-in-law Arden, his uncle Tony, or with my own adopted dad, Paul. It’s 7am and on this particular morning I’m with Frank. I love spending time with Frank. He is funny, easy-going, patient, and very insightful, with a deep knowledge of the land and the sea. Over the years, he has welcomed me into his family and taught me so much. In the absence of anyone more experienced or suitable, I’ve been Frank’s hunting partner for the past few weeks, but so far we’ve been unsuccessful. We are using Arden’s small boat today and, at this hour of the morning, we are alone on the calm waters of Hudson Bay.

After a couple of hours at anchor, we hear the unmistakable sound of a pod of beluga whales surfacing nearby. We jump into action. Frank pulls up the anchor, I start the engine, and the hunt is on. Frank stands in the bow, his home-made harpoon in his hand. In silence, and with subtle gestures of the harpoon, he directs me to steer the boat right or left, to speed up or slow down, as we follow the pod of seven or eight snow white whales.

We work as a team and, as instructed over the years, I keep my eye on Frank. His first strike of the harpoon hits the mark and now I follow his instructions as we close in on the dead whale. Leaning over the side of the boat, we work together, tying ropes around the massive animal to bring it to shore. I slowly motor to the nearby reef, carefully avoiding the rocky shallows.

Once ashore, Frank leaves me to get on with the job of flensing the whale, while he does other things. It’s hard work but, always keen to please my teacher, I get on with it. Frank then divides the harvest, as is customary. He keeps half of the edible parts for his household and, because we are using Arden’s boat, sets aside half for Arden, and all of the inedible parts for Arden’s sled dog team. I take a small portion of the skin and meat for my own meager needs. When we return to town, I help transfer the harvest to our quad bikes on the beach, and I deliver Arden his share.

That evening, and over the next few days, when I meet people around town and at the store, they slap me on the back and shake my hand. Frank has shared the news via CB radio and everyone, it seems, knows about it. People I don’t even know smile and say, “Well done.” A few days later, Frank and I go inland to hunt caribou. As we sit on the tundra eating lunch, he produces a harpoon head from his pocket. “It’s for you,” he says. “I made it. On account of getting your first whale.” I beam with pride.

Embodied Knowledge

I have learned a lot about Inuit culture over the past decade, although not necessarily what I thought I would learn. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that acquiring the functional, utilitarian knowledge and skills to safely navigate and hunt at sea are inseparable from learning respect and responsibility towards other humans and towards animals. For Inuit, humans and animals are co-inhabitants of a shared environment, and therefore relationships with humans and treatment of animals cannot be compartmentalized and separated. Treating animals with dignity before and during the hunt is followed by generously sharing the harvest widely, particularly with those in need.

Learning by Doing - with the InuitThis brief vignette about my own learning experiences captures some of the things I have discovered over the years about multi-sensory awareness of the sea, about boat handling and hunting, about the embodied skills of flensing and butchering, about partnership and team-work, about sharing, and about family obligations. I learned none of these things through formal instruction, but instead through practice, trial and error, observing the actions of those more experienced than myself, listening to stories, and a good dose of patience. From spending a lot of time with the children of my friends and teachers, and from talking to adult Inuit about their path to knowledge and skill, I have decided that Inuit acquire their – albeit deeper and more expansive – knowledge in the same way I did.

Children are encouraged to become comfortable with snowmobiles, boats, knives, rifles, and the other tools of hunting from an early age. Most nine-year-olds can drive vehicles and some can already expertly service an engine or fire a rifle. Children are trusted and encouraged to follow their interests, under the watchful eyes of adults.

Success is celebrated. Just as I was congratulated on my first beluga hunt, a child’s first successful hunt is cause for celebration and feasting. News spreads quickly throughout the community, and the child’s family holds a feast, during which the child gives away all the meat from the harvested animal. Thus, from an early age, children learn the importance of sharing and are praised for their developing skills.

Learning happens informally all the time, through both storytelling and information sharing. People publicly share stories, advice and information on CB and local FM radio. At home, in the constant coming and going of extended family members, people talk about where they have been, what they have done, and the hunting and traveling techniques they have used. In a culture where there are no clearly defined adult’s or children’s spaces, children are exposed to these conversations all the time, gaining their first insight into maritime skills, and giving them the desire to go to sea.

But listening to stories only takes you part way towards knowledge. Embodied knowledge and skill come about through practice, through learning the physical bodily movements of holding a rifle, cutting snow blocks to build an igloo, or paddling a boat against the current, and through learning to be patient. Spending long hours and days immersed in the environment, throughout the changing year, novice hunters (sometimes as young as five) gradually becomes attuned to the weather, the sea and sea ice, and the behavior of animals. When I first lived in Arviat, I quickly became disorientated once out of sight of the town. In winter, land and the sea looked the same to me. But over time, through practice and with great patience, I learned to read the land and the sea a little, and developed some understanding of the behavior of animals. My knowledge, however, is scant, compared to Inuit men and women who, from the moment they are born, are immersed in these practices and this way of life.

Risk-taking and experimentation are encouraged. An elder once told me, “The ice floes were our classroom.” Playing at being hunters with his friends, he learned about the dangers of sea ice, he learned the skills and techniques to safely traverse the ice. His father encouraged this, believing the only way to learn about the ice was to experience it.

Despite the increased pressures from formal education and employment, the environment retains economic, social, cultural, and spiritual importance, and this is reflected in the amount of time and energy spent thinking, talking about, preparing for, and going to the sea and on the land.

Reflecting on my Learning

While Inuit embodied knowledge is specific to the Arctic environment, to migrating Arctic animals, and to the social relationships specific to Inuit culture, there is also something universal about the way Inuit learn to know the world and to be responsible adults. In light of what I learned in Arviat, I have since reflected on growing up in rural Ireland. I learned about the environment and animals, how to be a good daughter and granddaughter, about local history and geography and culture, simply by hanging out with the people around me, learning by doing, learning from my mistakes. I learned from patient adults, I learned from animals, and I learned from my own observations.

As I raise my own children (on the sea, of course), I am guided by what I have learned over the years in Arviat. I strive to give them freedom to experience the world on their own terms. To know the world they have to live in it, be open to the possibilities it offers, and figure things out for themselves. They need space to play and experiment, to listen and think. And with some gentle encouragement and guidance, I hope they will grow into responsible adults, who show respect and empathy to both their human and non-human fellow inhabitants of the Earth.

Martina Tyrrell is an environmental anthropologist, writer, and unschooler. She lives aboard a sailing boat with her husband and two daughters, and blogs about whatever pops into her head at http://carinaofdevon.wordpress.com. This article was first published in Life Learning Magazine. Her article about unschooling her two daughters at sea was also published in Life Learning Magazine. 

%d bloggers like this: