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Posted: Thursday September 17, 2015
The meaning of “sila”

Our changing climate will have a significant impact on how we organize ourselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Arctic, where warming temperatures are displacing entire ecosystems.

In a series of eight plays that have together come to be called The Arctic Cycle, playwright Chantal Bilodeau explores the effects of climate change on the eight countries in the Arctic Circle. The cycle of plays begins in northern Canada with Sila, which will be published this month.

Sila, with its large-as-life polar bear puppets, is evocative and mesmerizing as it examines the competing interests shaping the future of the Canadian Arctic and local Inuit population. Equal parts Inuit myth and contemporary Arctic policy, it features puppetry, spoken word poetry, and three different languages (English, French, and Inuktitut).

In anticipation of the publication of Sila, we asked: what does “sila” mean? And why is it the right title for this play?

English-Inuktitut translator Janet Tamalik McGrath has provided the answers. She shared with us an article she co-wrote recently with other Canadian scholars which explains the significance of the term and poses questions about the nature of climate change discourse in Canada – a purpose shared by the play Sila. The article, “Translating Climate Change: Adaptation, Resilience, and Climate Politics in Nunavut, Canada,” was written by Emilie Cameron, Rebecca Mearns, and Janet Tamalik McGrath and published in a special issue (“Futures: Imagining Socioecological Transformation”) of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Volume 105, Issue 2) in 2015.

The article examines the translation of key terms about climate change from English into Inuktitut, considering not only their literal translation but also the broader context within which words make sense. The authors argue that notions of resilience, adaptation, and climate change itself mean something fundamentally different in Inuktitut than English and that this has implications for climate policy and politics. The following extracts from pages 6–7 of the article shed light on the term sila and the place it has come to hold in the discourse of climate change:

Efforts to translate the Western scientific concept of climate into Inuktitut have settled on the imperfect and not directly corresponding term ‘sila.’ The Inuktitut translation of the term climate change is thus ‘silaup asijjiqpallianinga,’ and it refers to a process of ongoing, continuous change in sila. Although sila is consistently translated back into English as ‘weather,’ ‘climate,’ or ‘environment,’ it is in fact a much more complex concept. Qitsualik (2013, 29) explains that sila is “arguably the most important concept in classic Inuit thought … occurring in senses that are intellectual, biological, psychological, environmental, locational, and geographical.” It can mean air, atmosphere, sky, intellect, wisdom, spirit, earth, universe, and all. Sila, Qitsualik argues, is a kind of “super-concept, both immanent and transcendent in scope,” deriving its meaning within Inuit cosmologies that cannot be reduced to Qallunaaq notions of outside, environmental phenomena (see also Leduc 2007).

Within Inuit cosmologies and epistemologies, uncertainty, unpredictability, and change are foundational. The world is understood to be ambiguous and to elude full comprehension and thus change is both expected and accepted (Bates 2007). To describe sila as being in a state of ongoing and continual change, then, is to state the obvious. The term ‘silaup asijjiqpallianinga’ confirms what Inuit have always known: The world is in a continual state of flux. In Qallunaaq epistemologies, because fixity, certainty, and predictability are highly valued, to define climate change as a set of extreme and lasting changes to climatic patterns is to signal danger and to call up the question of who or what is causing the climate to change. In Inuktitut the term signals no such danger, and neither does it demand the question of cause. In fact, if climate change were translated as ‘silaup asijjiqtitauninga’ (literally, “sila being made to change”), a term that implies causality and human intervention, the term would strike many Inuit as absurd. Within Inuktitut epistemologies and cosmologies, it is impossible and even nonsensical to imagine that humans could cause sila to change.

Although defining climate change as a process by which sila is being made to change by humans is cosmologically and epistemologically difficult in Inuktitut, the notion of unethical abuse of sila, McGrath notes (translated as ‘silaup asijjirluktauninga’), is indeed comprehensible and would likely elicit a very different response than the more benign notion of continually changing weather. While environmental change – even dramatic and extreme environmental change – is understood in Inuktitut as something to greet with patience, resilience, and creativity, abuse and harm are dealt with through Inuit frameworks of justice, relationality, and healing. Indeed … it is precisely the translation of climate change as a wholly environmental phenomenon and not as a matter of social, political, or structural injustice and harm that naturalizes adaptation and resilience as appropriate responses to climatic change.

And from the article’s conclusion on page 9:

All forms of translation are imperfect. … If climate change was translated and widely discussed as unethical abuse of sila, it would not only mobilize a
wholly different Inuktitut moral framework; it would also bring a particular set of subjects back into the frame: those who cause and profit from climatic change, those who suffer from it, and sila itself. It would make explicit the relational ties that bind the suffering of Inuit, over here, to the actions of particular subjects, over there, and their shared dependence on the earth.

… as human-induced climate change works to alter social, political, and ecological processes on the planet, it is essential that such shifts and impacts be made linguistically and epistemologically legible in Inuktitut.

Climate change represents an acute threat to socioecological systems, one that disproportionately impacts Arctic peoples. At stake is not just the preservation of stable ice regimes but the very survival of peoples, cultures, languages, and lands.

There is more afoot in the Arctic than one might think, and the play Sila is a window into the peoples and communities whose lives are affected in a variety of ways. On Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut, eight characters – including a climatologist, an Inuit activist and her son, and two polar bears – find their values challenged as they grapple with a rapidly changing environment and world. Sila captures the fragility of life and the interconnectedness of lives, both human and animal, and reveals in gleaming tones that telling the stories of everyday challenges – especially raising children and maintaining family ties – is always more powerful than reciting facts and figures.

The Arctic Cycle poignantly addresses this issue. Look for the print edition of Bilodeau’s play, Sila, in Fall 2015.