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The Hunter's Wisdom

Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988

The hunter's wisdom
The way native people have adapted to their environment influences the way
they relate to each other and to the dominant societies which surround them.
Perry Shearwood looks at the political ecology of the Inuit.

Ten miles from Igloolik the landfast ice meets the salt water of Foxe Basin - nearly 2,000 miles north of the Canadian/US border. In the spring dozens of Inuit hunters from this tiny village of 800 set out to stalk seal at the edge of the ice floe.

In May north of the Arctic Circle the sun shines 24 hours a day. So even those who drive heavy equipment for the town council or teach at Ataguttaaluk School can head out by snowmobile after work for a few hours hunting. A full-time hunter might venture farther afield to Fury and Hecla Strait, where strong currents keep the ice open throughout the winter.

More than 20 species of water birds bob in the waves or fly overhead. A good shot can bag an 'old squaw' or an 'eider duck' for the pot. Seals, curious at the noise made by the hunters, poke their heads up. Here they are no more an endangered species than the cow or sheep you glimpse from your car window. A quarter million of them swim in the water around Foxe Basin.

You have to be a crack shot to hit one and then paddle in a tiny floe-edge boat to retrieve it. Nothing goes to waste. Meat that can't be eaten is fed to the dogs. With the hair scraped off, seal skin is the ideal raw material for waterproof 'kamik', the most comfortable footwear for floe-edge hunting. The liver of the freshly-killed seal, eaten raw, is warming and goes well with a pilot biscuit and a cup of hot, sweet tea, brewed on the Coleman stove.

Hunting and trapping are still vital to the culture of the Inuit despite Canadian government attempts to force them into settlements and lure them into the cash economy. Says Igloolik resident Louis Alianakuluk, 'When an Inuk wants to hunt, he hunts: he does not have to be told to by other people.'

This close contact with the environment coupled with a nomadic way of life has helped shape the way Inuit people relate to each other. Their politics (both individual and social relations) are a product of a centuries of learning about how to survive in the North. In a highly mobile hunting culture where wind, weather and animal movements change constantly decisions are made quickly. According to anthropologist Hugh Brody 'each group plans and alters plans with a spontaneity as swift as it is subtle. There is no room for committees, organizers or institutional formality.' The Inuit, says Brody, are 'egalitarian individualists'.

Since the 1960s the Inuit have lived a more settled existence. Nonetheless, the old values endure. Even the most respected community leaders don't have the right to speak for others. As Brody has written: 'agreement requires a clear and public statement by each individual. There is no institution of authority, no institution on which to rely. the individualism of the culture is a barrier against any form of organized domination; the egalitarianism a barrier against competitive individualism.'

Personal and community relationships, the values and beliefs which guide and inform those relationships are a direct reflection of the Inuit relationship to the environment. For example, many Inuit along the Arctic coastline still spend from April to July moving camp to camp. They fish in the lakes, hunt seals, shoot migrating birds and spear Arctic char (a salmon-like fish). Home is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. From the Inuit point of view being attached to one piece of land is not only irrational, it is foolhardy.

Success in this environment is based on harmony: both within the community and between individuals and the natural world. There is a fine line between survival and disaster. Among the Inuit much is done to avoid conflict. According to Brody, 'interrupting a person who is speaking, looking for authority to avoid personal responsibility, seeking to establish oneself as a dominant individual, failing to share openly and according to others' assessments of their own needs - in the ideology of northern hunters these are all disruptive, self-defeating and wrong.'

In practice traditional values such as consensus, rejection of competition, harmony with nature, anti-authoritarianism and full discussion have been retained. In Igloolik respected elders are active in the numerous committees that regulate semi-urban Inuit existence.

Even so traditional values are under attack. The white-run school system and southern consumer culture have driven a wedge between young people and their traditional lifestyle. They find in rock music potent metaphors for their dizzying anomie. They feel trapped between two cultures, the old and the new - neither of which understands their needs.

Alcohol is another imported problem which is undermining local culture all over the north. In Igloolik the Inuit have tackled the problem by establishing an Alcohol Education Committee. This elected committee made up of respected older people meets regularly to consider both native and non-native requests for alcohol. No booze is permitted in town without the committee's approval.

Other imports from industrial society have also changed Inuit life in recent decades. Seals used to be hunted with a harpoon, a kayak and a dog team. Today hunters use high-powered rifles and snowmobiles. However, a few hunters did keep their dog teams and now there seems to be a resurgence in their use. Dogs are not as fast as a 'ski-doo' (snowmobile), but they have other advantages. They don't run on expensive gasoline, they can find their own way home, they do not require spare parts (difficult to obtain on the tundra) and - as a last resort - they can be eaten. Along with the 'ski-doo', another new technology has been accepted. On Saturday evenings, hunters do not linger too late at the floe edge or elsewhere. Saturday is 'Hockey Night in Canada' and the televised exploits of Wayne Gretzky, Stephane Richer or other hockey stars keep the people of Igloolik glued to the tube.

When the Anik telecommunications satellite made television a possibility in the 1970s, people in Igloolik rejected it decisively, fearing contamination of their culture and loss of their traditions. Finally, in the early 1980s, partly as a result of changing age distribution in the voting population, television was accepted. (At the time, Igloolik was the largest community in North America without TV).

Today the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) provides daily programming in the Inuit language (Inuktitut) for both adults and children. Based in Ottawa, it has Inuit producers in most settlements. TV is now one of the main ways that elders in scattered communities across the North pass on the wisdom that enabled them to survive in days past.

New technologies have changed the manner in which Inuit hunt and fish but they have not altered their deep affinity for the land. On a crowded Montreal bus at rush hour with some visitors from Igloolik, I asked if they would care to live in the city. A look of distaste crossed Joannie Quassa's face and she exclaimed, 'No! Too many people!' Added Igloolik-born Mike Kadlutsiak: 'We like to breathe fresh air all the time.' To a 'qallunaaq' (non-native) the land is a barren expanse of ice and snow; to the Inuit it is a land of beauty and abundance, bountiful with caribou, seal, walrus, Arctic char and lake trout.

In recent years Inuit have resisted the paternalism they have encountered in their contact with outsiders. But this does not mean they reject all change. There is no nostalgia for times of starvation. The Inuit seek control over the introduction of new technologies. They see little benefit in huge ice-breaking oil tankers passing through Lancaster Sound and disturbing the marine mammals.

Whether the people of Igloolik will be hunting peacefully at the floe edge in the next century depends on the current struggle for native self-government. The Inuit of the Northwest Territories want to establish regional self-government in 'Nunavut (Our Land). Hunters like Louis Alianakuluk need to be able to move freely through their homeland and to be able to pick and choose from new technologies. But most critically they need to be able to build political structures to reflect their own cultural traditions. To do less would be to jeopardize the long-time survival of the Inuit people.

Perry Shearwood is a Montreal-based writer who spent four years in Igloolik.

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New Internationalist issue 186 magazine cover This article is from the August 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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