Back to August, 2002 Archive Index



August 2, 2002 - In the bones of the world (Part nine)
August 9, 2002 - Saami
August 16, 2002 - Feathered friend, feathered foe (Part one)
August 23, 2002 - Feathered friend, feathered foe (Part two)


August 2, 2002

In the bones of the world (Part nine)


Inuit are extremely loyal to their oral traditions, always reluctant to alter story details. This tendency becomes stronger as one looks further west, with Alaskan storytellers refusing to even tell a story if they cannot remember a minor character’s name.

Even in the east, it was normal for a storyteller who had forgotten part of a tale to end it prematurely, rather than substituting his or her own imaginings. This explains the segmented feel of many Inuit stories — most tales are actually only chapters of much larger epics. For example, the beloved Kiviuq (the wayward shaman culture-hero) is spoken of in many short adventures, but all "Kiviuq stories" are actually part of a larger, overarching epic, having a distinct beginning and end.

Thanks to such fidelity, we can use Inuit folklore as a kind of murky, cultural lens, snatching glimpses of the very real past. Tales are always drawn from the real experiences of their inventors — consciously or not. Ideas are shape-shifters, but they originate from somewhere.

In the case of the Tunit, the folklore would immediately seem to conflict. As already mentioned, some of the Tunit tales tell of their incompetence — others of their wisdom. Most stories portray them as a peculiar paradox, stupid in some ways while clever in others.

So which version is true? I think that we can detect the truth by setting folklore side-by-side with archaeohistory. We know that Inuit are of the Thule culture, while Tunit are the Dorset. We also know that the Thule, in order to adapt to an increasingly colder Arctic, developed ingenious technologies that enabled them to hunt sea-mammals efficiently. The Thule then moved into Dorset lands.

Try to imagine, then, what these people must have experienced, and what they must have thought of each other. The Thule/Inuit would have had admirable tools and hunting methods; but as newcomers, they would not have known the land. The Dorset/Tunit would seem more primitive by comparison, having far less efficient hunting techniques and technologies — but they must have had the advantage of wisdom, of knowing the land and the seasons in their part of the world, of knowing when specific animals come and go, of how to read the weather.

Many Inuit tales state things like, "The Tunit were incompetent, but they taught Inuit many things." This sounds almost insane, and yet it may actually be the honest truth.

It seems likely to me that the reason for this Inuit folkloric perception (also note the lack of open warfare between Tunit and Inuit) results from the fact that there was an exchange of knowledge between the two peoples from the time that Inuit first arrived in Tunit lands.

As newcomers, Inuit would not have known the land very well, and would have depended upon the Tunit — who knew it then as well as Inuit know it today — to teach them about the geography, weather patterns, and animal migratory patterns. In this way, the Tunit would have seemed knowledgeable to Inuit. And yet Inuit would immediately have noticed that the Tunit didn’t think to use toggles on their harpoons, to build boats, to have dogs pull their sleds, et cetera. In this way, the Tunit would have seemed stupid to Inuit.

Then this would make the folklore true — to Inuit, the Tunit were at once wise and inept.

Before I end, I should note that Inuit are far from unique in having such folklore — that of shy, short-yet-robust beings, odd in their nature, possessing ancient wisdom. Many cultures around the world mention such beings in their folklore, the most well-known perhaps being from Europe, and especially Scandinavia.

Many archeologists and folklorists believe that these beings, like the Tunit, derive from older, primitive peoples that faded away in the face of migratory waves of technologically advanced peoples. As a land’s older occupants dwindle into obscurity, so do they take on folkloric status to its current occupants. They are the long-ago ones, those who dwell in the bones of the world.

So Inuit are fortunate, for the last of the Tunit did not live so long ago. Not so much of them has been lost as otherwise might have been, remaining preserved in that loyal, wonderful, oral tradition. It is not much of a monument to the Tunit culture, but it will have to do.



August 9, 2002



Saami is not his real name, but it's close enough.

Even if it were his real name, few people would know him — would know how he was — unless they knew him from childhood.

The "who" of Saami was this: he was the youngest child of a then-prominent family. The "how" of him was this: he was born a bitů different. Only, I didn't know it then, and by the time it mattered, it didn't matter to me anyway. I'll explain.

Saami's oxygen flow had been disrupted when he was in his mother's womb, leaving him with a paralysed eye and speech difficulties. He spoke rarely, and even then quite slowly, as though struggling along.

Before meeting him, the rest of us kids were told to be gentle with him; he had a heart condition.

But to see him play, we would never have suspected a problem. He was terrific fun, a regular kid. He was just Saami — one of our friends.

