Poverty, Well-Being and Climate Change in the Arctic: a Musical Perspective – The Arctic Institute

September 27, 2022 By , , ,
The Inuit hamlet of Pangnirtung, located on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Isaac Demeester
Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Arctic since time immemorial, establishing rich regional cultures and governance systems long before the introduction of modern borders. The Arctic Institute’s 2022 Colonialism Series explores the colonial histories of Arctic nations and the still-evolving relationships between settler governments and Arctic Indigenous peoples in a time of renewed Arctic exploration and development.
Conversations on poverty span a diverse range of public discourse and academic disciplines, for instance in the forms of economic poverty and cultural poverty. The conceptual parameters of this article are such that poverty is discussed primarily in the economic sense. Ethnomusicologist Harrison1) and philosopher Pogge2) have addressed the relationship among colonisation and poverty, and this article aims to contribute to ongoing discussions through introducing prospective impacts of climate change on the interplay among poverty, well-being and music. In its discussion on well-being, this article generally employs the concept of subjective well-being as defined in psychology – that is, “a person’s overall evaluation of the quality of life from his or her own perspective”.3) While the indigeneity-psychology nexus is often investigated in terms of the more immediate impacts of colonisation on well-being (e.g., intergenerational traumas), significantly less research has explored its ongoing secondary or tertiary impacts, of which poverty is one. In her article on poverty and music in the Haitian context, Dirksen queries whether “seeming economic poverty [can] be balanced against so-called cultural richness” and “culture be exploited to enhance daily life,”4) and the article at hand attempts to adopt the same gaze to the experience of northern indigenous communities in an era of rapid environmental vicissitudes.
As part of a doctoral project that looks at psychological well-being in northern indigenous communities, this article explores the Nunavut experience through various methods. In approaching the question of how climate change might influence pre-existing undercurrents among poverty and well-being, this article turns to contemporary scholarship within the field of psychiatry.5) Specifically, this article addresses the potential impacts of food insecurity,6) poor housing conditions7) and the (in)accessibility of psychological healthcare.8) Following a discussion on the therapeutic qualities of music and community,9) interview responses,10) Inuit musician Seeteenak’s music11) and her interview responses12) localise these interdisciplinary dialogues in the context of Nunavut, northern Canada. In her songs, Seeteenak reflects on the personal and collective hardships the Inuit in Nunavut encounter. As its conclusion, this article calls on communities and organisations in- and outside the field of music to urgently address psychological well-being in northern communities.
In this section, the connections among poverty and well-being are discussed. One can look to the album Therapy Sessions to learn the various forms of poverty in Nunavut.13)
How could I live here when I can’t afford housing?
How can I be healthy when the food is lousy?
If you wanna live up here you gotta fight to survive
‘cause living here sometimes makes you wanna die.14)
According to Manseau, “economic factors, including inequality, poverty, and neighborhood deprivation” have significant impacts on mental health.15) In both her music and interview responses, Seeteenak alludes to poverty in its various forms, including food- and accommodation-related insecurities alongside limitations in local health care.16)
SS: A lot of Inuit do live in poverty … I just wanted to write a song [Surviving the North] where I could show the dark side of Nunavut – where people are hungry, people don’t have housing, people, people die a lot because of suicide or illnesses. I just wanted to educate people on that side because a lot of people don’t know that. 17)
Compton explains food insecurity as “a condition in which the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in socially acceptable ways, is limited or uncertain, most often because of constrained financial resources.” He continues that it is “clearly linked to depressive disorders and is likely linked to other specific mental illnesses, as well as one’s general sense of well-being.”18) Reports and articles published in the past few years highlight the level of food insecurity in Nunavut. For instance, foods “have to be flown in or shipped in” to Nunavut and close to seven in 10 residents face food insecurities according to the Nunavut Food Security Coalition.19)
Moreover, as Suglia et al. argue, “poor housing quality and housing instability are major public health concerns, affecting both physical and mental health outcomes among adults and children.”20) Seeteenak notes the prevalence of overcrowding in accommodations in her community,21) phrased “crowded living conditions” in Suglia et al. discussion on the impacts of housing quality on mental health.22) Former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, who is featured in Seeteenak’s song Too Many Coffins,23) sheds light on the reality of “fourteen people living in a four-bedroom home”; according to the MP, the report’s aim is “to raise awareness and to humanize the housing crisis in Nunavut, an issue typically represented through statistics.”24) In her analysis, Qaqqaq observes that she has “never met a non-Inuk living in a home with obvious mould” and that everyone she spoke to “facing so many barriers, housing being a major one, was Inuk.”25)
In addition to food and accommodation, healthcare-related inadequacies in Nunavut are addressed in the same song.
How could we live here when we don’t have support?
How can we be heard if we’re being ignored?26)
Seeteenak’s sentiment extends beyond the range of this particular song.
SS: Up here, it’s hard to get proper mental health help. It’s hard to – I don’t know – it’s hard to heal. It feels like for us to heal, we have to work, like, ten times harder than other people. So I wrote that song [Too Many Coffins] because I was angry, and I was sad.27)
In her songs as well as her interview responses, she illustrates the challenges that come with seeking psychological assistance, spanning institutional and cultural domains.
