Story posted December 17, 2010
Canadian Inuit activist, Sheila Watt-Cloutier was the Tallman Scholar at Bowdoin College for the fall ’10 semester. She works on a range of social and environmental issues affecting Inuit, focusing on climate change and persistent organic pollutants in the Arctic. For over a decade, Watt-Cloutier was a political representative for Canadian Inuit. In 2005, Watt-Cloutier and sixty-two Inuit hunters and elders filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States have violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights.
Among numerous awards and honors for her work, Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She visited Bowdoin College for the first time in 2009 to receive an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Watt-Cloutier currently lives in Brunswick while she writes her book, “The Right to Be Cold.”
- How did you come to the concept of connecting human rights and climate change?
Well, when you are living it every day, it’s not something you have to think about very deeply in terms of our rights being violated—we already know the connection is there. Our Inuit hunting culture is based on the ice, the snow, and the cold. Nowhere else in the world is snow and ice representative of a way-of-life. Snow and ice connect us to other communities, to our culture, to the training ground for young people—our hunting culture is not just about the pursuit and harvest of animals, it is also about teaching our young people character skills. For years, we started to see and notice how our way of life was being negatively impacted, whether it’s the health and conditions of our wildlife or our environment and climate.
We, Inuit, have so much to lose from the melting ice. Already we were coming out on from one wave of tumultuous social change. Even though we are highly adaptive people, we knew that the second wave with climate change coming was too big of a piece for us [Inuit] to sit around and let our people become a footnote in the history of globalization.
- How do Inuit view the United States when it comes to climate change?
Canadian Inuit have a very soft spot for Americans. During a time of great famine during the Second World War, when our own government had forgotten about us, the Americans arrived with jobs, supplies, and food. All of the elders today would tell you that, if it were not for the Americans arrival there would have been a lot more people who would have perished from starvation. When I saw my uncle, who is eighty-four years old, the other day said to me, “You tell the Americans I thank them.” That history is there.
But don’t forget, Inuit are Americans as well—Inuit live in Alaska. We don’t see a difference between each other, we are all Inuit together. So we don’t have this sentiment that we oppose Americans for what they do or don’t do. The work I did with the petition was not about confrontation—the energy behind the petition was one of reaching out, trying to find solutions, and speaking to the highest self of America so that they can start to understand that their actions are impacting the way-of-life of an entire people.
- Why did you decide to take on a teaching position?
I feel like it is time for me to share my life experiences, to share what I have gone through and the life lessons that have led to me to where I am now. These are important lessons for my children, my grandchildren, for Inuit children who are struggling, and for all youth of the world who need to be part of the solution to living a sustainable life and contributing through leadership roles to create a paradigm shift in this world. I do not have all the solutions and answers for the world, but I feel there is something there I can give back.
- Was there anything that surprised you about your experience of teaching at Bowdoin?
What surprised me most were the students. In the first class, I asked, “Do any of you know about Arctic and Inuit issues?” and they said, “No, we don’t.” And from that time to now, the depth of understanding that all of the students are portraying is extremely impressive. I expected that perhaps it would take much more and maybe even a little resistance to fully embrace the importance of culture of a people who sit at the top of a world, very far from Bowdoin. Yet here we are now and it has really surprised me beyond my own expectation of the in depth understanding that the students have shown.
- What are the main ideas you hope that students will take away from their time with you?
I think it would be the openness to understanding the importance of the culture of indigenous people. People with a superficial understanding of culture see Inuit of the Arctic and their traditions, but they don’t see beyond the appearance or sound of culture. Culture is beyond that, culture has the foundation of values and principles of a sustainable world. All humans were hunters and gatherers at one point. We Inuit are still hunters and gatherers and fishers. While we may have nine to five jobs as a part of the modern world, we remain extremely connected to our culture and our way-of-life. Without sustainability and respect for our environment, we wouldn’t be able to hunt and pass on the traditional knowledge to our children. The understanding of culture in a much deeper way is something that I wanted students to take away.
The other idea I wanted to pass on was that we are all so connected. The significance of the Arctic to the rest of the world is really important for all young people to understand. You see that connectivity in the ice. As the Arctic melts, other places in the world are sinking—you can’t get clearer than that in establishing this connection. But we are also connected as a shared humanity. We are all one family under this troubled atmosphere. It’s unfortunate that it is a troubled atmosphere that is now starting to bring us together as a shared humanity.
- What can Bowdoin do to further the dialogue you have started about human rights and climate change?
With this issue of climate change, most of civil society has often said, ‘This issue belongs to scientists, economists, and politicians. What role do I have to play?’ But when they hear the human story, they say, “Wait a minute, I can feel that I can connect to this. What can I do now that I realize I have a role to play?” What I say to them is, ‘Get to know more about this issue and the answer will come to you specifically about what you can do in your home, your community, how you vote.’
The simple answer for Bowdoin is, now that students understand this issue much more in depth, students should look for ways in which they can contribute to the solution. The awareness has to grow within Bowdoin and it can’t continue with only fifteen students—but fifteen students is a great start.
"The simple answer for Bowdoin is, now that students understand this issue much more in depth, students should look for ways in which they can contribute to the solution. The awareness has to grow within Bowdoin and it can’t continue with only fifteen students—but fifteen students is a great start."