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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

The Art and Science of Studying Caribou

Jean Polfus is a researcher who uses her illustration skills to help build bridges between the worlds of caribou biologists and Dene hunters in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Dene knowledge-holders help to refine Jean Polfus's caribou illustrations and interpretive text during a three-day focus group meeting held in a remote cabin in the Sahtú Region of the Northwest Territories. These illustrations – which describe the differences between populations and types of caribou found in the region – will become multilingual posters that will be shared in the local schools. The posters are part of the significant information exchange taking place as part of Jean Polfus's collaborative caribou research.Photo Courtesy Jean Polfus

Jean Polfus has been fascinated by the North ever since she was young. She recalls how, when she was in eighth grade, her family drove from their home in northern Wisconsin through Canada up to Alaska, where they visited Denali, and she saw her first caribou. “I remember that being something that was pretty foundational to my love of the North,” she says, “but I still never really would have guessed at that time that I would end up living in northern Canada, the far North.”

Nor would she have guessed then that she would spend much of her postsecondary career studying caribou. Polfus first spent her master’s studying caribou habitat in northern British Columbia, and recently completed her PhD studying caribou genetics in the Northwest Territories. She now lives in Tulita, a small fly-in-only community of about 500 people along the Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories, where she’s completing a postdoctoral fellowship that aims to combine traditional and scientific knowledge about caribou herds.

Polfus is an artist as well as a scientist, and she uses her illustrations to explain scientific concepts and help facilitate community meetings. We spoke to her recently as part of our “Emerging Leaders” series.

Arctic Deeply: Tell us about your work.

Jean Polfus: I have a two-year postdoc fellowship, and it’s a great one because it’s really flexible and allows me to continue to work in Tulita and build on the relationships I’ve built within the communities doing caribou work. The postdoc leans more towards communications. During my PhD I saw that a missing component was having the time and energy to focus on communication of caribou knowledge from the scientists, or the biologists and the policymakers to the communities, and then from the community knowledge to the researchers and the outsiders.

Usually when people get together, it tends to be during a crisis situation like caribou decline or some other huge management issue that needs to be fixed right away, and so people come to the table when there’s a lot of tension. Everyone wants the same thing, which is for caribou to continue to exist and for people to have their relationships with them, but the problem is that when you come together when there’s a crisis, it’s not the best place to share knowledge.

For my postdoc, what I want to do is develop ways that we can have that exchange of knowledge so that we can build a baseline understanding of caribou from both traditional knowledge perspective, then a language perspective and the science. With my PhD research, I found that people are interested in the science, and there’s so much to be learned from the traditional knowledge from an outsider researcher’s point of view. So if we can find good ways to facilitate that kind of discussion, we could make a pretty big difference when it comes to bigger management or policy decisions that need to be made.

Arctic Deeply: You’re also an artist. How does that relate to your scientific work?

Polfus: I felt really lucky during my PhD that I could draw on some of my strengths. I grew up the daughter of an artist – my mom is an artist and taught kindergarten through eighth-grade art and was a potter and painter. So I developed those skills since I was a little girl, and I realized that when you’re trying to explain genetic inheritance or what DNA is to elders, it’s such a foreign concept that you need to work with interpreters to help describe how that works, and use good examples to help them understand. Really good drawings can help explain my research.

We also teamed up with a cartoonist, Doug Urquhart from the Yukon. He did some initial work for us, and I have done other illustrations that help us describe the research. During the research process we talked about different types of caribou and how they look alike or different, and there’s a limitation to how photography can be used to help people describe things, because what I found was that people look at a photograph of a caribou and it’s specific to that individual caribou, whereas a drawing or illustration can be used to represent more general patterns of how ɂekwę́, shúhta ɂepę́ and tǫdzı [barren-ground caribou, mountain caribou and boreal woodland caribou] are different from each other.

Arctic Deeply: What would you say motivates you for your work?

Polfus: I really hope that my new son will be able to see caribou and have caribou in his life in the future. And I would love to see Dene people have the relationship they have with caribou continue into the future. I hope in the future it will be a young Dene person from Tulita who has a job like mine. It would be a huge accomplishment to help build the foundation, so that other people can have their voices heard, and in wildlife management, to have the issues and the questions asked be directly applicable to the communities whose livelihood still depends on caribou and everything connected to caribou.

Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now?

Polfus: I work in the sub-Arctic, but it’s the same issue there. I hope to see that people whose livelihoods are dependent on the ecosystems have a stronger voice in research and the decisions being made about wildlife. In the future, I hope that Inuit and Dene and Metis and other indigenous people have the capacity and the authority to make management decisions that impact them.

Jean Polfus holds up a bag of caribou scat collected by environmental monitoring students on Tets’ehxe (Drum Lake) in the Shúhtagot’ı̨nę Nę́nę́ (Mackenzie Mountains) of the Northwest Territories, Canada. Genetic analysis of the mucosal layer covering the fecal pellets has helped define spatial genetic patterns and characterize the boundaries of different groups of caribou in the Sahtú region. (Photo Courtesy of Jean Polfus)

Jean Polfus holds up a bag of caribou scat collected by environmental monitoring students on Tets’ehxe (Drum Lake) in the Shúhtagot’ı̨nę Nę́nę́ (Mackenzie Mountains) of the Northwest Territories, Canada. Genetic analysis of the mucosal layer covering the fecal pellets has helped define spatial genetic patterns and characterize the boundaries of different groups of caribou in the Sahtú region. (Photo Courtesy of Jean Polfus)


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