“The Great Sea has set me in motion
Set me adrift
And I move as a weed in the river.
The arch of sky
And mightiness of storms
And I am left Trembling with joy.”
An Inuit poem by Uvanuk, noted by the explorer Knut Rasmussen. This translation, by Teegoodligak of South Baffin Island, is from the National Library of Canada.
That Inuit poem reflects one of the central focuses of this website. Man’s appreciation of and yet anxiety about Beauty-both natural and human. Beauty enchants and can lead a man to his death.
Inuktituk is the language of the Inuit, often called the Eskimo. Inuktituk means ‘to sound like an Inuk.’ Inuit means ‘people who are alive at this time.’ Eskimo is a Cree Indian word meaning ‘eaters of raw meat.’ Eskimo is considered to be a derogatory term but descriptive as the Inuit did eat raw meat though it is thought that this is because of the vitamins in it which act as a preventative to scurvy. It was derogatory because it suggested something which was totally of the natural as opposed to human world. Animals eat raw meat. [Many tribal peoples living ‘close’ to Nature are at great pains to distinguish themselves from it. The Temne of Africa can take a long time over a hairstyle known as ‘cornrows’ analogous to furrowed rows of farmed land. It emphasizes that hair is not animal fur.]
There is a harsh and rugged beauty to the Arctic lands which are snow and ice covered for much of the year. Inuit have about seventeen words to describe the whiteness of snow depending on its condition. This kind of fine discrimination is undoubtedly necessary for survival in the harsh arctic environment.
The North American arctic region has been inhabited for about 11,000 years. The Paleo-Arctic tradition lived in Alaska from roughly 11,000-6,000 years ago. This was followed by the Arctic Small Tool tradition which gradually spread eastward across northern Canada towards Greenland. Their descendants are referred to as Paleo-Eskimos. It is thought that they were nomadic hunters of land mammals primarily hunting caribou and musk-ox. They also hunted sea mammals such as the walrus, seal and small whale. They were the first peoples in the Americas to use the bow and arrow.
The earliest culture to produce significant art is called the Dorset culture which lasted from 800-600 BC to 1000 AD. The Inuit refer to the Dorset people as the Tuniit. It is called Dorset because the first artifacts of this culture were discovered on Cape Dorset on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The climate had cooled during the period from 1500 BC until the first century AD. This led the peoples to congregate on the coasts where it was warmer. In some respects it was less advanced than the previous culture as the Dorset peoples no longer used drills, bows and arrows, nor had dogs. The climate then began to warm again around 900 AD and the Dorset peoples, who had survived for a thousand years, were unable to adapt. This, with competition from a new peoples from the west, the Thule culture, led to their disappearance about 1450 AD.
The Thules are considered the ancestors of today’s Inuit. While archaeologists don’t know what happened to the Dorset peoples in their legends the Inuit killed or drove the Tuniit away. Many of the artifacts of the Thule culture are found in northwest Greenland. Once it emerged from Alaska the Thule culture moved rapidly eastward over northern Canada to Greenland where they came into contact with Europeans, the Vikings, about 1100 AD. This may not have been the first contact with Europeans though because before the Vikings settled in Greenland Pytheas, a Greek sailor, reached the Arctic in 320 BC. as did St. Brendan, an Irish monk, in 500 AD. The Egyptian king Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) had a polar bear in his private zoo in Alexandria and the Romans had polar bears fighting seals in a flooded coliseum in 57 AD and polar bears are not native to either Egypt or Italy.
Unlike the Dorset culture, the Thules had dogs to pull their sleighs. They also had bows and arrows and hunted sea mammals such as seals and whales in kayaks and umiaks. Umiaks are large boats made of skin.
The early explorers into the Canadian Arctic had little impact on Inuit culture and their way of life. All this changed when whalers began to base themselves in the Arctic during the mid-nineteenth century. Whales were not only hunted for whale oil for fuel but also for their whalebone or baleen.
This had numerous uses in the nineteenth century among which was in the fashion industry as it was used in women’s corsets. Inuit men and women were hired to work both on the bases where the whalers wintered and often on the whaling ships themselves. Naturally this eroded traditional ways of life. The fashion industry’s increasing demand for white fox fur led to many Inuit giving up their traditional ways of life and becoming solitary trappers. With the collapse of the price of fox furs in the 1940’s, after many years of trapping having formed the basis of Inuit economy, they could not return to traditional ways of life.
A real bad hair day figures prominently in the Inuit myth of Sedna, the Sea-woman, who is the custodian of seals, whales and narwhals. If humans have violated the souls of the animals Sedna’s hair is dirtied and the animals remain entangled in her dirty hair until a shaman descends to her home at the bottom of the sea. The shaman has to comb Sedna’s hair to set free the animals so that they can be hunted otherwise the people may starve.
Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic. It is the fifth largest island in the world with an area of 195,928 sq. mi. It is more than twice the size of the UK which is 94,251 sq. mi.