Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic February 07, 2013 - 4:10 pm

Taissumani, Feb. 8

Caribou Taboos

KENN HARPER

To many Inuit, the caribou was the most important of all animals hunted. It provided food, material for clothing and sinew thread for sewing. Special rules which governed its hunting were therefore very important and very complicated.

For Inuit in the Iglulik and Repulse Bay areas, caribou hunting began in early July, when seal hunting on the ice had effectively ended. Camps would be relocated inland and Inuit would often remain there throughout the fall, until hunting on the sea ice could resume.

Very strong rules governed the seasonal and geographic line between hunting for caribou and hunting for sea mammals. Women were most important in maintaining these taboos — their proper behaviour was paramount in seeing that no infractions of acceptable behaviour took place.

No new garments could be made while a hunting party and their families were living in tents – only once they had moved into snow houses could the sewing of caribou skins take place.

If it was an absolute necessity that a man should have a new hunting coat before a proper snow house could be made, then a temporary snow shelter could be constructed, just large enough for the woman to do her sewing.

Orulo, wife of the shaman Ava, said, “When the caribou have shed their old coats and the new ones have come, material of sealskin and used for footwear must no longer be used. If there are men who must absolutely have new soles to their boots, then the sole leather must be laid out on the floor to be trodden on, so that it is no longer new, but soiled, and old kamiks may then be soled, but the work must be done out of doors, not in the tent.”

A family that was inland hunting caribou could not return to the coast and go onto the sea ice to begin hunting sea mammals until all necessary caribou skin items had been made; this included all outer and inner clothing and sleeping skins.

At Iglulik, it was permitted for some men to hunt walrus even though the women had not finished making the winter clothes, but their snow huts had to be built on the land and never on the ice, and only three men from a village could participate in the hunt. They were, furthermore, not allowed to eat caribou head or marrow, but could eat the meat of the animal as long as it was frozen – never boiled. And even then, they could only eat it while wearing mittens!

At Iglulik, the observance of taboos was believed to be especially necessary because it was from there that people supposed that the sea spirit, Takannaaluk, had resided before descending to the depths of the ocean.

There, it was forbidden to eat the flesh of walrus, whale or seal on the same day as caribou meat, nor was caribou meat allowed to be in the house at the same time as the meat of those sea mammals.

No walrus meat could be brought indoors as long as caribou skin garments were being made. And walrus hide, or anything made from it, could not be taken inland when hunting caribou. Harpoon lines of bearded seal, though, could be used as long as they had not previously been used for walrus hunting.

Autumn skins of caribou killed inland, and their meat, could not be brought into a snow hut on the sea ice through the normal passage entrance; instead a hole must be cut in the back of the house above the sleeping place.

All of the taboos designed to separate the use of caribou products and the skins and meat of sea mammals came to an end when the seals had their young in the spring.

Spring, with the return of the sun, brought not only light and warmth but liberation from a long list of irrational taboos. The season must been especially appreciated by the women of every hunting camp.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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