The angakoq (Inuit shaman) woman was doing it again -- making strange
noises in her home. Us kids dared each other to go near enough to hear what
she was doing.
"No, you go closer..."
We nudged each other, then ran when we thought we heard a sound like a
seagull cry. She seemed to be making tea, from the sound of her gas stove,
and to be either singing in a low croon, or moaning.
I hated her. She always did something weird in the middle of the night, got
stuck in one of her trances, and my father would have to go to her and snap
her out of it. It was always very distressing to me.
"What has she done now?" I'd complain, and could never get my father to say
exactly what he had to do in these late-night emergencies. Rumor had it
that she would slip into a trance and become unable to awaken. Some said
that her eyeballs would roll up in her head; that she would pass out.
I didn't care. "Let her get out of it herself and stop making my father
work at night," I complained. Someone would come running in, asking my
father to go help her, and I would say to myself, "Her again. If she's such
a great angakoq, why does she always get 'stuck' whenever her spirit
She didn't like me, either. She was always telling me that she would make
me pee my bed. And I would. But, of course, it didn't occur to me that
nearly every kid my age -- cursed or not -- was peeing their bed as a
matter of biology.
Another thing that made the angakoq creepy was the rumor that she possessed
100 dolls. She brought them with her everywhere she went. Eventually, my
little sister and I became determined to check on this story for ourselves.
It was said that the dolls were her familiars, her tuurngait, her enslaved
helper spirits. It was said that every night she would arrange them about
her igluvigaq (snow-house), and therein "do something" to them.
We stood at the foot of her winter igluvigaq. It was brand new, as someone
had freshly built it for her. On the bed platform was a burlap sack stuffed
"Do you want to see the dolls?" she asked.
We were transfixed. Before our eyes, she gently let them tumble out onto
the ground, lovingly picking them up one by one and placing them around her
dimly lit home. She would introduce each one as she did so, saying, "This
has blue eyes, and this one can move its arms and legs..."
She's isumairutisimajuq (crazy), I thought. She's lost her grip.
So it was this nutcase my poor father had to deal with. While I stared in
horror, my younger sister stood entranced. She was nodding and taking the
dolls as they were handed to her. Maybe the plastic will freeze in the
cold, I thought, and they'll break. I tried to send unfriendly vibes.
Later that night, as we were falling asleep, my little sister asked, "Do
you think she'll make the dolls do something to us?"
"Of course not," I replied. "Besides," I added, "She's not really an
angakoq. If she were, Ataata (father) would tell us. She's just crazy,
that's all. Everybody knows dolls aren't alive." I paused for a moment
before adding: "Even if she does, Kusik will kill them." Besides being my
favorite dog, Kusik had the extra task of protecting us from the
Oddly, that night, I dreamt that Kusik came into our house. She had curled
up at the front, having given birth to some new pups. I lifted my head, and
there was Kusik, nursing a number of yipping newborns, looking rather
pleased with herself. In my dream, I thought of it as a good sign.
I spent my waking day in worry, however: My father had gone out hunting
with a couple of other men for the coming holiday feasts. A fierce storm
had arisen -- something all Inuit take seriously. In the dark, we listened
to the wind howl. We had spent the entire day trapped indoors, drawing
shapes in the crystals formed on the lone window of our little cabin.
"Do you think Ataata will come back?" my little sister asked.
"Of course, you silly thing," I answered, not really as sure as I pretended
to be. "Ataata always comes back."
We thought we heard tiny bumping sounds on our cabin roof. "Wind," I
muttered. I didn't want to frighten my sister by telling her what I really
thought those sounds might be. My fear was further compounded by the fact
that -- contrary to what I said aloud -- I always suspected that my
father's return from a hunt was not guaranteed. But there was nothing I
could do, and I drifted into an uneasy sleep, plagued with images of tiny
forms that pattered through the shadows, while 100 pairs of blue eyes
watched me through the storm.
My father returned as I slept. I was not old enough, then, to care how much
he had caught. In childlike selfishness, I only hoped that he had brought
me one of his special treats -- anything from a baby bird (my best pet had
been a snowy owl) to a squashed candy bar.
He brought me a large Raggedy Anne doll. He would not say where he got it,
but I fell in love with it instantly.
Oddly, after my father's return from that hunt, no one ever came to our
cabin with an angakoq emergency again. Having a doll of my own did
something to dissipate my hostility toward the angakoq woman. I even have
several dolls today, and can better appreciate the nostalgia or simple
wonder that drove an eccentric old sorceress to treasure her toys.
At times, the only black magic at work is envy.
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.