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Qitsualik: Shapeshifter: An Inuit tale

Long have humans recognized the powers that animals possess, which we do not. The animals that a culture recognizes - even in the most industrialized society - form the basis of its archetypes, one of the pillars upon which that society's cosmology rests.

Ever since humans have admired animal traits, we have been trying to acquire them. We have always imitated animals in dress, or worn symbols associated with them, in order to take on their ''feel'' - as though whatever they possess can somehow be transferred to us via sympathetic magic. An extreme way of trying to assume an animal's trait is to ingest it (most usually a special part of it). But the most extreme way of assuming animal traits is to convince oneself that one has become that animal (in English, ''therianthropy''), an imagining that no culture has ever completely abandoned (just watch a werewolf movie).

In Inuit culture, all human beings have ''personal animals,'' those that are friend or foe (i.e., an animal that one must especially respect, or altogether avoid); but the lore of human-to-animal shape-changing generally remains attributable to the angakkuit (shamans). The stories of shamanic transformation are among the most sensationalistic of Inuit tales, however cautionary, being the tales of unbridled power and its price.

Taitsumaniguuq (once upon a time), an angakoq (shaman) of the Netsilik Inuit met an angakoq of the Utku folk. Despite any attempts to get along, two angakkuit meeting almost always spelled trouble, since they could not resist the temptation to talk about each other's powers. As they went on about their respective feats, each began to try to top the other. After all, camp people were listening and reputations were at stake. In this way, each ego offended the other until a fight broke out - and that meant a duel.

Onlookers gasped as the Netsilik angakoq's features began to flow and shift. His face elongated, cheeks widening. His shoulders grew thicker, stretching and at last bursting the seams of his clothes. He fell forward and shook himself violently. White bristles had sprouted all along his body, and still he grew greater in size. When he was finished, he raised horrendous black claws to swat at the air, chuffing from lungs like bellows. He had taken on the form of his personal animal, the one to whom he was allied. He had become a white bear.

The Utku angakoq tried to ignore the numerous eyes upon him, as camp dwellers waited for his response to the Netsilik angakoq's transformation. He frowned, rubbing his hands together as his enemy paced before him, the great bear edging ever closer.

Suddenly, he stamped the ground with his foot. From the moment it touched down, that foot seemed to ripple, to swell, rending boot and pant-leg asunder. His other foot followed, and his body. The fingers of his clenched fists seemed to melt together into club-like extremities. He fell forward upon them, shaking away the last shreds of clothing to reveal an ever-growing, woolen form. Back and forth swept a head crowned with monstrous, curving horns. He snorted, pawing at the ground. Just as his enemy had become a bear, so had the Utku angakoq taken on the form of his own ally: the musk ox.

At the sight of the Utku angakoq's transformation, the great bear seemed almost to hesitate. He stretched and crouched, gauging his enemy.

Like a typical musk ox, the Utku angakoq stood his ground, horns lowered menacingly.

There was a scream from onlookers as the bear bounded forward - a smooth, silent ghost - and the musk ox stiffened, ready to slash. And this was how the angakkuit clashed: the bear dancing, leaping from flank to flank; the musk ox occasionally kicking the bear off, raking at air again and again.

Some say that it was the Utku angakoq, the musk ox, who gained the upper hand by charging forward with sweeps of his horns. Others say that it was the Netsilik angakoq, the bear, who made a crucial mistake in trying to bite at his enemy's neck. One way or another, most agree that the Netsilik angakoq was caught exposed for a moment. Horns met flesh, and the musk ox savagely gored the bear.

The fatigued Utku angakoq quickly became human again. He stood shivering for long moments, more from emotion than cold, watching the community gather around the fallen Netsilik angakoq. The latter, too, had shed his animal form, and now lay in a twisted, ruined heap. A ragged gash, streaming crimson, ran along one side.

Some kindly people gathered up the Netsilik angakoq, trying to nurse him back to health. It was useless. He languished for days, before his life at last slipped away. The Utku angakoq, his nerve shattered, was said to have never transformed again. The fight between the two became legend, one of those stories that people tell in a hush, when it is time to speak of hidden powers and things of dread.

The folklore of animal-human transformation would seem to be the mark of an imaginative culture - and therefore a healthy one. One of the most tragic aspects of syncretism was that, in the past push to discourage traditional belief, the Inuit imagination was also discouraged. And the Inuit cultural imagination (the very creativity that has kept it adaptable, and thus alive) has always been interwoven with its utter reliance upon all Arctic animals. Inuit culture has only recently climbed out of a dark age of its creative spirit, a reticence to indulge traditional cosmology brought on not only by past hardship and oppression, but by a spiritual separation from the creatures that have shaped it.

Today, Inuit create art that is more skilled than ever before. They make films and write stories about traditional beliefs - free from fear of punitive theocrats. Elders break long silences, ever less shy about recording their lore. Inuit exist in a state system, and have still maintained their connection to the Land. Like a final gift from traditional cosmology, Inuit culture has shifted its own shape, becoming some strange, promising new animal of the world. And perhaps animals, having lost none of their physical importance to Inuit, may yet again beckon to the spirit.

We must hope, however, that Inuit stay rooted in the living Land, the source of all their strength as well as of the creativity that has earned them a place within its harsh embrace. It is only when Inuit collectively spurn their heritage as ''old stuff'' that they weaken. It is only when they feel they no longer need respect the Land that they rot. In the same adaptive trick managed for centuries, they must continue to mould Inuktitut (''the way of Inuit'') to modernity without altogether losing it.

Perhaps, in this sense, the old tales of shape-shifting may serve as an allegory toward Inuit needs: In the sort of irony the Land forces on all life, Inuit must ever change in order to remain what they are.

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

Rachel A. Qitsualik was born in 1953 and raised in a traditional Inuit lifestyle. She writes extensively on Inuit culture and language.