Melanie Callahan, MarCom, Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Chaim Andersen with a bag of the traditional Inuit herbal treatment Labrador tea and  Rayner-Canham holds a ball-and-stick model of germacrone, a biologically-active sequiterpene found in the tea. Photo credit: Melanie Callahan, Communications Coordinator, Memorial University of Newfoundland — Grenfell Campus.

What do rock, ice, and Labrador tea have in common?  Chemistry, of course!  These are also some of the materials used by the Inuit of Nunatsiavut, the Inuit self-governing region of Labrador, to survive in their harsh and oft-barren environment. Each substance was chosen for its specific properties and those properties are a function of its chemistry. That makes chemistry a major, if unrecognised, factor in the life and culture of the Inuit people.

To remove this invisible barrier, Chaim Andersen and I hope to meld culture and science and eliminate this separation of Inuit traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge — particularly chemistry. I am a professor of chemistry who has been active for many years in chemistry outreach to schools in remote, often Inuit, communities. She is an Inuit student from Nain, the northernmost community in Nunatsiavut, who is currently pursuing a BSc in environmental science.

“Chemistry is an interesting science” says Andersen. “It is a way of knowing that involves everyday life and all of the things in it.”

Using her contacts in Nunatsiavut, mainly focusing on elder information, she is compiling information on Inuit materials, such as the type of stone most appropriate for whale-oil lamps and the uses of traditional medicinal plants and remedies. For my part, I am using the scientific literature to provide explanations for the properties of these materials in terms of their molecular structure.

Through our research, as Andersen maintains, students in Inuit communities can connect with the science and be able to learn more effectively and more enthusiastically. We are writing a series of articles on different topics that can serve as a comprehensive resource for science teachers in Nunatsiavut. In order to appeal to younger generations, the content will also cover the chemistry of modern materials that have been introduced to the lives of Inuit people, such as the hydrophilic polymers used in diapers, low-viscosity lubricating oil used in snowmobiles, and soya sauce now commonly served with Arctic char.

One of these articles has already been accepted for publication in Chem13 News, the Canadian high school chemistry magazine published by the University of Waterloo. The subject in this case was the mineral chert (silicon dioxide), found in the far north of Labrador at Ramah Bay, which has been used by aboriginal peoples for at least 7,000 years.

Through Chem13 News our work should gain the widest possible readership among science teachers in schools with aboriginal students. We are now working on our next contribution to the series, which will examine the culture and chemistry of two plants used as Inuit traditional medicines: Labrador tea and dwarf willow. 

“We have already taken a chemistry show to Nain, which included the preliminary part of our work,” says Andersen. “Throughout the show, we could see that there was excitement about chemistry among the students.”

Such an interest has reinforced our belief that relating science and culture is truly a worthwhile way of interesting Inuit youth in chemistry. After she graduates, Andersen will be returning to Nunatsiavut to promote science, especially chemistry, as a key component of the future lives of the Inuit people.

This continuing outreach to northern Labrador is supported, in part, by the Chemical Institute of Canada’s Chemical Education Fund.

Geoff Rayner-Canham is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at  Memorial University — Grenfell Campus Corner Brook, Newfoundland.