Uncanny Arctic

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.

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