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Qitsualik: The Shaman Committee

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Arctic Bay - a peaceful community, strongly tied to its elders, and nestled at the base of a ring of hills, like the precious chick of a solemn mother bird.

It was there that I spent quite a few hours talking to my older cousin, Kudlu. I could always find her in the work-shed out back of her house, where she sat like a traditional Inuit woman. She was constantly sewing caribou-skin clothing for southern game hunters, who invariably underpaid her.

Kudlu's mind was always in motion. She was a story-lover, the source of innumerable old yarns, especially those concerning monsters and shamanism. She would tell such tales with shivers of mingled delight and horror, pausing between stories to comment on clothing - such as remarking about modern parkas, "They're okay for a few hours. Then snow builds up in the crannies around the stitching, making it cold. Caribou doesn't get cold."

There is no formal training for such knowledge!

Kudlu listened to radio and television like anyone else, and raised very modern children. She possessed what contemporary knowledge she could get, without understanding English. The thing that was most interesting to me, however, was how Kudlu processed such knowledge, reconciling it with the things she had learned as a girl in a traditional lifestyle.

No doubt she was convinced that some of the stories of the exploits of shamans were true, that there really might have once existed some of the rather horrid monsters owned by Inuit imaginings.

But I think that, despite her inclination to view folklore as reality, she nevertheless felt compelled to heed the things that modernity had revealed to her. The result was that she tended to mix belief systems, taking elements of one or another that she felt made the most sense, to produce an entirely new cosmology for herself. There are some who would react to this idea with horror, believing that such personal cosmology-building taints "traditional" belief systems. The truth, however, is that Inuit never had any concrete, institutionalized cosmology. They have always been rooted in the here and now, and fancies concerning the origin of things, or the ultimate purpose of existence itself, have always been regarded as just that: fancy.

Sometimes, however, an inquiring mind is born. Kudlu was just such a mind. She never stopped asking questions, never stopped wondering. Kudlu would often turn the table on southerners, who are known in the Arctic as being full of questions. Far from being shy of Qallunaat (white folk), she would grill them endlessly about life in the South. Why did they believe what they believed? How did they reconcile their own beliefs with what they knew from learning? How did their culture come to be the way it is? How could southerners get so big on chicken and Kraft Dinner? Most southerners remained as polite as possible around her, trying to make light-hearted joke responses to her questions, then fled whenever able.

Kudlu felt absolutely no guilt over her interrogative nature. She believed that Inuit had once been an inherently interrogative people, adapting by playing question-and-answer with the world itself. She justified her viewpoint with the following story:

A long time ago, some of the most powerful angakkuit (shamans) got together to form a committee. They conferred with each other for a long time, and decided that the best use of their powers would be to learn about the nature of the world and the moon. In those days, angakkuit were incredibly powerful, and knew how to fly anywhere they desired.

So they designated tasks to one another: this one would travel under the sea, while that one would fly up into the sky, while another would travel under the earth. The responsibility of all the angakkuit was to scout out wherever they went. After doing so, they would rendezvous back to where they had originally met, and explain to each other what they had witnessed.

In collective agreement, they at last departed upon their respective missions. They were gone for a time, flying everywhere in creation, until they finally returned and met with each other again.

They had learned some incredible things about the world. As the words and descriptions poured from each shaman's mouth, it was revealed that the Earth was in fact round, and unbelievably huge. Around it circled the smaller moon, which was also round, but barren and desolate. Beneath the deep sea were forests, from which came the driftwood found along the shores. Below the ground, however, there were vast lakes of flammable oils. And there was also much fire.

It was these oils under the ground that the angakkuit were most concerned about. They used their powers further to look into the future, and they learned the terrifying truth about how the world would end. The fire would light the oils, so that they would burn and crack the surface. The planet would split asunder. Fire would pour out of these great cracks, consuming all.

And the angakkuit looked no further into the future, terrified of what they had seen. But that is how they have always known the way in which the world will end.

Kudlu laughed after she told the story, the twinkle in her eye betraying that fact that she had embellished parts of the story (but that, too, is part of Inuit tradition). What a pity, she said, that those angakkuit had scared themselves away from such knowledge. For asking questions is the first step to finding answers, to making the world a better place. Action is always better than inaction, and fate only becomes a real thing when we refuse to defy it.

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.