it is to see ... the caribou ... beginning their wandering to
the north. Glorious it is to see the great herds ... spreading
out over the plains of white. Glorious to see.
Inuit poem recorded by Knud Rasmussen in the 1920s
(The Netsilik Eskimos 1931: 224) once asked a certain Netsilingmiut
hunter, "What is it you desire most in life?"
man responded, "I would like to live without sadness and without
pain, I mean without suffering of any kind, without sickness."
makes a lot of sense, despite the fact that most people today, when
asked the same question, would probably answer, "To live as
long as possible."
brushes with death were pretty common with Inuit of the old days.
And it gave them a perspective toward death that is uncommon in
these times. They did worry about aspects of their mortality, just
as people today do, but they were generally resigned to the idea
that their lives would not necessarily be long. Instead of worrying
about how long they might live, they fretted over quality. A lack
of suffering was what they most desired - they feared becoming sick,
maimed, lonely, or a burden to their families.
was a fact, in those times, that every new day carried with it the
possibility of death. There was no point in getting hysterical over
such a reality - one simply had to get used to it. And they did
I was in Rankin Inlet a few years back, I was lucky enough to run
into a very, very old fellow. Speaking only proper Inuktitut, he
showed me the top of his head, bald except for the wispy remnants
of snowy-white hairs. The flesh of his scalp was a mass of scars,
the cranium itself strangely indented, as though his skull had been
crushed inward until it had become bowl-shaped. Gesturing toward
his head, he explained that, long ago, he had found himself trapped
against a towering wall of sea-ice, ambushed by a polar bear. Lacking
dogs, his gun jammed, he spent a small eternity defending himself
against the bear. Time after time, it reared up and crashed its
paws down upon his shoulders and head. He survived only by struggling
to remain standing, since he knew that a bear attacks by forcing
its prey down beneath it, whereupon it can kill by biting off the
victims face. He refused to allow the bear to knock him down,
and after many attempts, it grew tired and stalked off, leaving
him alive. But he had been severely wounded, his head permanently
disfigured by its blows.
told the story in the same way that he might have talked of buying
something at the store. And, to top it off, he had only told it
to introduce some other topic (some bit of political chit-chat)
of current interest to him.
later heard that this old man had died only a couple of days later.
He was truly ancient, and it was no surprise, but it made me painfully
aware that, if the man had not incidentally told me his tale, it
might have died with him. I realized that all too many of these
living libraries are even now dying, their untapped knowledge, their
histories and adventures, passing with them. For they will not tell
such stories until the time is right, or until their stories are
asked of them. Being traditional, they keep their thoughts to themselves,
for this is Inuktitut, the way of Inuit.
is it surprising that he wasnt excited about his brush with
death? It shouldnt be, since this sort of thing was simply
the kind of world his generation lived in. We might call it an adventure,
but he simply knew it as day-to-day life. For him, this was the
equivalent of a day at the office.
such a world, dreams of a long life quickly dissolve, being at best
unlikely. It is, however, still possible to dream of happiness -
and this is just what traditional Inuit really valued.
values are reflected in the traditional Inuit views of what happens
to an individual after death. It was important to think that material
happiness might endure - even if life itself could not. And this
had a direct impact on the approach used by early missionaries.
is all I have to say.)