The graffiti on the wall read “I Eat Blubber” in big red letters. Those three words, scrawled on the inside of a remote cabin by the shore of the Arctic Ocean captured the essence of the modern Inuit culture I saw around me. The art form – graffiti – was modern and the language was English but the content was so purely Inuit. Behind this seemingly odd assertion about Inuit food, was also a political statement – a defiance of hamburger, pop, and pizza culture. The Estonian equivalent might be something like “I eat kama.” The implied pride rings out strong and clear.
Other signs of Inuit cultural pride are less blatant in Nunavut. As a first time visitor to Canada’s newest territory (formed in 1999), both the land and the people of this far northern country were new to me. My Qallunaat (Inuit word for southerner) education had prepared me for snow, dog teams, Eskimo carvings, polar bears and igloos. What I encountered in late July when I stepped off the 18 passenger Turboprop airplane in Pond Inlet at the northern tip of Baffin Island, was a more complex reality.
The hamlet of Pond Inlet began as a Catholic mission and a Hudson Bay Company trading post. Over time, the RCMP and other missionaries joined them. In the 1960s, when children from nearby Inuit camps were sent to residential school in Pond Inlet, their parents followed them and settled in the community. Now, Pond Inlet has an airport, a medical clinic, stores, hotels, schools, government administration buildings, houses and 1600 residents. Adults and children walk along the gravel roads or ride on ATVs (in the summer). The hamlet also has a few cars which may or may not obey the bilingual English/Inuktittut stop signs.
Within two hours of arriving, my travel companions and I were in a sturdy metal boat with two outboard motors totalling 215 horsepower, headed out to a beach 15 kilometres east of town. Shaetie, our smiling Inuit captain, navigated his way among the recently broken up pack-ice with calm expertise. The questions we posed to our middle-aged Inuit guide were answered with short simple sentences. Like most other Inuit in Pond Inlet, Shaetie’s first language is Inuktittut and he has little call to speak English. Though he occasionally drops off travellers like us, he mainly uses his boat for hunting and fishing. Until recently, the Inuit lived almost exclusively from hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping and these things continue to be a key element of their culture. This is evident in what they eat and the clothes they wear in winter.
For example, earlier that day, hunters from the community had shot and butchered a narwhal. Shaetie had brought along a few pieces of this unique, horned whale for us to try. Muktuk, as narwhal skin is known, is an Inuit delicacy. I took a small piece of cooked muktuk first. It tasted a bit like eggs. The raw muktuk was a bit more challenging, especially if you consider that I’m usually a vegetarian. The flavour was delicate but I was struck by how chewy it was. My teeth could not penetrate the rubbery, white skin.
This hunting life is something we have images of in the south. What we do not see is that after days, maybe weeks of living out on the land and from the land, Inuit return to their homes where they have modern appliances, running water, nice televisions, computers. Their children ride bicycles, scrounge money for pop and chips and go to school most of the year. But, just in case you think you understand this mix, add to it that groups of children of all ages can be seen on the streets at 2 am, playing out in the night sun. The Inuit, in spite of many changes, continue to parent largely by example, not by rules and discipline. Children eat what they like when they like and come and go as they please. They are guided in becoming level-headed, gentle, responsible adults by a culture that places huge value on family, community and personal conduct.
And just in case this seems all so nice, I could tell you about our visit to suicide row at the local cemetery, the crosses of many teenagers graves standing out so stark and white on the open tundra. I could tell you about the many marijuana leaves that were painted on the walls of the same cabin as the “I Eat Blubber” assertion. I could tell you about the astronomically high levels of PCBs in Inuit mothers’ breast milk as a result of pollutants from the south that concentrate in the Arctic. I could tell you about the cruise ship that was due to stop in Pond Inlet in a few days. There are few peoples in the world that have been asked to adapt to such massive changes so quickly. The changes Estonians underwent in 800 years have been compressed into less than 100 among the Inuit. And the changes keep coming.
When we returned from our stay out by the ocean’s edge, we spent some time in town and met some more people. We encountered a young Inuk (singular of Inuit) who was working at the site of the nearby, proposed Mary River iron ore mine. For 14 hours a day, he shovels the salt used to melt the permafrost for drilling. Though just in its development phase, the Baffin Land Company proposes to dig up $46 billion of the purest iron ore in the world, put in on a train across 50 kilometres of tundra, load it into massive ice-breaking ships and transport it to Rotterdam. When the icebreakers ram through the ice of Eclipse Sound and past Pond Inlet, they will put into question the survival of many species of marine mammals who rely on this ecosystem. They will also put into question the hunter/gatherer lifestyle that continues to underpin Inuit culture.
Afterwards, we went hiking, then kayaking, all the while puzzling over this strange mixture of cultures, trying to come to grips with just where the Inuit position themselves in relation to the western culture. I understand it is a puzzle the Inuit, especially the younger generations, grapple with as well. This polar desert and abundant marine environment has formed them culturally as well as physically. Its demands are as persistent as those of western culture. Time will show us what they make of themselves in these different worlds they inhabit.
As for me, I can’t say I’m any authority on the Arctic or the Inuit. Two weeks is too short a time to do much more than scratch at the surface of my stereotypes, misconceptions and ignorance. I can say, though, I feel more informed than before. That adage about the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know comes to mind. I might never return to the country called Nunavut but now that I know some of what the Inuit are up against, I’ll hold my thumbs, Estonian style, for them.
How I became less stupid in Nunavut (1)