Qitsualik: The Smoking Man

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The smoking man sat on a bench, with little movement other than the occasional shift of his legs, crossed in an S in front of him. What was he thinking? I wondered. He hardly ever moved, except to look up and smile at me. He was deathly quiet, but his face was kind. As a child, I thought of his eyes as smiley.

Whatever haunted him was near to his thoughts, since a shadow would often seem to ripple over his brow. Maybe, I wondered, it was lost family. I knew that whatever he had experienced had been horrendous. From the little I knew of his family, life had been harsh to them.

I knew, for example, that they had been rescued from death by starvation. I had heard that many in their camp had been lost. It was said that, in order to survive, the smoking man had once stalked a lone caribou for three days with no sleep, no food, no drink.

Just imagine focusing your entire being, for 72 hours, upon a single target. Imagine forcing yourself to utter stillness, despite the cramps and hallucinations experienced from intense hunger and fatigue. Can any of us imagine life desiccated down to such basic meaning, all extraneous aspects of it shed till only that dry, lonely, peach pit of instinct is left? The only meaning left in the world is survival, feeding yourself, your family.

Doesn't it make you want to laugh when people come home from a long day at work, talking of stress?

It was also said that the smoking man had ran out of ammunition seasons past. He had crept up on the caribou and leapt upon its back, tackling it with his last shred of withered strength.

Only the tiniest fraction of us can imagine such ordeals. But this does not alter the fact that the survivors of many such families still surround us today, families whose children and grandchildren are now our friends, our neighbors. Yet they live in silence on such past events, emotions locked in a kind of glacial mode, their suffering left unstated.

Like the smoking man, they are living records of the harsh realities of yesteryear. Underneath their calm demeanor lies long-spanning tragedy, their very survival a punctuation of triumph within it. I knew this from the limited stories I had heard of unbelievable suffering. Here was a girl who had been forced to leave a sister while on a trek of starvation. Here was a mother who had to euthanize her own first-born child. Here was a couple who had to look away as an elder was cast adrift on a bleak pan of ice, one-too-many mouths to feed. And there were darker stories, rumors of murderous pacts between families, of cannibalism.

Even my family has its horror stories, those I won't address herein. But as with the smoking man, they still pass over us, shadow-like, from time to time.

As I have developed a modern perspective, casting an ever more critical and (I hope) objective eye upon Inuit culture, I have occasionally wondered if such elders as the smoking man would benefit from therapy. I quickly dismiss such notions.

There is a reason why the smoking man sits in silence. It is the silence of the war veteran, of the refugee, the silence of one who has experienced more horror than another can know from words.

Most of us make a life of protective covers for ourselves. Like clothes over clothes, we lay one layer after another upon our psyches protecting us, making us secure over time. Each layer is made up of ideas, of sentiments, perspectives, things we would like to believe about ourselves, the world, our place within it.

The smoking man and those like him had the world rip away those layers long ago. Every security, every paradigm, had been savagely rent, until only the most primal self, the human animal craving life at all costs, finally escaped death.

A person takes long years to regain such lost layers, and usually doesn't live to finish the job. Where would a therapist begin? How would one find a therapist who could even comprehend such trauma?

For the smoking man, for others like him, the very act of living is his therapy.

And so the smoking man now, as before, remains mute.

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.