And I guess comprehending that is the key to understanding his story and ours, and the attitudes everyone used to hold, and how all that changed, much, much later.

You need to know that Saami had a heart of gold. He never threw tantrums. He never harmed anyone. He was gentle as the day is long. And in the Arctic summers, that is very long indeed.

We played with Saami throughout the winter, when only the northern lights brightened the sky, back when it was magical, a ghostly ball-game played out with a great walrus head. It was not long after that we were taken to boarding school — where lessons quickly transformed those lights into an atmospheric electromagnetic agitation, a bombardment of particles producing photons, absorbed by rods and cones in our eyes, perceived by our brains as colour.

These were the days of our cultural downfall, our lessons in English enforced with strappings for speaking anything but that language. We were an uncivilized people on the road to "meaningful employment", becoming "part of the Canadian mosaic." Our old values not only became invalid, but were openly reviled. We were "Eskimos", "Qarmaaliit," "Eaters of Raw Meat".

These were the days of my harshest lesson: many people enjoy cruelty. I actually remember the day when it came to the forefront of my consciousness, crystallizing abruptly, like a slap. It was during lunch break. I was waiting for Saami's sister, my best friend, to come out of the gym.

I overheard a couple of jocks, laughing over Saami being placed in "OT" (Occupational Therapy) — pretty much janitorial training. Saami was referred to as that "slow guy," that "idiot." What was it to them anyway? I raged within.

The bullying got worse, of course, as bullying does, so that it oftentimes seemed like the kids in Stringer Hall and Grollier Hall were really in training to refine this very skill. And trying to protect someone from bullying is like trying to chase gulls away from an exposed piece of meat — you can work all day, but there is an endless supply of gulls.

The gulls were being trained by the teachers, by the merciless hours of degradation in and out of class — some criminal in nature. Some of the students were morally weak, absorbing the hatred from their teachers. Such moral weaklings exorcised their frustration by taking it out on physically weaker kids, such as Saami. The nature of the bully.

In retrospect, I don't think even one child could have been protected from the horrible treatment received at any of the "halls" established in the name of acculturating us. The institutions held all the cards, our parents knew nothing of what was going on, and I doubt that even a murdered child would have warranted much of an investigation.

But Saami's abuse leaves me with one primary question: Was this the "Canadian mosaic" we were supposed to join? The promise of such schools was that children who once played together, with all as equals, would later be encouraged to focus upon each others' differences, to think of some as superior, others as inferior.

This is better? You can't show me a lifestyle that is so rewarding that it is worth this kill-or-be-killed way of relating to others.

I can only hope that when Saami looks up at the northern lights, he still remembers the great game they once were.



August 16, 2002

Feathered friend, feathered foe (Part one)

"And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming..."
- Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven

The Japanese have a culture-hero named Yoshitsune. He is the hero of a mythologized era when Japan was in the throes of civil war. Most folklorists think that Yoshitsune's era was around the 12th century, when Japan indeed was at war, but so long ago that its events have mingled with myth and folklore over time.

The story of Yoshitsune is long, but in one small part of it, Yoshitsune finds himself in the mountains. There, he encounters strange creatures known as "tengu." These are crow-men - their torsos are humanoid, but they have crow feet, talons, black feathers, little crow wings growing out of their backs and entire crow heads.

The tengu are the repositories of much wisdom alien to mankind, but they accept Yoshitsune as their pupil. Because they agree with his noble destiny, they do him the favour of training him. They teach him the secret martial art of the sword, "kenjutsu." After Yoshitsune finally leaves them, he gathers his own warriors together and teaches them this tengu knowledge. Thus, it is said that the most important skill of the samurai warrior class - the art of fencing - is the gift of these crow-men to warring humanity.

On Aug. 8, 2002, the BBC online world edition displayed a peculiar story - the startling observations of a team of British zoologists at Oxford University. These observations concerned a crow named Betty. Betty had been presented with a problem. Her food was placed in a container, a sort of miniature bucket, complete with handle. This container was in turn placed in a clear tube. The food-container sat at the bottom of the tube, out of range of her beak.

What did Betty do? She took a piece of straight wire (which she acquired from a male bird named Abel, incidentally) and bent the wire into a hook. This she used, held in her beak, to lift the food-container out of the tube. In subsequent tests, she did this over and over again, even though she had never been taught how to make a hook before. In other words, she had exercised creativity. She had thought of it on her own.
Most people would readily admit that this is pretty clever for a bird, especially since many young children would never think to retrieve an object by fashioning a hook.

