TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic December 01, 2011 - 11:49 am

Taissumani, Dec. 2

Saltwater Shamans


The Inuit who once lived in the inland Kivalliq region lived a life quite different from that of their fellow Inuit on the coast.

Anthropology generally refers to these people as the Caribou Inuit or Caribou Eskimos — Farley Mowat popularized them as “The People of the Deer,” the title of his first book, which brought to the attention of Canadians what he claimed government had been covering up, that Inuit were starving in the Canadian Arctic in the early 1950s.

In the following years, the inland was effectively depopulated as survivors of the hardships moved to Baker Lake, Rankin Inlet and Eskimo Point (now Arviat.)

In earlier years, before unpredictable caribou migrations doomed a way of life, the people of the caribou lived a rich life in a region that they knew well. Some scientists even thought, wrongly as it turned out, that Inuit culture originated in this area and only later evolved into a coastal way of life.

People everywhere think that their own way of life is superior to that of their fellows elsewhere. The Caribou Inuit were no different. They took a dim view of the performances put on by “salt-water shamans,” the angakkut from Inuit groups who lived along the sea coast.

They thought that the shamanizing they saw on their visits to the coast was less solemn and more of a performance than it was a search for the truth.

A man named Utahania who lived at Hikuligjuaq criticized the abilities of one of the salt-water shamans, a man who was, however, highly respected among his own people. The offended shaman invited Utahania to attend a performance where he could demonstrate his prowess. Another Inuk who was present recounted what transpired there. 

“First the shaman shot himself in the forehead with a gun of heavy calibre. The bullet went in through his brow and came out through one sleeve. He shot himself in the heart in the same manner. Then he went out with the men of his village, while the women had to remain in the house. A shotgun was set up with the muzzle pointing towards him, and then he ran towards it and disappeared into the barrel. He could be heard speaking inside it. Then the shotgun was carried into the house. It was then very heavy to carry. Inside the house they suddenly heard a voice from inside the barrel say ‘ipiliqihunga – I am choking.’ And so the gun was taken outside and the shaman crept out again.

“This shaman had a walrus for an amulet, and he allowed his amulet to come into the entrance passage of the house. It could be heard dragging its heavy body in through the passage, and from the passage it squirted salt water in on to the floor of the house, for the shaman kept the walrus out in the passage and did not allow it to come inside. Later the walrus appeared at the window and the shaman harpooned it from the house through the window, without the window being broken. In this manner he convinced Utahania of his powers as a shaman, and after that Utahania declared himself a believer.”

The Inuk who recounted this story in 1922 was a skilled hunter, lively and curious about anything that was a little out of the ordinary. He maintained a healthy scepticism, feeling that there was as much reason to believe in the shamans as to doubt them.

“There are certainly angakkut who are frauds,” he stated, then added, “but there are others, qanukiaq – I wonder…”

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).