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Qitsualik: Nine lives among the Inuit

"How is this?" he asked. "Before, it was always easy to get back home in a day. Now it seems I shall have to make camp here, and not arrive until tomorrow." But he never reached home the next day, nor the next. And it continued in this way, until he at last died. - from an Alaskan Inuit tale

Oh no, my boots are dragging in the water! Waves of cold seize and cramp my legs. My brain races: did my mother get off the sled in time? Is she in the water? I desperately cling to the tent pole attached to the side of the sled. My father is yelling something, but I'm concentrating, hanging on for everything I'm worth. My pretty, green, wool mitts interfere with my grip, but any grip is better than nothing.

I hear a kind of swishing sound as one of the dogs falls into the freezing water. I've made it to the other side of the wide ice-crack we were crossing. I finally crumple onto the ice. Strong hands haul me up. I hear that hollering again, and my boots are ripped off my feet. My mother is alive. She's also ripping off her own boots, but it is in order to give me her duffel socks for my feet, which now look oddly gray. Or is it blue? My father is alternately pulling dogs out of the ice-crack, and running back to where I'm frantically being warmed up.

"I thought surely we'd lost you," he gasps. "I don't know how you hung on like that. It looked like God was holding you in place."

Specifically, "in place" referred to hanging onto a sled, in mortal terror, while dragged across a fog-enshrouded, deep winter ayuraq (ice-crack), over the bleak Arctic Ocean. My father had shouted for us to jump from the sled, but I had hesitated, since it had been moving too fast. I had just barely hung on as the sled traversed the ayuraq, my legs trailing through the water. My entire body could have been trailed through there, too. It could have been left there.

Sometimes, I stop and think about the kind of dangers that Inuit routinely had to face in pre-colonial times - or even for much of post-colonial time, for that matter. Inuit still encounter a lot of death today, for social reasons, and in accidents out on the land. But only a few decades ago, death was a constant companion to Inuit peoples, who have obviously settled in some of the most dangerous areas of the planet.

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When I think about how it used to be, it is amazing to me that, today, Inuit can rise and plan their day with no expectation of mortal danger. They can trundle off to the office or the co-op, perhaps to a friend's place, confident that their day will be "normal," that they will make it home in the evening. Compare this with what Inuit had to face before plastic or firearms, steel or electricity. Even in the 1930s - not so long ago - theirs was a world without search-and-rescue protocol, without grocery stores or clinics, and every individual had only personal skill to maintain his or her very life. Only a few decades ago.

For Inuit of the past, the reminders of mortality were constant, and reflected in their cosmology. The world was inhabited by hordes of hungry ghosts and wrathful powers. "Goodness" was not defined as a spiritual concept, but instead manifested as an individual's good health, happiness, plentiful food, and companionship. Humanity itself, when well, was all the "good" that the world needed.

And Inuit understood death better in those days. It was near them all the time, and its nearness made it less strange - less fearful - than it is today. And they feared it far less than they feared a poor life.

Reaching the other side, our dogs are soaked and bedraggled. I have never seen such a miserable sight as this group of dogs, shaking off icy water, licking bleeding paws whose nails have been ripped up from scratching free of the ice all around us. We are forced to break camp, to gather and regain our energies.

We are lucky. We don't lose a single dog on this trip. Or person. This time, we are really lucky.

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.