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Vanishing: An Inuit story-telling theme

Every culture has its favourite story themes, and Inuit are no exception. However, while many cultures share similar tales, some are distinguished by favourite themes uncommon to others. Inuit can be distinguished by their love of the "vanishing" tale.

Across the Arctic, Inuit have always told stories of those who vanish - not of individuals (which would make a poor tale, since this used to happen all the time), but of entire communities that disappear unexplainedly. Explorers as early as Rasmussen mentioned these stories in their logs, and most scholars have since assumed that tales of disappearing communities were merely an expression of Inuit fear, their terror of a harsh land that might swallow them up, leaving no memory of their passing.

Yet personally I think the theory reflects only Occidental terrors and doesn't apply well to Inuit cultures. For a long time, Occidental peoples have thrived upon trade, often gaining a sense of cultural identity by comparing themselves to adjacent, neighbouring peoples. This is not true of Inuit, who in pre-colonial times did not strongly identify with community existence, since the family was the true social unit. The idea of one's culture being wiped out or forgotten is mostly an urban, southern concept - something Inuit have only recently learned to fear, since they now have to deal with living adjacent to larger, more aggressive cultures.

To Inuit, a community used to be a flexible and temporary thing. Since individuals were trained to be as self-reliant as possible, trade was not something that Inuit existence hinged upon. Inuit groups knew of other bands or encampments (as well as of Indians who, tragically, were thought of as monsters), but their business was considered to be their own. In other words, pre-colonial Inuit had no traffic with other cultures, no national identity. Why would traditional Inuit have feared extinction, when they used to believe that they were the only real people in the world?

So why do Inuit have these vanishing community stories?

Taitssumaniguuq:

Once there was a hunter who was a bit of a fool. He didn't read the sila (sky) very well, and he was caught out on the land when a storm was suddenly upon him. He tried to race ahead of it, hoping that he could get back to his camp before he got lost. He was unsuccessful, and soon found himself directionless, while the weather only worsened around him. He was very worried, and cursing himself continually, when suddenly he looked up to see a light ahead of him. He was flooded with relief when he realized that it was the glow of an igluvigaq (snow-house) lit from the inside by a woman's kudliq (lamp). He raced toward it, and immediately saw others - a whole encampment of people.

He hitched his dogs hastily, and entered the first shelter he had seen. A family was playing string-games inside and looked up in surprise when they saw him enter, but soon they were welcoming him. They laughed and played and asked him about the lands he came from, while he sipped some of their soup and felt a shudder of warmth run through him. The only one among them who never spoke or played was a young boy, an iliaq (orphan) by his appearance. The boy only watched the others sullenly, idly picking at his ragged clothes. He seemed thin and wasted, but rarely ate. The hunter followed the example of the others, ignoring the boy, who was probably addle-brained.

Soon he was settled down with these strange people, who were extremely friendly. They had only dried meat and soup to offer him, but he happily accepted these, and they soon encouraged him to get some rest. He was feeling very warm and cared for, when the people around him began to talk about other things they had to do, other people they had to visit in other homes. They told him to get some sleep - that once he awakened refreshed, he could stay or go as he pleased. He didn't care; he was nodding off.

But he had not slept for long when he was suddenly shaken awake. It was the iliaq boy, leaning over him and hissing in his ear,

"You are among a terrible people. They enjoy murdering people, and even now are fetching a large stone to kill you with."

(To be continued in part two)