Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Sound Commons

A new sound has come to the George River in Labrador, northern Canada, where the Innu traditionally relied on hunting caribou for food and clothing. It is the sound of helicopters flying through the air bringing in engineers and prospectors exploring the area for minerals. According to George Rich, an Innu elder, “the sound of the choppers really is a devastating sound because they [the caribou] don’t know where to look, all these choppers are going flying all over the place.” The result is a declining herd and a changed migration route, away from the traditional hunting grounds. “One of the mineral exploration companies is trying to build a road right in the heart of our territory. Right in the heart of [caribou] calving grounds,” Rich said.(1)   
    One thing leads to another as an intrusive new sound threatens what is left of a way of life. Besides their importance for diet and clothing, caribou “is our identity,” Rich said when interviewed recently for a radio broadcast. “It’s our culture, it’s our way of life. It’s also a part of the big spiritual awareness of what’s going on in the animal world. And without the caribou we don’t think the Innu will be able to survive.” The Innu are so isolated in their northern fastness that without as many caribou they are getting food shipped to them in the summer when the waters are open, or flown in to them in winter. “And then that’s created a lot of problems in diet and eating junk food. . . . A diabetes epidemic is one of the things that we are facing right now,” Rich concluded.
Traditional Innu camp
     There are 850 Innu living in a village 150 miles north of Goosebay, Labrador. They were not always villagers. Until about fifty years ago Innu were nomads, living in camps and following the migration routes of the caribou. The caribou herd, then estimated to have numbered as many as 900,000, has declined to less than 28,000. Of course, the sound of helicopters and road construction isn’t the only thing affecting the caribou. Global warming is doing its part. Caribou bear their calves in cool weather, and they forage for food beneath the powdery tundra snow. The warmer weather brings black flies, makes it more difficult to calve, and covers the ground with rain that freezes to ice and prevents browsing. And the Innu way of life underwent profound change when they were forced to settle in villages. But they still hunt caribou, though now subject to Canadian law which forbids them to hunt in certain places and at certain times. When they violate the law--as they sometimes do--they are subject to arrest.
    But for George Rich, it was the noise pollution from the choppers that most clearly--and most recently--affected the herd. We are not used to thinking in terms of sound-worlds when we measure the environmental effects of development. We usually limit our gaze to the visible landscape: forests cleared for timber use, farmland covered with factories and shopping centers. Sound? It seems so ephemeral. The warnings coming from acoustic ecologists about noise pollution in urban environments seem trivial by comparison. But are they? It isn’t just that sirens and jackhammers are deafening; they cause anxiety and confusion in humans as they do in caribou.
    Not unexpectedly, the Innu have music about the caribou, hunting songs that were passed from one generation to the next. What would a hunting song be about? The strength and prowess of the hunter? A boast or a threat to the prey? A triumphant enactment of the kill? None of the above. Instead, they establish relationships with the caribou. George Rich translated one of them: “You are so far away, I cannot reach you. I’ll catch up with you and call my friends.” This is how music evokes, and shapes, the “big spiritual awareness of what’s going on in the animal world,” as Rich put it. The music of the Innu is not only a critical part of the Innu sound-world, but it embodies Innu worldview.
    “I do hope the caribou come back soon,” the radio host said, somewhat lamely, in ending the interview with George Rich. Rich could not help but agree. They were hoping for resiliency. Beyond hope, though, we might try management: get those helicopters out of there, stop building the road, stop exploring for minerals, and understand that the effects of climate change will be felt not only by vulnerable peoples in remote areas but by every creature everywhere on the planet. Music, sound, nature, culture: again, it’s all connected. A sound-world is not simply an acoustic environment, a container for music and noise. Incidents such as this one with the caribou among the Innu show how a sound-world is a common-wealth, a commons shared by all. Managing the sound commons starts with understanding its nature and significance.


(1). George Rich, interviewed by Steve Curwood. “Reindeer Populations in Decline,” Living On Earth, aired during the week of Dec. 7, 2012. Accessed at

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