Qitsualik: Working at play


Anyone who thinks that Inuit childhood was traditionally carefree has never been to a spring camp. It was a special time when games took on a tone of danger, one that is absent today. We were practicing for a hunting lifestyle in the Arctic, that sometimes killed the adults around us, and so our "games" were taken very seriously. Our play was to toughen us, and the fun was merely our incentive. After all, for our parents, their future generations were at stake. For us, it was our lives.

Competition could be fierce at spring camp. There were many children of different ages living together and trying (perhaps not hard enough) to get along. There were some particularly competitive personalities, but I think friction mostly stemmed from the fact that the kids tended to form strange alliances based upon common ages ? those of one age against those of another.

Alliances were also based on the interests of the day, or who was getting along with whom (much like "Survivor"). Competition was permitted, if not exactly encouraged. Inuit are not an especially martial culture, but these were little people in survival training. The games were not only entertaining, but were developing faculties that would later contribute to practical skills.

The very first game of the day, for example, was based around waking up. It was important to get up early, to be alert. The last kid to wake up was yanked outside by his or her hair, naked and groggy, for the others to laugh at. It was cruel, but it sure got you up. Laziness, as an adult hunter, could spell the death of you or others.

Many games involved pain endurance. Everyone would line up in a row so that a designated kid could step on our toes. Then we would have our knees stepped on. Then our thighs. Those who cried out were eliminated, so that the victor would get to be the next stepper.

There were many games of stealth. There was harpoon tossing, sling-shooting, and ? of course ? marksmanship (only possible once we were strong enough to hold a .22, all we were allowed to touch at camp).

Rivalries entered the picture once skills were developed to the point of being considered useful. Children were often compared to one another. X was not considered a good shot, but boy, could she run fast. Yesterday, Y caught a large fish ? he must be a lucky fisherman. Wait until my boy grows up, and then you'll see who gets the most young seals. My daughter may not be very pretty, but she sure can sew boots now. Excellence in anything was noted and encouraged.

In my case, I tried to use my siblings and other kids as living lessons. My half-sister, for example, was having difficulty shooting, so I vowed to become the best shot I could. One of my youngest brothers always got dragged out of bed by his hair. I wanted to avoid that. I decided to focus on the things I was best at ? especially those skills in which others were deficient. I noted that many boys had difficulty with pain endurance. I did not, so I focussed upon such games until I could bear the weight upon my calves without flinching.

It wasn't until much later that I realized others were also using me as the same sort of model, trying not to repeat my mistakes, just as I had done with them.

And it wasn't until adulthood that I realized such games offered us a chance to develop strong individuality in an otherwise very egalitarian, communal existence. Strangely, even though the experience served to individuate us, we came away from it with a deeper awareness of the group ? perhaps because we now knew the strengths and weaknesses of all its members. Our heightened individuality, ironically, forged us into a better community.

Instead of a mass of people, we were taught to be individuals working as one.

I've always found it interesting that Inuit have a very old, traditional game, Anauligaq, that is almost exactly like baseball ? a game that Americans have always seemed to love above all others. But this makes a lot of sense, really. Baseball, like Anauligaq, represents an inspiring balance between teamwork and individual excellence. There are moments in the game where it is vital that an individual carries the day, where the whole team may come to depend upon its faith in a single member. And yet that individual ever remains a part of ? indeed, can accomplish nothing without ? the team.

I think Americans appreciate this game because they, like Inuit, are a survivalist culture. They have had to claw their way to liberty, wrenching their freedom from an overarching tyranny, and so the very birth of their nation is steeped in that appreciation of the balance between team and individual excellence. This idea is very dear to Inuit, as well. So it is interesting that two survivor cultures would so express their values with similar games.

Everyone has a talent, and there is great joy in contributing it. One could even argue that this is the whole point of being human. And I think that is why even adults would sometimes jump in to play at our spring camp games so long ago, not so much to have fun, but to remind themselves how to "work at play."

Baseball, anyone?


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.