Taissumani, May 6

Orpingalik: “All My Being is Song”



In 1923, Knud Rasmussen and two Greenlandic travelling companions, Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq, travelled by dog sled from Hudson Bay into Nattilik country, in what is now the northern Kivalliq and eastern Kitikmeot regions.

For the first part of their journey they were accompanied by two Kivalliq Inuit, Taparte and Anarqaaq.

The first Nattilingmiut that they encountered were a father and son, Orpingalik and Kanajoq, who were on their way to Repulse Bay to trade. It was a fortuitous meeting, because Orpingalik was a shaman held in high regard by his people. Rasmussen thought him an “interesting man, well at home in the old traditions of his tribe” and possessed of a “fertile wit.” He was an impressive hunter, a strong archer and the quickest kayakman of all in pursuing caribou herds crossing rivers and lakes.

But above all, Orpingalik was a poet. The explorer described his sensitive mind as “luxuriant” and remarked that he was always singing when he had nothing else to do.

Orpingalik described his songs as his breath, so necessary to him that they were part and parcel of himself. He told Rasmussen that his songs, which were of his own composition, were “comrades in solitude.”

Rasmussen asked Orpingalik how many songs he had composed and the hunter-poet responded, “How many songs I have I cannot tell you. I keep no count of such things. There are so many occasions in one’s life when a joy or a sorrow is felt in such a way that the desire comes to sing; and so I only know that I have many songs. All my being is song, and I sing as I draw breath.”

Orpingalik shared with Rasmussen a song which the poet himself called “My Breath,” a song he wrote during a period of despondency as a result of a long illness:

I will sing a song,
A little song of myself.
Sick I have lain since autumn
And have turned weak as a child.
Unaya, Unaya.

Sorrowful, I would that
My wife were gone to another house
To a man who could be her refuge,
Secure and firm as the thick winter ice.
Sorrowful, I would she were gone
To a better protector,
Now that I have no strength myself
To rise from my bed.
Unaya, Unaya.

Do you know your fate?
So little you know of yourself.
Now I lie faint and cannot rise,
And only my memories are strong.
Unaya. Unaya.

Beasts of the hunt! Big game!
Oft the fleeing quarry I chased!
Let me live it again and remember,
Forgetting my weakness.
Unaya. Unaya.

Let me recall the great white polar bear,
High up its back body,
Snout in the snow, it came!
He really believed
He alone was a male
And ran towards me.
Unaya. Unaya.

It threw me down again and again,
Then breathless departed and lay down to rest,
Hid by a mound on a floe. Heedless it was, and unknowing
That I was to be its fate.
Deluding itself that he alone was a male,
And unthinking, that I too was a man!
Unaya. Unaya.

I shall never forget that great blubber-beast, a fjord seal
I killed from the sea ice early, long before dawn,
While my companions at home still lay like the dead,
Faint from failure and hunger, sleeping.
With meat and with swelling blubber I returned so quickly
As if merely running over ice to view a breathing hole there.
And yet it was an old and cunning male seal.
But before he had even breathed
My harpoon head was fast, mortally deep in his neck.

That was the manner of me then.
Now I lie feeble on my bench
Unable even to get a little blubber
For my wife’s stone lamp.
The time, the time will not pass,
While dawn gives place to dawn
And spring is upon the village.
Unaya. Unaya.

How long shall I lie here?
How long?
And how long must she go a-begging
For fat for her lamp,
For skins for clothing
And meat for a meal?
A helpless thing – a defenceless woman.
Unaya. Unaya.

Do you know yourself?
So little you know of yourself!
While dawn gives place to dawn,
And spring is upon the village.
Unaya. Unaya.

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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