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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic March 14, 2014 - 10:35 am

Taissumani, March 14

The Ten Horsepower Wizard

Rasmussen, Arnarulunnguaq and Qaavigarsuaq in New York. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Rasmussen, Arnarulunnguaq and Qaavigarsuaq in New York. (HARPER COLLECTION)

On the last day of October 1924 Knud Rasmussen, Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq left Nome, Alaska, by steamer on the last ship of the year, bound for Seattle.

Their epic journey by sled was at an end. A long trip home via New York remained.

That morning, before he boarded the ship, Rasmussen had the good fortune to meet an angakkuq from Nunivak Island, the last shaman of the many he met on his sled journey.

The man’s name was Najagneq. He was a man wild in appearance, who had just been released from a spell in prison in Nome for having killed several people. But such was his power that no witnesses would testify against him and the authorities had no choice but to set him free.

He was full of stories of his time in jail. He opposed the increasing dominance of white men over Inuit in his own homeland, and lost no opportunity to rail against their influence. So he was not impressed by the foreign life style he saw in Nome.

He was impressed, however, by seeing on the street a white horse pulling a heavy cart. This was the inspiration for a story with which to impress his fellow Inuit in Nome.

He told them that white men had killed him 10 times during the past winter, but each time he had vanquished death by sacrificing one of his 10 helping spirits, which were — you guessed it — 10 white horses. For this reason, Knud Rasmussen called him the “ten horsepower wizard.”

Rasmussen had a brief time to interview Najagneq on that last morning. He was surprised to discover that, at this far westerly end of Alaska, this angakkuq’s words echoed much of the wisdom that he had learned from shamans all along his route from the east.

Here is what Najagneq told Rasmussen when he was asked what he thought of the way men live:

“They live brokenly, mingling all things together; weakly, because they cannot do one thing at a time. A great hunter must not be a great lover of women. But no one can help it. Animals are as unfathomable in their nature; and it behooves us who live on them to act with care. But men bolster themselves up with amulets and become solitary in their lack of power. In any village there must be as many amulets as possible. Uniformity divides the forces; equality makes for worthlessness.

Rasmussen asked him how he had learned these things. Najagneq replied:

“I have searched in the darkness, being silent in the great lonely stillness of the dark. So I became an angakkuq, through visions and dreams and encounters with flying spirits… The ancients devoted their lives to maintaining the balance of the universe; to great things, immense, unfathomable things.”

He went on to explain that he believed in a power called Sila, “a great spirit, supporting the world and the weather and all life on earth, a spirit so mighty that his utterance to mankind is not through common words, but by storm and snow and rain and the fury of the sea; all the forces of nature that men fear.

“But he has also another way of utterance, by sunlight, and calm of the sea, and little children innocently at play, themselves understanding nothing. Children hear a soft and gentle voice, almost like that of a woman. It comes to them in a mysterious way, but so gentle that they are not afraid; they only hear that some danger threatens. And the children mention it as it were casually when they come home, and it is then the business of the angakkuq to take such measures as will guard against the peril.

“When all is well, Sila sends no message to mankind, but withdraws into his own endless nothingness, apart. So he remains as long as men do not abuse life, but act with reverence towards their daily food.”

For Rasmussen, Najagneq’s words showed the unity of Inuit belief across the top of the world, from Greenland, through Arctic Canada, and northern Alaska.

They reminded him of the words of Igjugarjuk, an angakkuq among the Caribou Inuit far to the east in the Canadian Kivalliq:

“All true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of men, in the great solitudes; and it can only be attained through suffering.”

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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