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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic November 13, 2011 - 1:42 pm

Taissumani, Nov. 11

Knud Rasmussen and the Iglulik Inuit, Part 5

Knud Rasmussen. In 1922, the great shaman Aua told him,
Knud Rasmussen. In 1922, the great shaman Aua told him, "“We do not believe, we fear.”

By early February, when the temperatures in the eastern Arctic are at their lowest, the sun has returned to the southern horizon of Foxe Basin.

Near the end of that month, in 1922, Knud Rasmussen and his Polar Inuit companions were hunting near Cape Elizabeth, north of Lyon Inlet, where walrus could be found at the edge of the young ice beyond the old floe edge.

One clear star-lit evening as the hunting party was about to construct a snowhouse for shelter, a long sled drawn by 15 white dogs and carrying six men appeared out of the Arctic night. Sighting Rasmussen’s party, the newcomers approached at top speed and a small man, beard rimed with ice, leapt from the sled and approached Rasmussen. He was Aua, a powerful shaman, and he and Rasmussen were to become fast friends.

Aua’s camp was not far off and he invited Rasmussen and his party to accompany him to his small village of snow houses. The explorer was fascinated once again to see the architecture of snowhouse construction carried to the extremes he observed here. Five domed huts were connected by passages so that any of the 16 inhabitants might go visiting without ever having to step outside.

Aua’s wife, Orulo, introduced Rasmussen to the occupants of this little village, all of whom were of course related. It was the explorer’s first visit to a large Inuit family and it was obvious to him that Aua was the undisputed patriarch of this domain.

Rasmussen accompanied the men in walrus-hunting expeditions by day. Evenings, however, were spent indoors, and he was able to collect a great deal of material concerning the spiritual life of the Iglulik Inuit.

As a folklorist, Rasmussen was particularly interested in the rules and taboos which regulated almost every significant aspect of Iglulik Inuit life. The Inuit could ably describe what rules must be followed in any given situation, but Rasmussen wanted to know, in each case, “Why?”

His hosts could provide no answers and, moreover, regarded the request for a justification of their religious principles as unreasonable. They were not offended by the questions. Rather, they found it unreasonable to expect that there should be answers to such questions.

Finally, Aua countered Rasmussen’s incessant queries with a series of questions of his own. Why, he wondered, were his people plagued with a constant succession of blizzards when it was calm weather that was required for successful hunting?

Why, the wise old man continued, should Kublu’s snowhouse be so cold and cheerless simply because Kublu had been unsuccessful at sealing, despite a day spent on the ice? He drew attention to his sister, Natseq, and pointed out that she had lived a long and good life, doing no harm to anyone, and he wondered why it was that she must now suffer pain before her days ended. He concluded his unanswered questions with a statement of simple fact:

“All our customs come from life and turn towards life. We explain nothing, we believe nothing. But in what I have just shown you lies our answer to all you ask.”

He then spoke of the fear of the weather spirit, of the fear of deprivation and hunger, of the fear of the woman at the bottom of the sea who controls the supply of life-giving sea mammals, of the fear of the souls of deceased humans and animals that had been killed.

Indeed, his philosophy, as Rasmussen summed it up, was, “We do not believe, we fear.”

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

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