Taissumani, April 18

Rules of Life among the Qaernermiut


Earlier columns have described Knud Rasmussen’s time spent among the Paadlermiut in the interior of the Kivalliq Region, on his major ethnographic expedition of the early 1920s, the Fifth Thule Expedition.

But Rasmussen also spent considerable time among the Qaernermiut of the Baker Lake area, and wrote extensively about their beliefs as well.

Among his other writings, he recorded what he called the “Rules of Life” of the Qaernermiut. These amounted to an oppressive set of taboos that regulated all aspects of Inuit life.

Here are some examples:

“As we know, the northern lights are looked upon by the coast dwellers as being the games of the souls, ball games with a walrus head in the eternal hunting grounds up in the sky. Of the northern lights, the Qaernermiut say, ‘They appear of themselves, or it is Hila or the weather, who let them grow out of themselves.’

“Dogs must never gnaw at a caribou antler. If they do, they deprive the owner of his quarry.

“No one, except women with special amulets, may sew or cut bearded seal skin bought from the coast dwellers.

“A young woman with an infant, while on a sledge journey, must never eat anything while passing a lake.

“A young woman with an infant may not eat salmon heads or salmon cooked with the head, or salmon on the whole if the entrails have not been removed immediately after the fish was caught. The same applies to naturally dead salmon or the meat of a caribou that has been shot in the heart.

“No one may eat salmon on the same day that berries have been eaten.

“Men must not eat milt [the male reproductive glands of fish]. If they do, they are deprived of their sexual impulse.

“Men must not eat the eyes of animals, salmon, etc. as this gives bad eyesight.

“When a milk tooth falls out, it must be placed under the platform skin [the caribou skin of the sleeping platform], the owner desiring a tooth of the great head that once was this caribou’s head. The following magic verse is then sung:

‘Great head, take my tooth to be your tooth
And give me your tooth to be my tooth
That I may have a tooth that often eats rich fat
That often eats tongue
A fine tooth
A hard tooth, that will not break.’

“Women may not eat with people whom they have never seen before.

“Women may never eat with men.

“Women with children may not eat salmon that have not been gutted immediately after being killed.

“If a trout that is called heeq is caught in a salmon net, it should be thrown alive into the water again, or no salmon will be caught.

“If a loon gets into the salmon net, it should be allowed to fly away. If not, no more salmon will be caught. If the loon has died in the net, one should take care to place it where the dogs cannot eat it.”

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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