SS: It’s hard to get mental health help here because a lot of the counsellors tend to come here and then leave and then you have to start all over again. And it’s just that problem of not having a consistent person to talk to, so I think that’s why a lot of Inuit don’t like to go. And there’s still a huge stigma around mental health that if you’re depressed or you have anxiety you’re portrayed as crazy.28)
Nunavut’s “notoriously transient workforce” has been emphasised in the news and, in the words of the territory’s representative for children and youth, the mental health infrastructure is “inadequate, unacceptable, and failing to meet the needs [of youth].”29) Adapting a study conducted by Mabughi & Selim,30) ethnomusicologist Harrison31) underscores social deprivation in its various forms. For instance, referencing basic needs, she explains that “poverty is defined as physiological deprivation of the requirements for meeting basic human needs [including] food, shelter, schooling, [and] health services”. Furthermore, entitlements “are widely understood as rights, or are supported by legislation” which include health and well-being. In psychiatry, Langheim et al. outline patient-, provider- and systems-level factors which include self/public stigma and “problems with rapport and the therapeutic alliance,”32) echoing Seeteenak’s commentary. At the same time, psychological well-being in Nunavut is historically-nuanced. Inuit Makkik,33) who conducted her master’s research in Clyde River, Nunavut, reflects on her experience regarding what she identifies as colonisation-induced intergenerational trauma:
The pain of many is still so great. We still have a lot to overcome. We, the younger generation, are realizing this but we can’t seem to cut off the pain. [23:15-23:44] 34)
Community music therapy’s emphasis on socio-cultural contextualisation is echoed in Seeteenak’s music.35)
I’ve seen so many people calling for help.
How can we help when we can’t even help ourselves?
We need to work together now in order to heal.36)
SS: I wrote this song [Therapy Sessions] to let – to show how passionate I am with music and how music has made me feel throughout these years. I think music has helped me a lot. Music helped me stay alive and that’s why I portray in that song how music has been a huge therapy for me.37)
According to music therapist Warren,38) research shows that music can help individuals with an array of mental health issues and “acts as a medium for processing emotions, trauma, and grief”. Similarly, Garchinski, a clinical supervisor in the Our Life’s Journey programme explains that people “heal by talking.”39) Warren calls attention to the following realities: lyric analysis encourages individuals to tweak, make sense of and relate to existing lyrics in the context of their own lives; improvisation music playing fosters an emotional outlet and discussion among individuals playing instruments together; active music listening can calibrate our emotions; and song-writing encourages individuals to address their thoughts which can contribute to augmented self-esteem and pride when heard by others. Her emphasis on lyrical content is paralleled in Ilisaqsivik counsellor Paniloo’s explanation of the importance of language:
We are more comfortable speaking in Inuktitut, not speaking in English. When I try to talk about the pain we have, I prefer to talk about it in Inuktitut. It is like I am able to release more of what I need to let go. [25:45-25:58] 40)
Paniloo highlights a sense of limitation that comes with communicating her thoughts and experiences – and by extension her identity – in a non-native language. Ranta, a director at Ilisaqsivik (an Inuit not-for-profit organisation) clarifies that “the need for the community to come together was the lack of mental healthcare in the community” and that the only option was to visit a health centre to speak to a “southern nurse who was very transient and [could] only speak English.”41) Alternatively, music, which can be shared through various platforms to reach large populations, can be one approach to tackling shortages in mental health professionals who are proficient in the local language.
Present interplays among food, accommodation, healthcare and psychological well-being are further complicated given our changing climate, and its impacts are already evident in northern indigenous communities.
SD: Do you think the, kind of, changing environment has any connection with people’s mental wellness or do you think it might in the future if it doesn’t now?
SS: Yeah, I think it might in the future because Inuit still go hunting a lot to provide for their families and without ice, Inuit can’t travel across the land to hunt for seals or caribou. If one day there’s no more ice I don’t know what Inuit are gonna do to provide for their families.42)
Warmer temperatures can result in higher alcohol consumption due to stress as well as a surge in suicide rates.43) Alcoholism has salient connections with suicide44) and climate change increases the likelihood that mental healthcare infrastructures will become increasingly challenging to access.45) Likewise, the very process of migration (in this case a climate-induced one) leads to a higher prospect of “exposure to a number of psychological and social risk factors which exacerbate the likelihood of developing mental health difficulties.”46) Various studies highlight the impacts climate change is anticipated to have on livelihoods in northern communities, which in turn can aggravate current insecurities in food, accommodation, healthcare and, ultimately, individuals’ well-being.
The aim of this article is not to argue that music is a panacea. On the contrary, while music can contribute to cultural and emotional affluence through improving personal and communal well-being, it is evident that changes must be implemented on a systemic level. While Seeteenak compares musical engagement to talking to a counsellor, she remains cognizant of its limitations:47)
I’ve always had trouble talking about how I feel
I tried many different things to find a way to deal
Writing music didn’t really seem to work for a while
Smoking weed was what kept forcing me to smile
Alcohol became a part of my life, became dependent48)
SD: In Therapy Sessions, you mention that ‘writing rhymes has always been your greatest therapy’. What do you think it is about music that is so therapeutic for you?
SS: I think it’s very therapeutic for me because I’m a very quiet person. I’m very laid-back and I don’t really talk about how I really feel inside. I’m very introverted. So I think it’s therapy for me because I’m able to express my emotions and my feelings and my thoughts into music. If I didn’t have music, then I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know what kinda state of mind I would be in. So it’s like therapy. It’s like talking to a counsellor in my opinion.49)
Substance abuse is prevalent in Nunavut and other Arctic communities50) and, as in any research, ethical considerations need to be carefully considered. For instance, what negative impacts might interventions have on the communities in question? It is evident that well-being in the indigenous Arctic, growing concerns pertaining to climate change and its prospective imminent impacts on northern communities necessitate more robust infrastructures and research. While some of the former exist, climate disasters and migration can lead to a delay or deficiency in current resources.
Seira Duncan is an indigenous Eurasian doctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland and an International Arctic Science Committee fellow.
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