But Betty's ingenuity really shines when we consider what the Oxford researchers pointed out. This is what really made her behaviour so special: it is the first time that a non-human creature has been observed to solve a problem by fashioning a new tool for itself from scratch. Even our closest non-human relative, the chimpanzee, has never been observed do this.

In the countless tests done with chimps over the decades, they have exhibited tool use many times, but no animal has ever actually made a new tool to suit a unique problem. Betty is a first. In other words, the simple crow has finally proven to the clinical world that it is not so simple.

This probably wouldn't surprise a lot of old Inuit hunters. Inuit folklore agrees with the Japanese that the crow or raven (same thing for our purposes) has always been the thinker, the trouble-maker, the cunning one - sometimes the saviour.

Crows and ravens, along with their distant cousins, the jays, are all corvids, from the Latin corvus, which just means "crow." The corvids all seem to have mixed measures of boldness and cleverness in common, which makes me recall that, when I was growing up, Inuit always thought of ravens as the best sort of bird pets. They were those rare animals that were considered to possess "isuma" (human-like awareness), which made them good companions. And it also helped that they were able to eat just about anything.

Like much of the rest of the world, Inuit seem to have mixed reactions to corvids - or more specifically, ravens. Just as the raven fades from a lighter, more admirable cast, to a darker, diabolical cast as we look from place to place across Europe, so it does the same as we look east to west across the Arctic.

(Continued next week.)


August 23, 2002

Feathered friend, feather foe (Part two)


Most Inuit know the story of the raven and the owl. In this tale, the birds begin as companions. The story is set in those oldest of days when animals (and humans) could shape-shift at will, and animals used the same tools as man.

The owl and raven were said to be completely white. The pair begin in a state of boredom, desperately trying to entertain themselves, constantly thinking up games to play.

Eventually, it occurs to them that it might be fun to paint each other with lamp-black. First, the raven paints markings on the owl, who is very pleased after the job is done. The owl then tries to do the same for the raven. The raven, however, is severely distracted (the type of distraction varies, but most often he is excited about his new pair of boots).

The raven will not sit still while being painted. The owl, increasingly angered by the raven’s impatience, simply hurls the paint at him, blackening the raven from head to toe. In mutual enmity, the two fly off separately, and have worn their respective colours ever since.

Given the popularity of this story, most people might be surprised to know that it is only the most recent version, a mainly eastern Arctic one. As we look westward, toward Kugluktuk, we find much different versions.

In one version, the raven is the angry party. Again, he starts out white. In this tale, a seagull is always stealing his food. Finally, the raven can’t take it anymore, and he rails at the seagull. Laughing, the seagull blackens the raven all over with charcoal.

Incidentally, an old squaw duck — who also starts out white — tries to stick up for the raven, only to get blackened as well.

The raven’s character starts to look a bit better as we travel west. In the eastern story, the raven deserves what he gets, since he is the fool that will not sit still. There is a hint of culture prerogative here. Eastern Inuit (of which I am one) have modified the story to suit their own priorities.

As the east fosters many seal-hunting peoples, it is only natural that such cultures dislike individuals lacking the discipline to sit still and quiet. The hunter who could not sit still while waiting over a seal’s breathing-hole usually starved. To the east, stillness was survival.

In the west, where stillness was less vital, there was no need to turn the raven into a lesson in foolishness. As illustrated above, the western raven is deprived of his meal by the seagull, then punished for complaining about it.

If anything, this version is characteristic of that recurrent theme in western storytelling: conflict is to be avoided at all costs. Even when it seems justified, conflict simply begets greater conflict — and ultimately only disaster.

This is understandable when we consider that Inuit have occupied the west longer than they have the east, so that conflict, whether in escalation or resolution, takes on a desperate sort of tone.

As we look even further west, toward the Mackenzie Delta, the raven takes on an even milder personality. This time, conflict is absent; there is simply an accident. Here we find the ancestor of the eastern raven-and-owl tale, except that the two birds are the raven and the yellow-billed loon.

In this story, it is not so much that the birds are both white as that they both wish to become beautiful. So they agree to paint each other with various patterns. The raven does a lovely job on the loon. But as the loon takes his turn as painter, a man suddenly stumbles across them. The loon, panicked, flies away, leaving the poor old raven with a simple coat of black base paint. (In another version, the frenzied loon accidentally spills it on him).

We now have the raven as neither fool nor fighter, but simply the victim of cruel fate. Man is the bumbler.

Raven simply gets better and better as we look westward. By the time we view him in Alaska, he has been elevated entirely past fool, fighter, or even victim. There, raven is a hero.

(Continued next week.)