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Old blends with new at the top of the world

They began coming up here 10,000 years ago, groups of hunters pushed north by population pressures in Central Asia. They spread around the Arctic Circle to become the Chukchi, who herd reindeer near the Bering Sea in present-day Russia; the Yakut in Siberia; the Aleut in the Aleutian Island region; the Inuit (Eskimos) across Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.

They built societies in an almost unimaginably harsh environment, a place where resources for food, clothing, and shelter were scarce, a climate where the chill factor in the dark dead of winter routinely drops to 50 degrees below zero F. - or colder. Many of their descendants still hunt caribou, musk oxen, wolves, and polar bears, although their weapons are more likely to be high-powered rifles than harpoons.

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Today, those who settle here come from Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver - idealists who want to help with education and social services, adventurers looking to test their resourcefulness, those who've had it with the pace of urban life to the south.

Merv and Bonnie Tulloch are here from "down south" in Ontario. Merv teaches computer courses at the high school in this small community along the western shore of Hudson Bay. Bonnie is the only lawyer in town and a lay leader at the local Anglican Church.

Looking for a new way of life after their children had grown up, they moved here two years ago. "New," it certainly is. Cars have been exchanged for snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles with fat, knobby tires; more stylish clothes have been swapped for fur-trimmed parkas. Everybody knows everybody else. And if they don't, says Merv, "There's a good chance they've already heard of you."

Then there's the weather. "We still have 15 feet of snow in our backyard," says Bonnie on May 28. Merv tells of walking home from school in a whiteout storm. It took him 3-1/2 hours to walk the mile and a half, some of it on hands and knees. Several times he found himself wandering on the frozen bay, and his nose was frostbitten.

"A 'small' storm here would close down anyplace in the South," says Tim Hinds, a retired Canadian military man who now serves as fire marshall and coroner for Rankin Inlet. By "anyplace in the south" he means, oh, Saskatchewan.

The two cultures - traditional hunting and high tech - are merging here.

Larry Ussak hunts, fishes, and races sled dogs "out on the land," as the phrase goes here. "I always finish in the Top 10," says this man with the 100-watt smile. His wife, Jenny, teaches fifth grade. As she checks out the digital camera used to transmit photos with a laptop computer, the first thing she asks is, "Does it work with a Mac?" Not the response you'd expect from an Inuit family that hunts seals and polar bears.

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The computer Jenny uses at school has "syllabics" as well as regular letters. This is a system of symbols developed by Anglican missionaries for the Cree Indians and adapted for the Inuit in the mid-19th century. It's on all the signs around here, the written version of Inuktitut - the first language of most people here. It's also the language in which parishioners at the Holy Comforter Anglican Church sing such old hymns as "Softly and Tenderly."

Old and new combine these days, but it's still a life for the hearty and resourceful up here at the top of the world.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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