Niviatsian Becomes a Shaman

Taissumani: 2007-09-21

By Kenn Harper

In the early 1920s, the Greenlandic-Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, travelled in northern Canada on his most famous expedition, the Fifth Thule Expedition.

In the Igloolik (Iglulik) area, he interviewed the famous Ava, and heard from him the story of how his cousin, Niviatsian, acquired his legendary shamanic powers. Here is Ava's story:

Niviatsian was out hunting walrus with a number of other men near Iglulik; some were in front of him and others behind. Suddenly a great walrus came up through the ice close beside him, grasped him with his huge fore-flippers, just as a mother picks up her little child, and carried him off with it down into the deep.

The other men ran up, and looking down through the hole in the ice where the walrus had disappeared, they could see it still holding him fast and trying to pierce him with its tusks.

After a little while it let him go, and rose to the surface, a great distance off, to breathe. But Niviatsian, who had been dragged away from the hole through which he had first been pulled down, struggled with arms and legs to come up again.

The men could follow his movements, and cut a hole about where they expected him to come up, and here my father actually did manage to pull him up.

There was a gaping wound over his collarbone, and he was breathing through it; the gash had penetrated to the lung. Some of his ribs were broken, and the broken ends had caught in one of his lungs, so that he could not stand upright.

Niviatsian lay for a long time unconscious. When he came to himself, however, he was able to get on his feet without help.

The wound over the collarbone was the only serious one; there were traces of the walrus's tusks both on his head and in different parts of his body, but it seemed as if the animal had been unable to wound him there.

Old folk said that this walrus had been sent by the Mother of the Sea Beasts, who was angry because Niviatsian's wife had had a miscarriage and concealed the fact in order to avoid the taboo.

Niviatsian then went with his companions in towards land, but he had to walk a little way apart from them, on ice free from footmarks. Close to land, a small snow hut was built, and he was shut in there, laid down on a sealskin with all his wet clothes on.

There he remained for three days and three nights without food or drink. This he was obliged to do in order to be allowed to live, for if he had gone up at once to the unclean dwellings of men after the ill-treatment he had received, he would have died.

All the time Niviatsian was in the little snow hut, the shaman up at the village was occupied incessantly in purifying his wife and his old mother, who were obliged to confess in the presence of others all their breaches of taboo, in order to appease the powers that ruled over life and death.

And after three days, Niviatsian recovered, and had now become a great shaman. The walrus, which had failed to kill him, became his first helping spirit. That was the beginning.

Another time he was out hunting, it was on a caribou hunt up inland, he ran right up against a wolverine's lair. The animal had young ones, and attacked him furiously.

It "wrestled" with him all day and night and did not leave hold of him until the sun was in the same place as when it had begun.

But in spite of the animal's sharp teeth and claws, there was not a single wound on his body, only a few abrasions. Thus the wolverine also became his helping spirit.

His third helping spirit was Amajorjuk, the ogress with the great amaut on her back, in which she puts the human beings she carries off.

She attacked him so suddenly, that he was in the bag already before he could think of doing anything. The bag closed over him at once, and he was shut in.

But he had his knife round his neck, and with this he stabbed the woman in the back, just behind the shoulderblade, and she died.

The amaut was as thick as walrus hide, and it took him a long time to cut his way out and escape.

But now he discovered that he was altogether naked; he had no idea when he had been stripped of his clothes, nor did he know where he now was, save that it must be far, far inland.

Not until he came down close to the sea did he find his clothes, and then he got safely home. But there was a horrible smell of rotten seaweed all over his body, and the smell hung about his house so obstinately that it was half a year before it went away.

This ogress also became his helping spirit, and Niviatsian was now regarded as the greatest of shamans among mankind.

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 [email protected]

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