Skip to main content

Learning to observe, read sila all-important to Inuit

How was the weather behaving? That was always our primary concern upon rising from sleep.

"Go out and see the sila," my father would instruct. We were to scan the horizon, practicing our powers of observation.

Was there anything unusual, out of place, not in keeping with the sila? What was the aspect of sila ? calm ? thunderous ? threatening?

What was the color of sila, gray, red or blue? The edge of sila, the horizon, what did it tell you? Was it dark? If so, a storm was on its way. Were the clouds white on gray, or gray on white, a critical difference. It was all-important to be able to read sila.

Sila and nuna (earth) determined your existence. It was no wonder the word sila also meant "wisdom." A person with a "large sila" was wise.

You didn't mess around with sila, she might determine your fate. While you stood at the floe edge, waiting in vain for the seal which never came, sila could cause the ice-pan upon which you stood to drift out to sea.

When sila was good, she was a real treat. There was plenty to eat, travel was a pleasure and the very sun seemed to smile down like a blessing from above. At such times, it seemed as though the nuna and sila were in harmony. And, witnessing them, you felt as though you were in harmony within your own soul.

At other times, the sila was treacherous. It played tricks on an unsuspecting mankind. The sila might start out calm and well then, like an injured friend, suddenly turn upon you. It could make you distrust your own senses by throwing mirages and all manner of wretched weather at you.

When sila was angry, there was no appeasing her. You had to make a personal decision. You could wait out her temper, miserable in your tent. You could don your waterproof boots, and boldly challenge the storm. It was always a gamble, a game whose odds only the oldest hunters had learned to play well.

As suddenly as it had started, the fury of sila could abate, leaving behind flowers glistening with fresh drops of dew, shining like diamonds in clear light. The nuna felt refreshed. The wind was once again your friend.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

When tales were told in the dark of winter, the teller would begin with the state of sila that day. "... The day was windy ... " So much of what humanity did was dependent upon sila. Sila was with or against us that day.

Inuit looked to the heavens constantly, and to other cultures it might have seemed like Inuit were a tribe bent upon worshiping sila. But while in ways sila was akin to a sky-mother, nuna to an earth-father, Inuit thinking was not as concrete as that.

Sila and nuna did not possess exact genders or familial associations; they simply were what they were. And while nuna was typically friend, sila was both friend and foe. Earth was always stable and reliable.

One could tame earth to a degree, forcing one's will where needed. Sila was always chaotic. And thus did order and chaos continually revolve around one another, ever exchanging roles and levels of influence. And all be damned who stood in sila's way.

Even today, traditional Inuit wisdom maintains that the body has its own sila. Sila is the air and we who have our own air also have a part of sila -- a part of its life force.

Such wisdom also maintains that people who have undergone surgery or severe injury have a "disturbed sila."

This seems reminiscent of modern medicine's knowledge of electrolyte depletion, which hinders nervous functions. Or perhaps of trauma care's "golden hour," the precious hour within which the effects of shock must be reversed or nothing can save the patient.

In homeopathic medicine, increasingly acceptable in recent years, many healing arts are based upon the principle of aiding a patient through the manipulation of magnetic fields.

It would be interesting to find out what traditional references to an individual's "sila" were meant to encompass. Perhaps science still has a lot to learn from ancient wisdom, which at times only lacks the vocabulary possessed by science. One who is silatujuq, "endowed with a large sky," has wisdom. And one can never have too much of that.

Pijariiqpunga.