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Qitsualik: The naked ladies

We were finally seeing the secret collection. For about a month, there had been whispered gossip that a friend of my father, a distant uncle really, owned a secret collection. This collection, it was said, was comprised entirely of photographs of nude women. Rumor had it that he had purchased them while in the army.

The nudity itself wasn't an item of curiosity. Unlike many other cultures, Inuit did not regard the naked form - whether male or female - as a focus for either lust or scandal. A human being without clothes was only that: an unclothed person. Boring. Nor did Inuit ever idolize the human form in a Renaissance manner, as an object of beauty or perfection. In fact, Inuit never seem to have been concerned with nudity at all, and if you examine some of the oldest Inuit lore - the legends and myths - you will find that wherever there does arise any hint of eroticism, it is entirely unrelated to nudity. It was as though nudity had no relation to eroticism whatsoever.

No, our fascination with my uncle's collection had nothing to do with the idea that his pornographic images were at all ''dirty,'' an idea that did not exist in Inuit culture. Instead, we were wondering why someone would be interested in such imagery. We wanted to see what uncle's own fuss and furtiveness was about. To be honest, the idea of lusting after some pictures seemed rather silly. We wanted to see the collection because of its bizarrerie, its freakish novelty; and maybe we might learn why he bothered to own it.

''You know you can buy anything with money in America,'' my uncle told us as he opened up his suitcase. ''You can even buy people, or ask them to do anything for you.'' He was always going on about his travels to America with the army; for some reason, that land and its excesses held a special fascination for him.

The suitcase was now open, and there they were, piled right on top of his clothes and his bugle (that was another weird thing - owning a bugle; and he was known as a pisiti, skilful one, in playing it).

There were the naked ladies.

We had assumed that he would pass the photos around, maybe show pride in them; but when he reached into the case, he only tiredly shuffled the photos around with his hand, feigning indifference, perhaps trying to seem worldly and bored at the sight.

Peering over his shoulder, you could easily see that the rumours were true - they were in fact photos of naked women. It only occurs to me now, in thinking back upon that time with my adult sensibilities, that my uncle was sort of hoping we would be shocked by what we saw. He himself, having travelled abroad, had already absorbed the southern concept of pornography. In a sense, he was now bragging about how the world and its diversity, its bizarre entertainments, had altered him. Made him wiser, he hoped? Perhaps we would admire him?

At the time, we lacked the cultural basis upon which to label the photos smut; so they were, unfortunately for my hopeful uncle, neither shocking nor offensive. Now, ironically, they would fail to be exceedingly offensive by today's standards. What was then considered pornography is relatively common in modern media. Whatever various religious or political moralists may have to say about it, the popular acceptability of the naked form continues to skyrocket, and one has only to crack open the average mainstream magazine, or peer at a common television commercial, to see a great deal of proudly paraded flesh. And, while veiled as an acknowledgement of the beauty of the human body, most of this imagery is displayed within a seductive context, as though whoever watches the commercial or the magazine ad - whether male or female - is expected to be aroused by the sight of bare skin.

But, whatever one may think of it morally, right or wrong, it's important to remember that such imagery is entirely based upon cultural cue. If you haven't been taught that something is smut, then there is no smut. If you haven't been reared with the concept of pornography, then pornography does not exist.

To my child's mind, there was nothing especially striking about the naked photos. They seemed to pose a greater mystery than ever. Southern men collected these, just as my uncle had?

The photos were glossy black and white prints. The women in them, typically, had very light hair and skin. Mostly, they shared similar features: long wavy hair, small noses, shiny lipstick, large and bouncy-looking breasts, overly long legs and mostly doughy-looking arms - as though the women didn't work very hard. They had painted fingernails and toenails that gleamed under harsh light. And although they were shown naked, they didn't seem at all cold. A lot of the photos featured exposed breasts, but these were hardly scandalous in a culture where babies were openly breast-fed.

The really hilarious thing about the pictures was the poses of the women: with their legs and hips all twisted around, and their chests stuck out. They were what, in Inuit culture, was known as qaqajuq: what little kids do when trying to gain attention by acting cute, wriggling and jumping around so that adults will notice them.

Well, the family wasn't sure what to think of my uncle's collection, but he was sure to expect great teasing about it, especially from us kids. Maybe he should have kept it to himself. Everyone just wrote the collection off as one of uncle's personal idiosyncrasies, one of the many quirks he had picked up as a result of being in the army.

Of course we asked my uncle why he had the photos. He wouldn't say. We finally left it alone, figuring it was some silly personal thing we couldn't understand - his own isuma, or sacred inner mind.

But that fact didn't save him from getting teased.

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, and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.