Making chemistry relevant to indigenous peoples

In Canada, one challenge is to excite indigenous peoples about science, and chemistry in particular. For many years, with a series of student colleagues, we have been taking a Chemistry Show to schools in remote communities in western and central Newfoundland, coastal Québec, Labrador and even Nunavut (see References). The presentations have focussed on aspects of materials chemistry, consumer chemistry and polymer chemistry, which we can illustrate with appropriate demonstrations. This year, we gave a special presentation to the Aboriginal Youth Conference, an event in Corner Brook sponsored by WISE NL, Women in Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (Fig. 1).

Labrador’s flag with leaf and green and blue colored lines.

The flag is that of Labrador, a unique part of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Nunatsiavut flag with inuksuk.

The flag is the autonomous self-governing region of Nunatsiavut.


Three people wearing tie-dyed lab coats.

Fig. 1. The new Chem Show team at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. (from left to right): Yu-Ru Lee from Taiwan, Geoff Rayner-Canham, and Robin Taylor from Nova Scotia.(Lucia Torres, photographer).

For this particular presentation, we devised an opening segment on chemistry and Inuit culture. Over 20% of students at Grenfell Campus of Memorial University have aboriginal status. However, very few are of Inuit heritage (and none, so far, have taken Environmental Chemistry at Grenfell), even though the northeast Labrador coast is the autonomous, self-governing Inuit region of Nunatsiavut. In putting this section together, we came to the realization that Inuit culture relied significantly upon properties of materials. Materials chemistry can then be a means of providing students from indigenous cultures with a realization that chemistry is an integral part of understanding their heritage life-style. In the next sections, we will provide a few specific examples.


As maritime peoples in a cold environment, ice is a fundamental fact of life for Inuit for much of the year. Yet ice is a most unusual material in that the solid form of water is significantly less dense than the liquid form — that is, ice floats on liquid water. So this brings us to hydrogen bonding between water molecules and the open ice structure where the water molecules are locked into place (Fig. 2). In our show, we do a demo of putting a ‘regular’ ice cube and an ice cube of ‘heavy water’ (deuterium oxide) into cold liquid water to show what would happen if frozen water behaved as other substances do.

Sticks and balls drawing of calcium silicate molecule.

Fig. 2 The open structure of ice, showing the channels between the water molecules (

As the interaction is by means of intermolecular forces, neighbouring ice crystals placed firmly together will generate new hydrogen bonds, linking the crystals together. Thus structures may be constructed of ice. This brings us to a second important property of ice: its behaviour as a thermal insulator. It is the adhesion of the ice crystals, together with the trapped insulating air molecules, which enable igluvijaq (commonly called igloos) to be a means of shelter even in extreme cold (Fig. 3).

Drawing of people, dogs and igloos.

Fig. 3. An engraving of a collection of igluvijaq in 1865


Minerals have been another essential item for Inuit. Harpoon heads were traditionally made of slate or nephrite, both silicate minerals (Fig. 4). So here we have an example of the rigidity of an ionic structure, one containing calcium cations and silicate anions, with the polyoxoanions forming a framework of very strong −O−Si−O− covalent bonds. Such hard minerals can be cleaved into sharp blades which are hard enough to penetrate an animal’s skin.

Calcium silicate.

Fig. 4. The structure of a calcium silicate mineral, similar to that of nephrite (

Another rock of importance is soapstone. The mineral itself, talc carbonate, is quite soft. It consists of a mixture of grains of metal silicates and of magnesium carbonate. Thus the bonding between these components is very weak, making it an easy material to carve into such things as oil lamps, known as kudlik or quilliq (Fig. 5).

Woman cooking over a fire.

Fig. 5. Lighting oil in a soapstone kudlik or quilliq 9/90/Qulliq_1999-04-01.jpg.


Arguably the greatest benefit to Inuit of contact with Europeans was the acquisition of iron/steel. A woman’s knife, called a ulu, is employed to remove meat from the bones of animals. Traditionally made of slate, the much-superior sharp iron blade was rapidly integrated into Inuit culture. With iron, the metallic bond is strong, and as it encompasses all of the atoms in the structure, the shape can be formed into the required ulu shape and the blade can be sharpened without fracturing, unlike stone blades (Fig. 6).

Triangle blade made of steel.

Fig. 6. A Canadian western Arctic Inuit ulu made of steel with a caribou antler handle. (

Composite materials

Much of current materials chemistry research is focussed on composite materials. These are combinations of two or more components, usually different in bonding types, which impart a mixture of those properties to the composite. One of the composite materials traditionally important to Inuit has been bone. This comes from a variety of sources, particularly caribou antler and walrus tusk. An important use of this strong carvable material is in snow goggles, called ilgaak or iggaak, which are used to prevent snow blindness (Fig.7).

Man wearing snow goggles.

Fig. 7. Snow goggles, called ilgaak or iggaak, in this photo carved from caribou antler. ( goggles#/media/File:Inuit_snow_goggles.jpg).

Bone has two components. About 70% consists of crystals of hydroxyapatite, Ca5(PO4)3(OH), which give bone its compressional strength. The matrix is collagen, a protein consisting of amino acids. Every third amino acid in the collagen chain is the simplest amino acid, glycine (Fig. 8). It is the lack of substituents on glycine which enables the strands of amino acids to pack together tightly to give the tensile strength of the matrix.

Sticks and balls drawing of glycine molecule.

Fig. 8. It is the predominance of this amino acid, glycine, which causes the protein, collagen, to have its unique tensile strength. (


In these few examples, we have endeavoured to show that Inuit culture and chemistry are intimately linked. The properties of each material used are explicable in terms of its bonding and intermolecular forces. We hope this article can initiate thoughts on how chemistry can be first introduced to indigenous people through properties of their own traditional materials. Once the spark of enthusiasm has been generated, then one can begin to teach with a more traditional approach to chemistry.


We express our sincere thanks to archaeologist Scott Neilsen of the Department of Archaeology and of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University for his very helpful comments on Inuit materials.


  1. G. Rayner-Canham, C. Smeaton, A. Snook, and T. Churchill, “To Boldly Go Where No Chemical Educators Have Gone Before,” Canadian Chemical News, 58(8), 2006, pages 16 – 17.
  2. N. Alteen, T. Chaisson, and G. Rayner-Canham, “We Have Changed Lives: Lessons from Twelve Years of Chemistry Outreach,” 97th Canadian Society for Chemistry Conference, Vancouver, June 2014.
  3. C. Smeaton, A. Snook, L. Griffin, and G. Rayner-Canham, “We Have Changed Lives: Lessons from Twelve Years of Chemistry Outreach,” 23rd IUPAC International Conference on Chemistry Education, Toronto, July 2014.