Snow goose among the mosquitoes
I sing of the snow goose among the mosquitoes. I write of the wings of the Inuit culture rising and falling through the indignities, the brutalities, the Pygmy ambitions, and the trivia of 20th-century technocracy. Walrus, narwhal, white whale, seal, caribou, musk-ox, moose, white fox -- all have deeper meaning than the white man's pay cheque . . .
In a "Classified Science" editorial on acid rain in a February issue of Toronto's Globe and Mail arises the following speculation: "It has been suggested recently that a heavy haze that occurs throughout the Arctic may be caused by industrial pollution from Europe." Culturalm pollution of the North originates from the same source but is of somewhat longer standing.
It was early in the 17th-century that fur traders and missionaries brought to the Northland the first winds of change. Winds that were to become more cruel than the Arctic blast that knifed the faces of Kridlak and his followers through the seven years of their epic journey from Baffin Island to Greenland. For this Inuit hero of the last century, it was not land or gold or fame that lay ahead. In a special sense, it was the search for people, perhaps the first dream of the "extended family." And ironically, it was this very image that was in jeopardy when European feet touched Northern shores. O tikitsimayuk, tikitsimayuk! n1 Where are my children, where are my wives?
n1 He has arrived . . .m
Light falls from the Arctic air. After the World War II, the cultural haze thickened and spread rapidly. Radio, telephone, gasoline engine, welfare programs, one-way education, foreign diseases -- technology's assault on the Inuit's heritage -- were relentless. How many women were "lost" for years in provincial hospitals because of official mistakes? How many children finally returned from new development towns, the language of their birth forgotten, unable to communicate with their own families? A way of life was shattered. But the dignity of the race survives. Whales, fur, gold, oil . . . This land is your land, this land is my land!
For hundreds of years before the visit of the first European whaler, people and ideas moved widely across the North. In Eskimo language, the very meaning of the word "Inuit" is "people." Life was inseparable from people: it meant the survival of the family in the most ruthless of environments.The early Inuit would meet only a few hundred people in his whole lifetime and probably most of these would be his own relatives.
Next to death, the worst thing was isolation -- being totally cut off from your own kind -- the only people you knew to exist! When Kridlak set out on his incredible journey, he was not alone: he was one of the members of several entire families facing the ordeal. And when he found his distant cousins, the Thule Inuit is the Greenland village of Pitorakvik, it was isolation that had been vanquished, it was the sacred meaning of community that was celebrated.
Before liquor, before sweet foods, before central heating, before the "treaties" -- yes, before the rape of the North -- there was no history of disruption in Inuit communities. No crime, no major diseases; hence, no need for police, prisons or hospitals. For the Inuit, happiness was the midnight sun. Theirs was the preventive medicine of innocence, vigor, and service; above all, selfless devotion to family.
Indigenous to the values of the Inuit even today is a deep regard for patience, truthfulness and calm; a great respect for the thought that is quiet, unselfish and uninquisitive. And humor has a special place. One of the "games" devised for stranger's to test their friendliness involves taking turns at cuffing each other on the temple or shoulder. This Inuit "boxing" is an unlikely alliance between shock and laughter. Football, too, occasionally links humor with danger. One foggy day in 1895, somewhere on the ice off the Hudson Strait, a polar bear suddenly joined in a football game, chasing the sealskin ball with ursal glee.
A language beats its wings. Voices rise in the wind. Now there are many songs to sing -- songs that cancel bitterness rather than record it, songs that restore the old vision. . . . In the Arctic dark, a culture still struggles boldly for light. The "Attenogans," legends of long ago, live on; the "tubadjimun," or story of happenings on the spot, has daily reality. And then there is the remarkable "throat-music" of the Inuit women -- a gentle marriage between sighing and birdsong.
There are many memories to redeem the lost. In the true north, history is always the living presence of the past . . . Glorious it is to see the caribou flocking down from the forests and beginning their wanderings to the north . . . Glorious it is to see the great herds from the forests spreading out over the plains of white. Glorious to see. Glorious it is to see long-haired winter caribou following the ebb-mark of the sea with a storm of clattering hooves. Glorious it is when the wandering time is come . . . n2
N2 Translation of Eskimo song.m
Snow goose among the mosquitoes . . . From the tribes of Mackenzie to those of Netsilik, from the Copper people of Victoria Island to the families of Igloolik, from villages in South Baffin to Labrador -- though relatively few in number, these Inuit communities remain the original Eskimo people of the Canadian North.
Not to mention the Sadliq. On Southampton Island, this small Inuit community in its bearskin clothing and its houses of stone, turf, and whalebone successfully weathered the centures. Until one day, with an open heart, a Sadliq tribesmen paddled out to meet the first foreigners on a float of three blown-up sealskins. It was the beginning of the end. Quite suddenly the Sadliq people were wiped out by disease. In 1948, the last survivor went "gently into that good night."
But no tragedies bury a culture. The Inuit lives on, learning to "rage against the dying of the light." The smow goose still flies high in the Northern heart.