[Respect and family]
[Leadership by consensus] [Children]
[Drastic change] [Inuit values
hile the landscapes and wildlife
bespeak Nunavut's magnificence, it is the territory's longtime
inhabitants the Inuit who are the land's manifestation
of warmth and humanity. Though an ancient people, Inuit today
live in modern homes, surf the Internet, and argue fine legal
points over coffee and donuts. Yet lying just under the surface
of their industrialized existence thrives a millennial culture
Prior to the large-scale movement of Inuit to permanent settlements
in the 1950s, Inuit society existed much as it had since time
immemorial. A superb example of ingenuity, adaptability, and
perseverance in one of the world's most unforgiving environments,
Inuit life in the pre-settlement era focused upon a cycle of
activities coinciding with the availability of wildlife, and
the changing seasons.
Respect and family
The heart of Inuit society was ever the family, a unit based
upon mutual respect. If there is a single characteristic that
typifies Inuit culture, it is the concept known as isuma. As
with so many concepts unique to Inuit, isuma is difficult for
non-Inuit to grasp. It refers to the innermost thoughts and feelings
a person has their mindset. A fundamental tenet of Inuit
society was the sacred nature of isuma: that another's mind was
not to be intruded upon.
Young children were thought not to have fully developed isuma,
and were consequently considered exempt from adult responsibilities.
Misbehaving children were not scolded or punished the
parents instead distracted or ignored them. This was not casual
indifference, but rather the belief that the child was simply
not old enough to be taught how to behave.
This dynamic of respect runs throughout Inuit society and
lies at its very core. Its influence can be seen in the unwillingness
of Inuit to offer opinions as to what others may be thinking,
or in the quiet contemplation of Inuit during a meeting or general
Leadership by consensus
Traditionally, leadership was flexible, and based largely
upon consensus. For example, if several families were living
in the same camp for a period, the best caribou hunter might
be consulted in planning the next caribou hunt. If a berry-picking
or fishing expedition was being planned, the woman with the most
experience might be consulted. The leadership that did exist
tended to be temporary and based upon required skills alone.
Ultimate cultural authority rested with the elders. Not only
were elders held in high regard, but they also represented a
vast wealth of traditional and vital knowledge.
Without a written language, Inuit preserved their culture through
oral history. Consequently, they excelled at storytelling. Adults
and children alike once snuggled together, in the light of the
qulliq (seal-oil lamp), to eagerly await stories. Such
stories contained important themes and knowledge that served
to educate the younger people.
New games and old Iqaluit's Nicki Eejeesiak at bat
and Kugluktuk's June Klengenberg absorbed in
a string game
Each family spent much of the year travelling, setting up
camps wherever food was available, before moving on when it became
scarce. While immediate family formed the basic unit, extended
families were very important and would gather together with others
when the seasons and availability of food permitted. These were
times of great joy and feasting times for stories, singing,
drumming, eating, playing, and chatting.
The parents bore primary responsibility for providing food,
clothing, and shelter for the other members. Here, there was
true gender equality. While the husband was the primary provider
of food staples, such as large animals, the wife played an equally
vital role as food preparer, seamstress, care-giver, and maintainer
of heat and fire. As well, all family members contributed wherever
they could, with older children looking after younger ones.
Inuit love their children. This seems like a truism, but it's
reinforced by a great degree of open and very physical affection
that is showered upon young children: from mothers carrying their
babies in their amautit (baby-carrying parkas), to the
"aaaaahs" and cooing that seem to arise every time
Inuit with young children meet friends and relatives. Childhood
is traditionally a wonderful time for Inuit. Children's young
wants and needs are tolerated more than in most southern Canadian
children. Everybody wants to cuddle and kunik (kiss) them.
The love of children is also reflected in Inuit customary
adoption practices. Inuit families with an abundance of children
may allow a family member or close friend to adopt one of their
children perhaps the greatest gift of all. The child is
usually raised knowing her birth mother, who often plays an active
role in the raising of the child. Such generosity, consideration,
and empathy are hallmarks of Inuit culture.
Today, the complexity of everyday life increases with an unprecedented
rapidity. Although one of the elements that has enabled Inuit
to survive the rigors of life in the Arctic has been their incredible
ability to adapt, the speed and degree of change in our society
has taken its toll on the people and culture. The most dramatic
and pervasive changes have perhaps occurred as a result of the
wage economy. Whereas Inuit in pre-settlement days were always
fully "employed" in the day-to-day business of survival,
the modern unemployment rate in some communities can now exceed
60 per cent. This problem stems from past errors and cross-cultural
difficulties, and it has had a devastating impact on a great
number of Inuit families. The acquisition of southern skills
has been slow. The strain that this places on Inuit society remains
one of the indelible legacies of the imposition of a community
|First light on Iqaluit's
As well, the relationship between youth and elders has undergone
considerable change. Inuit youth are today educated in classrooms,
watch WWF wrestling and the latest sitcoms, and listen to the
Spice Girls and Marilyn Manson. Their grasp of the Inuktitut
language has faded, and has limited their ability to communicate
with their elders, who are the source of traditional knowledge.
It is an unfortunate fact that much of the information needed
to thrive in the modern world can be found not through elders,
but through texts, CD-ROMs and the Internet. While elders continue
to play an important and respected role in Inuit society, that
role is now endangered.
Inuit values prevail
Despite the massive changes that have at times threatened
to overwhelm Inuit society, Inuit have endured without compromising
their basic values. While many things have changed in their society,
Inuit continue to relish time spent talking with friends and
relatives, exchanging a bit of gossip, or hearing about recent
events in town. Sensitivity to the feelings and rights of others
remains a fundamental Inuit trait.
The Inuit of Nunavut today revel in an increasingly official
recognition of their culture. Customary adoption, for example,
has been recognized by the territorial government, and Inuit
are learning to identify and guard their rights. On the community
level, one may still find children playing through the extended
daylight of an arctic summer, long after southern children have
been put to bed. Still, one may find a man, woman, or youth chatting
pleasantly over tea with some elder they had approached for advice,
eyes respectfully lowered, as in tradition. Still, one may see
families joyfully laughing together as they pack for a camping
trip out on the land, ever to Inuit what the backyard is to southerners.
Still, one may watch a husky patiently waiting as his master
harnesses him, preparing him and his pack mates for this season's
Even today, Inuit enjoy a special sense of time dictated,
as of old, by elemental needs: the love of family, feasts, the
pleasures brought with the seasons, and especially Nunavut
the land itself. For these reasons, despite their modernity,
their ancestors would recognize in them the spirit and freedom
that once they lived.
Qitsualik is a freelance writer, her career in Inuit issues spanning
approximately 25 years. Raised in a traditional lifestyle in
Pond Inlet, she has witnessed the full transition of her culture
Editor's note: The word "pijariiqpunga"
has no English equivalent. In traditional Inuit culture, each
speaker is allowed his or her own isuma. Others won't interrupt
until a speaker indicates that they've said all they needed to.
There is no time limit: a speaker can sit in silence for quite
a while, yet no one will speak until he or she ends with "pijariiqpunga."
It means that they're finished, and someone else can have a turn