Skip to main content

Qitsualik: Inukshuk for sale

So if you could just write down the different types of inukshuks there are,'' the researcher said over the phone, ''that would be great.'' He was supposedly doing a book about inuksuit: those famous, man-like piles of rock found throughout the Arctic.

''Types?'' I asked, confused.

''You know, ones for casting spells, worshipping gods, marking sacred areas ...''

I wasn't sure what to feel more flabbergasted about: the fact that he had assumed I would do free research for his book, or the fact that he knew nothing about his own subject matter.

''Inuksuit,'' I said, ''not inukshuks. And they're for hunting.''


Several years ago, I had a Web site that provided free information on Inuit culture. It was fun. I got e-mails from all around the world, asking me this and that about Inuit traditions and words. But time saw an initial trickle of letters swell into a flood of many hundreds. And too many were ''profit'' driven questions. There were university students, for example, sending:

''My professor has given us the assignment of explaining how eco-feminism relates to tribal subsistence strategies, and we're to use examples from Inuit culture. So could you write up, in at least five thousand words, your reasons why you think Inuit women are eco-feminists?''

But these absurd requests were far from the most galling. The worst offenders were businesses and self-employed individuals, wanting to cash in on the then-global interest in Inuit, without having to do any of their own legwork. I received countless e-mails requesting cultural content for businesses, or snazzy Inuktitut (the Inuit language) names for companies and product lines. At first, I was as helpful as I could stand to be; but I would always receive back:

''Too long. Make it short, catchy. We need consumers to get a feel from the name.''

Was I their employee now? As these e-mail discussions went on, I became bitter, sensing that my kindness was being exploited. Sometimes, the e-mails would lead to phone consultations which were tantamount to harassment. Education was a totally different thing - I never minded explaining words to school kids (as long as I didn't have to do their papers). But were the business types making me materialistic? I decided to ask a Scottish consultant acquaintance about whether I should charge for Inuktitut research.

She was scandalized. ''Absolutely not!'' she said. ''Knowledge should be free.''

''Would you name a company, in English, for free?''

''Well, no. That's different.''

I was disturbed by the opinion expressed by my consultant ''friend.''

''So,'' I said carefully, ''when it's Inuktitut, 'knowledge should be free.' But knowledge isn't free in English?''

''Well,'' she said, ''Inuit have a giving tradition. You don't want to sully the, uh, beauty of Inuit culture by involving money. That money's too dirty for you.''

''Nobody minds if I charge for translation,'' I argued. ''But naming a company takes days. Corporate names are always word-plays that don't take well to Inuktitut. It's hard to cook up something like that. And you said you would charge for something named in English. That doesn't sully your culture? That money isn't too dirty?''

''Oh, man, look at the time,'' she responded. ''Well, Rachel, it was great talking to you. We should do lunch. Maybe next week?''


This conversation made me somewhat ill. Human beings survive by knowledge that is anything but free, often having to earn it by working or suffering greatly. There is no better way to learn about bears, for example, than by surviving a bear attack (often with scars as a reminder). But is this free knowledge? One may learn a great deal at a university, but only at the exorbitant cost of tuition: hardly free knowledge.

Even in Inuit traditional culture, one never teaches another the full extent of a skill they possess; in this way, the teacher protects himself from obsolescence, while at once leaving room for the student to learn and personalize their own knowledge. Inuit have always understood that, if knowledge is power, then it is also currency - a lesson they have had to relearn in the wake of being told by industrialized peoples, whom they used to fear, that their knowledge should be free.

The earliest explorers made careers (i.e., money) by exporting Inuit culture and the global demand for it quickly spawned a market. In the past, Inuit have depended upon non-Inuit businesses to connect them with the south. But the Inuit embracing of industrial culture has meant that, today, they are well-connected to global media, now able to market their own culture as they see fit. In other words, they are gradually cutting out the middleman. With this in mind, the ''knowledge should be free,'' resistance to Inuit charging money, suddenly comes to more closely resemble what it is: the old school of northern profiteers trying to limit their new competition. Ironically, this new competition is that which used to be the product itself: Inuit culture.

I just didn't like the idea of people making money off of Inuit without paying anything back, so I decided that the corporate types were cut off. From now on, in answering e-mails, I would only give free words or information about Inuit culture to students (but I still wouldn't write their papers for them). The business people were pretty peevish about it, and being cut off didn't stop them from trying several times over. I started to get sneaky e-mails; like this one:

''Hi my name is Kitty. I'm a litle kidd in grade 3 and teecher says we need to name our hamster. I think it woud be so neet if you name him. Can you give us a short name that means 'market success' or 'cutting edge?'''

I guess they thought that some deliberately misspelled words would make me think a kid was writing in. Too bad they forgot to check their e-mail address: It was identical to that of the company I had already refused the day before.

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

Rachel Qitsualik was born in 1953 and raised in a traditional Inuit lifestyle. She writes extensively on Inuit culture and language, and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.