On the Land

I cherish the summer I first camped with Paulosie Attagutalukutuk's family of nine in a canvas tent on Baffin Island, almost thirty years ago. We ate raw seal liver on the sea ice and cracked open caribou legs to slurp out the marrow.

The dictates of the forbidding ecological niche that the Inuit traditionally occupied presented few options for survival. Hunting successfully and living with the weather were the preoccupations of everyone. Permanence and accumulation were not practical or sustainable states. An individual¹s pragmatic skills determined social status; like hunting, the ability to trade, a willingness to share meat. Clothing and shelter were temporary, and tools often belonged to whoever needed them; like words or like old caribou skins, tools came and went.

On Baffin Island, I arrived as a stranger and left with new tastes and deep respect for my Inuit friends. It was a good day when other Inuit came to our camp and joked about me, the "qallunaaq", the white man, and Paulosie told them that the "qallunaaq" had traveled with them for a long time, that he hunted and ate raw meat and was like a member of the family.

I remember the many nights I slept in tents and igloos, and how the only privacy I had was when my eyes were closed. It is easy to imagine how, four-thousand years ago, living in frigid darkness, always vulnerable, close together inside a crowded igloo, and sharing everything, led to deep respect for the sanctity of one’s own thoughts. Thoughts were one of the few things considered to be personal property, and easily violated by questions, disagreement or analysis. Typical “qallunaaq” questions about "when" and "how far" are irrelevant, and simply receive a shrug. One does what has to be done - no matter how long it takes.

One morning in camp, I felt compelled to apologize to Andy Paulosie’s eldest son, for not helping to slide the boat into the water. Looking surprised at my comment, Andy replied, "It doesn't matter if you take pictures while we carry the boat, everybody does what is necessary."

In Inuktitut, one's thoughts are called "Isuma" - a rare abstraction in a tangible world. Except for about 60 of the last 4,200 years of Inuit habitation here, cooperation, sharing, and a cunning alertness to the spatial qualities of their environment, proved more useful than ownership, accumulation, competition, and even the concept of time. These were all foreign concepts to a culture oriented to the present and the concrete, where blood means life not death, and living the questions makes more sense than seeking answers. Perhaps it should not be surprising that their suicide rate is nearly five times the national average.

Whenever I look at the sea ice I am surprised that anything, even polar bears, can survive out there. I think about time, distance and scale, and how a footstep doesn't take you very far. When I feel the icy wind bite my face, I remember what Martha Naqitarvik’s sister Koonoo from Arctic Bay told me one time between stories of shaman, cannibalism and connections with the land. "I think the world around us is hearing... That is why the wind has stopped.... And, if we stop talking…The wind will come back".


Robert Semeniuk - Igloolik 1998