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What the Inuit 'want'

Of all the questions that explorers and anthropologists have asked early
Inuit over time, the most common ones are also the most basic: What do you
like? What do you want? What do you fear?

The answers to such questions have also been the source of the greatest
frustration to explorers, as well as to other southerners wanting to learn
more about Inuit culture. In the past, I have made it clear that
traditional Inuit (especially elders) used to consider a direct, personal
question to be exceedingly rude. Their way of dealing with such rudeness
was to become evasive, even tricky, in the hope that the one asking the
questions would simply go away. But while this is true, there is another
side to "Inuit evasiveness," a cultural side. So bear with me while I have
a look at it.

While we have all heard it time and again, I have to repeat it here: It
cannot be stressed enough how hostile and uncertain the world of
pre-colonial Inuit used to be. We all know how adaptable Inuit culture is,
but most people think that this adaptation is a matter of technology. Look
at how clever Inuit are for doing so well with so little to work with. But
in having such a cushy existence ourselves (let's face it, life isn't a
fraction as hard for us as it was for many of our ancestors, no matter what
part of the world our genes hail from), we too easily overlook the fact
that survival is not simply a matter of technology. At least two-thirds of
survival is attitude, mind set, culture.

While I was living in the south, I had the privilege of conducting a
seminar on cold-weather survival. One of the people attending it was a U.S.
Marine, a veteran of the Vietnam War. As individuals who pride themselves
on their ability to survive anything, Marines love any extra tips they can
get on survival in any climate. To my great pleasure, this fellow was
extremely excited by the seminar. Just ask my husband. The Marine kept
pumping his hand, saying, "You're lucky to have that one - she can take
care of herself!"

Perhaps ironically, my culture is such that I am not even comfortable
relating the above story, in part because the survival knowledge that I was
imparting during the seminar was commonplace when I was growing up. You did
not have to be a great hunter to know how to dress properly, how to
conserve heat in oneself or in a shelter, how to make cord or clothes, how
to find and melt drinking water, how to do basic tracking, or how to orient
oneself when lost. You were considered incompetent if you did not possess
such knowledge, in the same way that modern, urban folk are considered
incompetent if they do not know how to buy groceries, or use an elevator.

The one thing that I was concerned about during my seminar, however, was
that I could not impart to my listeners the survival "mind." I was
certainly not worried about the Marine - years of soldiering and past
trauma had ensured that he already possessed it. But my milder listeners
were convinced that survival was guaranteed by simply knowing some cute
tricks.

If I could go back and tell them all one thing, it would be this:
Traditional Inuit culture is the environment, and nothing other than this.
The Arctic has not simply forced Inuit to develop certain technologies. It
has created, sculpted, and determined the entire culture, including the way
in which the people think. It has made the Inuit mind unlike most others on
Earth.

The Inuit way - that which is "Inuktitut" - is not merely a matter of
culture, but of breeding. It is a well-documented fact that Inuit have
physiologically adapted to their environment. An example of this is the
development of extra blood vessels in the hands (none of my southern
friends can handle a frozen fish for long without going numb). But my own
suspicion is that Arctic severity has forced even more evolution upon the
Inuit mind than on the body. Even the Inuit I know who have been raised in
the south still exhibit very Inuktitut attitudes: Stoicism, cynical humor,
an easy-going demeanor and a non-paranoid sort of wariness. Their brains
are instinctive survival machines, even without the culture.

The greatest evidence to support the idea of the unique Inuit mind, I feel,
is the Inuit way of life today. Modern Inuit have embraced the global
community, living in houses, paying taxes, watching cable TV. Some have
legal degrees and 4 x 4 trucks. They catch the latest movies and music
almost as soon as southerners do. They have all the modern concerns of
waste disposal, managing governments, doing business. One might almost
think that they are identical to southerners, but simply situated in the
Arctic.

Now here is the miracle: Inuit also still hunt. They still eat traditional
foods. They hold drum-dances, throat-chanting events. Many still consult
elders. Every day, I spot someone wearing some piece of traditional
clothing, always quite well made. Every day, I spot sleds lying around,
often right next to huskies meant to pull them. Inuit still learn
traditional sewing techniques. They carve like mad. Chances are good that
if you go to tell an Inuk about some traditional story, they will have
already heard a version of it.

The greatest miracle of all, perhaps, is that they still speak their
original language. Just the other day, I went to rent a copy of "X-Men" and
saw two boys, about eight years old, speaking Inuktitut to each other. They
were not speaking it as "properly" as I would have liked, and they were
giggling as they exchanged Inuktitut "dirty" words, but it suddenly
occurred to me what an astonishing thing I was witnessing. There are some
parts of the world where Aboriginal peoples no longer know a word of their
original languages.

Such amazing preservation of culture ties into the reasons why the
questions posed by early explorers did not elicit the expected answers from
Inuit. "What do you believe?" was posed by the Arctic explorer Knud
Rasmussen. The answer from his Inuk companion was, "We don't believe. We
fear." A similarly fundamental question posed by Rasmussen to a different
man was, "What do you want?" The Inuk's response was to run off a long list
of things that he must avoid in order to stay healthy.

Such answers best characterize the Inuit mind set, that which persists
today. To the average southern mind, fulfillment is defined by acquisition.
I am not referring only to materialism, but to acquisition of resources,
such as relationships, recognition, opportunities, etc. The assumption is
that life begins at a sort of "zero-rating" for happiness. After that, the
more things that go right in one's life, the happier one becomes. There are
great expectations of life.

However, the traditional Inuit mind expects very little. In this mind set,
happiness is a natural state, disappearing only when things go wrong.
Instead of trying to make oneself happier, the traditional Inuit mind is
preoccupied with preserving happiness by fending off those things (disease,
injury, hostility, etc.) that steal happiness away.

The reason, I think, that Inuit have preserved their culture so well is
that their minds have evolved to feel that life owes them nothing, facing
hardship with a kind of stoicism bred into them by their environment. While
modernity may sometimes stifle this tendency, the instinct is always there,
a genetic gift. The concern of the deepest Inuit mind is to maintain the
things that give one joy, while trying to adapt to that which does not.
Inuit, therefore, are less concerned with alteration than they are with
preservation. Thus do the things that they best love about their culture
still endure.

It is as Orpingalik, of the Netsilingmiut Inuit, once sang:

Do you know yourself?

How little of yourself you understand!

Stretched out feebly on my bench, my only strength is in my memories.

Game! Big game, chasing ahead of me!

Allow me to relive that!

Let me forget my frailty, by calling up the past!

I bring to mind the great white one, the polar bear, approaching with
raised hind-quarters, his nose in the snow - convinced, as he rushed at me,
that of the two of us, he was the only male!

This is how it was.

Now I lie on my bench, too sick to even fetch a little seal oil for my
woman's lamp ...

Most Inuit have only wanted one thing: To be Inuit.

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.