The great sea
Has set me adrift,
It moves me as a weed
in a great river,
Earth (Nuna) and the Great Weather (Sila)
Have carried me away
And move my inward parts with joy.
Song of the Igloolik female shaman, recorded in the 1920s
Early missionaries in the Arctic had to tailor their message to suit the particular spiritual needs of Inuit. Classically, Christianity promised the faithful immortality, one in which the great reward was the opportunity to praise God for an eternity. Inuit, however, needed to specifically hear that they were going to be allowed to do all the things--throughout eternity--that made them happy here on Earth.
While Inuit had various versions of the afterlife, their most popular realms of the dead promised plentiful hunting and joyful game-playing. It is the spirits of those in one such realm that we supposedly see when we watch the Northern Lights, as they play with a ghostly walrus skull.
It was being at peace with death that enabled Inuit to be at peace in life. In feeling that death was a reality, an inevitability for every living thing, they were free to maximize the quality of their current existence. One of the things that most astonished early explorers and missionaries was the Inuit love of freedom and personal happiness: an Inuk might work his knuckles to the bone to produce a gift for someone he liked, but then harbor extraordinary resentment toward anyone who forced him to do something he did not wish to do. In a world of uncertainty and short life, the Inuk's quality of life was of paramount importance to him--he had no tolerance for anyone who inconvenienced him.
Thankfully, I have been blessed with an understanding of this attitude--not because of my culture, but because I have nearly been killed so many times, in both the South and the North.
The first time I was near death was in early childhood, afflicted with near-fatal spinal meningitis. Then there were a few close calls out on the land, such as the time I barely hung onto a sled while crossing an ice-crack.
And there was the time, while at university, I was hitchhiking along a darkened stretch of road. The fellow who picked me up started driving me towards his house, confessing that he was going to murder me. I still have the nasty scar from when I turned off his ignition and jumped from the moving car (he stalked me like an animal throughout the woods that night).
The last time I was nearly killed was about a year after my wedding. My in-laws' car, with me in it, spun out of control and was catapulted into the air. It corkscrewed and landed on its side, turning end over end until finishing upside-down. My C6 and C7 vertebrae (neck bones) were separated. Doctors tried holding my neck together with a frame drilled into my skull, but it failed, so they resorted to surgery to fuse the vertebrae together with a steel clamp. It was funny how the doctors barely knew what to do with me the entire time, since they were unused to people with my injury surviving. They still can't explain why I'm not paralyzed.
Let me put it this way: when you are nearly killed time and again, you start to get used to it. You never lose the fear of danger, but you do start to understand that life is a very temporary thing--and survival is always a matter of millimeters, of seconds, of minuscule details that barely preserve you. Once you come to understand how dangerous the world truly is, you cease to take your life experiences--particularly your happiness, pleasures, joys--for granted. The positive things in your life are magnified a thousand-fold.
Yet this is a sort of knowledge that generations before us have already held, a way of appreciating the world that we might share without trauma, without hard lessons, if we but remember how our ancestors used to live.
There is something to be said for the fact that they lived in a world without the illusion of safety that we so cultivate today--yet a world that they seemed to value more than we value ours.
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for 25 years and witnessed the transition of her culture into the modern world. This article first appeared in Indian Country Today.