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Scientist lives with endangered tribe to save disappearing language

By Thair Shaikh, CNN
  • Stephen Pax Leonard is living with the Inughuit in Greenland
  • He is attempting to document their disappearing language
  • The Inughuit tribe has a population of just 800 spread across four settlements
  • It is permanently dark there now; temperatures can fall to minus 40 degrees Celsius

London, England (CNN) -- As inhospitable environments go, it doesn't get much trickier than living near the Arctic Circle where the temperature can plummet to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the permanent winter darkness and the diet consists of walrus and whale blubber.

But this is where a British adventurer has been living for the last three months with an endangered tribe so that he can record their rapidly disappearing culture and language.

Before Stephen Pax Leonard embarked on this journey he told CNN that it was an "ambitious linguistic challenge," and that he didn't doubt the physical and mental challenges awaiting him.

Now, having spent almost 12 weeks adjusting to the freezing conditions and the language barriers, Leonard talks about his experiences there.

The cold has already taken its toll on the Apple Mac laptop he took out there. It has frozen and refuses to "boot up," but Leonard has managed to find an "ancient," PC that he is using to send emails .The PC is not powerful enough to cope with the transmission of picture files or videos, says Leonard.

Beneath were the world's most northerly people, living in a quite implausible environment
--Stephen Pax Leonard

"With 16 others and a small mountain of freight as co-passengers, I arrived in the community aboard a Dash 7 turboprop aircraft. Clouds lingered just above the brightly colored wooden houses. Beneath were the world's most northerly people, living in a quite implausible environment."

Leonard added: "My very first impression was the otherworldliness of the place: after four-and-a-half hours of flying up the west Greenland coast with nothing to see but bare ancient rock, meandering glaciers licking the horizon and icebergs littering the fjords, this dry polar desert with its omnipresent rocks and boulders and lack of vegetation seemed completely out of place. Sitting just 596 miles (960 km) from the north pole, I felt as if I had come to a different world altogether rather than to the top of my own."

Leonard, an anthropological linguist at the Scott Polar Research Institute and research fellow at Cambridge University in England, will live with the Inughuit people, or polar Eskimos as they are sometimes called, for 12 months while he learns Inuktun, a "pure" Inuit dialect.

The Inughuit are one of the smallest indigenous groups in the world, with a population of just 800 spread across four settlements. They are hunter-gatherers who do not have a cash economy or a written language. Their language is based on a storytelling culture.

Leonard continues: "A woman who has spent nearly all her life in Qaanaaq stands in my green prefabricated wooden hut, on the vast polar bear and musk-oxen skins that cover the floor.

"Dried, pungent blubber sits on the racks outside. Looking out across Ingelfield Bay and the whale-shaped Herbert Island, towards the exploding icebergs that sit like vast lumps of polystyrene in the Murchison Sound, there is a sadness in her eyes: 'Twenty years ago, my children used to go skating on the ice at this time of the year. Last year, the ice was so thin that a young hunter and his dog team of 12 fell through to their deaths. If the sea ice goes completely, there will be no need for the dogs [huskies] and our culture will disappear.'"

Although part of the Inuit people, the Inughuit enjoy their own distinct subculture based on the hunting of marine mammals; they say they are being "squeezed" out of existence.

Local people believe the government, which has self-rule within Denmark's small commonwealth, has a hidden agenda to force out the people in the most remote communities, creating three or four urban centers in Greenland and thereby reducing the cost of servicing isolated settlements.

But Leonard says that apart from political pressure, the tribe faces a new and unprecedented threat to their culture from global warming.

"It is widely understood how global warming is threatening the natural environment but the Inughuit represent a bona fide example of how climate change impacts on local cultures.

"The threat of global warming to their traditional hunting life has left the Inughuit believing that their current settlements will not be here in 15 years' time, that people will relocate southwards, and will assimilate into a broader Inuit culture," wrote Leonard.

Working with the last handful of storytellers, Leonard wants to document their stories and narratives in the old Inuktun language in the hope that this will act as a record of their unique culture. Rather than writing a dictionary, he is building an "Ethnography of Speaking," to show how their language and culture are interconnected and how their knowledge and sociocultural experiences are transmitted through these spoken traditions

"One elderly Inughuit tells me this is our last chance: 'We inherited our language from our ancestors. If we lose it without record, future generations will know nothing about their rich past.'"