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Qitsualik: Uncanny Arctic

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  • Qitsualik: Uncanny Arctic

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    Qitsualik: Uncanny Arctic

    (javascript:PrintWindow();) Posted: December 22, 2005 by: _Rachel
    Qitsualik_ (

    The Arctic has been changing recently, whether due to human error, a
    natural tendency for the planet (or sun) to shift in temperament or a combination
    of both. While it is important for modern people to do what they can to
    preserve the environmental balances they depend upon, it is also important to
    bear something in mind: The Arctic, and the Earth itself, has changed before.

    Inuit elders occasionally tell stories of a time when there were trees in
    the Arctic, and they are absolutely correct. There have not only been trees,
    but also vast cycles of life that resemble nothing we know today. Seventy-five
    million years ago, Arctic dinosaurs trod upon the very soil Inuit do now.
    Geological studies tell us they lived among flowering plants and coniferous
    trees, and had unusually large eyes - Arctic adaptations to help them see in
    sunless winter months. A long-ago Arctic, perhaps, but one that was quite real
    before it changed.

    The aforementioned is not to imply, of course, that Inuit lived during the
    time of dinosaurs (living with polar bears is challenging enough). But it
    points out only one of many times when the Arctic has warmed deeply and long
    enough to allow the spread of trees.

    Trees, incidentally, are the least of what Inuit seem to remember. The
    imagination of Inuit is recorded in their games and stories - but a secret history
    lies therein as well. Still imbedded in traditional string-games and tales
    are references to odd things Inuit have heard of throughout the ages, and such
    knowledge has survived only because of the great fidelity with which Inuit
    used to relate their traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.

    This cautions us not to make assumptions about the ''normality'' of today's
    flora and fauna. Who has ever actually seen a living wooly mammoth? And,
    surely, there could be no hope of beavers surviving in the treeless expanse of
    the Arctic. Yet, despite what one might expect, Inuktitut has terms for both
    such animals, and both are represented in traditional media, one of the oldest
    of which is ajaraaq, or string-figures.

    There is an unfortunate tendency to translate ajaraaq into string ''games.''
    In English, a game is of little worth, a hobby or way to keep children
    content, and the tendency to regard ajaraaq as mere gaming has caused this art to
    remain ignored almost unto death. This is a tragedy, since ajaraaq used to
    act as an important visual history. The intricate figures produced by the
    dextrous interplay of fingers and sinew once numbered in the thousands, and many
    have been lost today. There was a time when every object and deed and animal
    in the Inuit world was represented in one or more string-figures. Meager
    examples include: The Seal, The Two Lemmings and Their Burrows, A Ptarmigan's
    Nest, A Man Carrying a Qajaq, The Dog Dragging the Sled, The Meeting of the
    Brothers-in-Law, Two Dogs Feeding Out of One Bowl, A Woman's Knife, The Breast
    Bone and Ribs of the Caribou and The Sculpin.

    Since ajaraaq was such an invaluable tool for early Inuit to teach their
    youth, specific string-figures used to be passed from generation to generation
    with little change and great fidelity. In this way, ajaraaq takes on an extra
    dimension - that of history book - by recording some very peculiar figures
    that might seem out of place today. The best example is the long, four-looped
    figure called Kigiaq, or ''The Beaver.'' It might seem strange enough to many
    that Inuit even have a word for beavers. But in truth, Inuit represent
    beavers not only terminologically and in ajaraaq, but also in song:

    Beaver, he is going to throw his spear at you!

    I will not let him hit me with his spear; I shall dive.

    Beaver, he is going to shoot his arrow at you!

    I will not let him shoot me with his arrow; I shall dive.

    The existence of kigiaq harkens to a time when the ancestors of Inuit knew
    of beavers. And while some might be tempted to scorn tradition as unreliable,
    fossilized teeth and bones from beavers have been found quite far north of
    the Arctic Circle, the best deposits of which range in age from 130,000 to
    60,000 years ago. It is further thought that beavers have had many opportunities
    to make their way to the Arctic in more recent times, following chains of
    lakes connecting North and South in times of extreme global warming. The last
    such great warming period, from 800 - 1200 A.D., was, coincidentally, the same
    one that allowed sea-mammal hunting Inuit to first arrive in their
    ''traditional'' lands.

    Now, there are many who will no doubt bristle at the aforementioned
    statement that the Arctic has warmed before. It does seem to imply that periods of
    extreme warmth and freezing are part of the larger cyclic nature of the Earth.
    We do, after all, live in very guilty times. We humans, styling ourselves the
    stewards of the Earth, feel that we must accept penance for a world that we
    have polluted and failed.

    Nevertheless, we cannot escape the reminder which kigiaq provides. Neither
    can we escape similar string-figures, such as ''The Mammoth,'' which serve to
    record creatures long past. We cannot escape the legends of trees in the
    Arctic, nor of the very real oddities still uncovered today. We cannot ignore the
    very real Arctic lakes where only giant, cannibal cod survive, their
    evolution shaped by actions of the last Ice Age. We cannot escape the fossils of
    Arctic-adapted dinosaurs, nor of squid-like things that swam here when the land
    was but an ancient sea.

    These and other Arctic misfits serve a subtle yet valuable purpose today.
    They are potential messengers - dating back to times when Inuit had no
    missionary-borne concept of stewardship over the Earth, but only respect for its
    mysterious nature. This is the message which ancient Inuit urged their
    grandchildren's grandchildren to bear always in mind: Be adaptable. Be ready. For the
    land is shifting, timeless and uncanny.

    Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)

    Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
    lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit socio-political 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.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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