Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 10, 2004 - Issue 104


pictograph divider


Qitsualik: The Old Man and the Ice

by Rachel Attituq Qitsualik / Indian Country Today

Glorious 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

Rasmussen (The Netsilik Eskimos 1931: 224) once asked a certain Netsilingmiut hunter, "What is it you desire most in life?"

The man responded, "I would like to live without sadness and without pain, I mean without suffering of any kind, without sickness."

This 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."

Close 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.

It 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 just that.

When 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 victim’s 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.

He 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.

I 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.

But is it surprising that he wasn’t excited about his brush with death? It shouldn’t 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.

In 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.

Such 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.


(That is all I have to say.)

Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!