Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic February 07, 2014 - 8:28 pm

Taissumani, Feb. 7

Death Customs Among the Inland Paadlermiut


Among the inland Paadlermiut whom Knud Rasmussen visited in 1922 – the people who lived around the great lake Hikoligjuaq and the upper reaches of the Kazan River – many customs differed considerably from those of the coast dwellers he had previously met.

Rasmussen felt that the religion of the inland Inuit was a “pronouncedly inland religion.”

He was fascinated to learn that the complex taboo rules that the coast dwellers – the Aivilingmiut – were required to follow, were much more lax among the inlanders. He felt that they lived under “natural conditions that traditionally were indigenous and natural to them.”

He was particularly interested in the differences in customs surrounding death.

He recorded these customs as follows:

“When a person dies, the body must only remain in the house overnight, it being sufficient the first night to wrap the shroud round it, tie it up in the burial skin and lay it right up at the back of the platform. Five days after a death all the people in the village must do a sort of penance, refraining from eating entrails, head, marrow and similar food that is forbidden to the unclean. Nor may meat be taken from the caches during these five days… only freshly caught animals may be brought home. Hunting in these five days is not forbidden and salmon may be fished in the lakes. But a caribou must never be flensed in the house where a corpse has lain…

“When the corpse is to be taken out of the house or tent, it is always, as among the coast dwellers, passed through the rear wall, never through the doorway. For if a corpse is taken out through the doorway, all the game will become shy and disappear and the people of the village will starve to death.

“The dead, who… is tied up in a caribou skin, is carried on another caribou skin to the place where he or she is to be buried. This is done by the relatives, both men and women…

“In the five days during which the relatives mourn a dead person and do penance, the grave must be visited morning and evening, and there the loud lamentations are voiced. They say, ‘We call; to the dead to make him return again, though we know he cannot hear.’

“It seems to be general that the period for doing penance after a death is always five days, whether it is for a man or a woman. The custom of the coast dwellers that in these five days the women must wear their hair loose, is not known.

“Those who have helped with a dead body need not throw their clothing away; it is sufficient to cut off a narrow edging of the sleeve band and at the same time discard their caribou-skin mittens…

“As soon as the five days are over, sparks are struck with a fire-stone on the floor by a man who has especially effective amulets… No one is afraid to mention the name of the departed, and if, for instance, a visitor comes, they say quite openly that he or she is dead. The custom of setting a sledge up on end before a house where there has been a death is not known, nor do they lay either knives or ulos [women’s knives] under their pillow.

“Offerings after a death are rarely made. Yet I have seen some men who have lost a wife to whom they were very much attached, bring garments and sleeping skins to the grave…”

One striking difference between the customs of the Aivilingmiut and the inland Inuit was in the treatment of widows immediately upon their bereavement. Rasmussen noted:

“Widows among many coast dwellers must subject themselves to extremely severe and difficult taboos until a whole year has elapsed after the death. Among the inland dwellers a widow may eat with others after five days.”

The number five seems to have been of great significance to the Paadlermiut for it also played a role in the taboo behaviour that applied to the family of a man who had died:

“Among the coast dwellers, it will also be remembered, for a whole year after a man’s death none of his housemates had to do any work with the knife. Everything they needed making must be made by others. This is only in force for five days here…”

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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