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'Old graves' in the Arctic

I was looking down at sun goggles, the old-fashioned sort once used by
mountain climbers, cold-preserved leather surrounding twin yellow lenses.

"I wonder why they left them," I whispered to myself.

I'd stumbled across a tent ring near our summer camp, perhaps once occupied
by passing explorers. Around me were numerous piles of rocks. Some were
natural. Others were graves.

My family spent every Arctic summer on the mainland, at a place called
Sandy Point. There we'd camp, fish, store dog food for winter. We were
surrounded by myriad tent rings of stones and lichen-bare ground, as well
as burial sites and other evidence of recent to ancient Inuit habitations.
There were ancient bone structures, caribou pit traps, fox traps and
ancient fish weirs. There were remnants of old sod huts, wooden and bone
tools, stone lamps, ivory amulets and personal charms.

The land surrounding these places was typically sheathed in lichens that
had accumulated over untold harsh winters and balmy summers. Our family
would often explore the old sites, being careful to follow the timeless
rule of non-disturbance. We were allowed to see, but not to take. Such
things were ittarnitait - of the ancients - those which are not to be
disturbed.

Half the fun of viewing these old sites was the stories they told, related
in stone and bone remnants. Over here, a family had thrived on seal: you
could tell how well their hunting had gone by the number of young seal
bones left behind. Over there, a group had only camped for a short summer
caribou hunt, as evidenced by smaller tent rings, the kind used for quick
overnights. The piled skulls were devoid of antlers because they had been
carved into tools.

One site was a great old grave situated among several smaller ones - all
the typical cairn-like structures of piled boulders securing the skin- or
blanket-wrapped bodies. Compared to its neighbors, this grave had been
particularly well-kept, as if someone had repeatedly come back to restack
the rocks. This was a clue that it was not an ancient grave, but merely
old. Ancient practices involved leaving the body in its caribou-skin bag,
exposed to the elements - encircling the deceased's form with rocks in
order to denote that a burial had taken place - long after the body itself
had disappeared though the depredations of scavengers.

Yet this body lay under rocks, some of which had given way to reveal
bleached bones and a partial skull. The little armchair anthropologist
within me guessed that the deceased was likely to have been a woman. The
skull seemed exceptionally graceful and slender, yet too large for that of
a child. About her neckbones lay the remnants of a necklace of
semi-precious stones, perhaps jade. Who, I wondered, had loved this person
so much as to bury her wearing her necklace, looking after her grave so
well for so long?

But there was no further exploration. Traditional teaching exhorted that
the suvulliviniit, "Ones Before," were not to be disturbed, so I had no
further view into that grave than the narrow window which the elements had
provided. And I could not remove the necklace, of course, not even one tiny
green stone.

In those times, disturbing a grave was not only distasteful, but abhorrent.
Taking items from a grave was exactly what it sounds like: robbery. It was
ghoulish, the most severe violation of taboo. Inuit were respectful of the
dead because they still existed, having merely shrugged off their
mortality. Ownership was ownership: Steal from the living, and they will
not rest in life. Steal from the dead, and they will not rest in death.

Inuit dead were so respected that even much-needed items were buried with
their owners. One can best appreciate the strength of this practice when
remembering how tough life used to be in the Arctic. Keeping a precious
soapstone lamp might ensure the survival of the group through winter.
Passing a good harpoon on to a living hunter, who could use it to feed
needy families, might seem like a good idea. But these things, as well as
amulets, tools, miniature bows and arrows for beloved children - favorite
pieces of clothing all - went into the graves.

Unfortunately, after a while, folks began to talk about how "white people
wanted them." Visitors began to encourage Inuit to collect any such
findings, ready to pay highly for them: They were valuable curiosities in
the south.

It began with little steps at first, just a bending of custom. People began
to approach my father to ask, for example, about old fire-bows they had
found: were these "what the white people wanted?" Was this or that item
considered collectible? And as such ghoulery became increasingly common, it
became increasingly acceptable, resulting in the ultimate disintegration of
the old taboos, the vulnerability of the dead.

I kept staring at those goggles. They lay in a tent ring which was much
larger than usual, as if intended as a supply tent. There were other bits
of debris, such as rusty cans. In all of my amateur wisdom, I deduced that
those camping here had neither lived on Native food nor used Native-style
tents. I fancied that someone had run out of supplies and panicked, maybe
leaving their goggles behind. It couldn't have been an Inuk. The sun upon
spring ice is harsh, and no self-respecting hunter would ever have
forgotten such a precious tool.

I had no way of knowing whether the owner of the goggles died out on the
land. Perhaps one of the graves around me held his body. But the truth, I
have to remind myself now as then, is that the old graves were ever a layer
over layer of intermingled history and happening. They were a hidden sea of
images, glimpses into divergent pasts slumbering beneath their single veil
of lichen. The artifacts I discovered there might have held as much
historical as practical value. But they remained where they were,
nonetheless.

Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)

Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25
years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern
world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.