Skip to main content

The law of the land changed overnight

In an Inuit community, everyone knows the law. It arrives by plane.

In every community, there is the air of nervous expectation that builds just before the court party is flown in, making for good conversation, like a scheduled celebration.

"Are you going to court?" is asked in much the same way as asking, "Are you going to the party?" Even those who know that they will be brought before the court display little anxiety ? only a trace of the stomach butterflies that someone might complain of before a performance.

Usually, the reaction to being asked about it is a wide grin and a shrug of the shoulders, a typical Inuit reaction to any mystery.

Mystery? But everyone knows the law, that word Webster's defines as, "a custom or practice recognized as binding by a community ... ."

Yet Inuit have no true word for law. The contemporary Inuktitut word for a law, "piqujaq" actually means "commandment." And piqujaq is appropriate, for Inuit have never felt ownership over southern law. In traditional society, the concept was unnecessary, since each individual was considered to be his own master.

There were common understandings that some acts were undesirable, but consequences varied with practicality and necessity. For example, in the case of murder:

The killer might be avenged by the victim's relations. This was personal, not public.

The killer might simply leave.

If the killer's acts were especially abominable (ex: child molestation), an "executioner" was appointed. This last resort was not "corporal punishment" but only the swift removal of a threat.

If no one cared, the killer might simply be ignored.

In this way, "law" was as plastic as human variation itself.

When southern law arrived, most were incapable of comprehending it, and it was deemed "one of those white things." Since qallunat (whites) owned it, it was no Inuk's business (after all, it was what qallunat wanted to do, and shouldn't everyone be allowed to do as they want?).

Consequently, Inuit often found themselves in trouble with the law, for the rules had changed literally overnight. Suddenly, if a man killed another in vengeance, he could find himself seized, whisked through bizarre rituals, labeled an unrepentant savage, and deprived of home and family.

With time, Inuit adapted, but continued to see law as a qallunat obsession, existing independently of real, practical life. What astounded them most was the fact that qallunat themselves often recognized the poor utility of their laws. My father was forced to hunt ducks and geese out of season. By law, he could only hunt the birds in the fall, which was when they began to migrate away (we used to joke that they knew the law).

There was a particular police officer who always suspected my father, and badly wanted to catch him. His persistence made him seem like my father's nemesis.

Theirs was a game of cat-and-mouse until, one day, my father caught the officer himself carrying poached birds.

Inuit still regard the law as something of a qallunat tradition, and rightly so. It is not something they would have chosen to invent. It is alien to them, for in its present form, it shares none of the adaptability required of Arctic life. No Inuk would dispute the need for law today, yet one who obeys a piqujaq ? a command ? possesses not one hundredth the power of one who obeys from his own will. And until the law evolves from nebulous commandments into common understandings, as of yesterday, Inuit will ever grin and shrug as the courts fly in.

Pijariiqpunga.