Orulo's story

Taissumani: 2009-05-22

By Kenn Harper

The Greenlandic-Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, learned much of Inuit wisdom from his wintering in Foxe Basin in 1921-22.

In particular he spent time with the great shaman, Aua. I wrote about "The Wisdom of Aua" in two columns last summer. But Rasmussen also interviewed Aua's wife, Orulo, and recorded the events of her life as she herself recalled them.

It is a story of hardship and happiness, of quiet struggle and triumph. It is one woman's story of life in a time now past.

Here is her story, as recorded by Rasmussen:

"I am called Orulo, but my name is really Aqigiarjuk

("the little ptarmigan"). I was born at the mouth of Admiralty Inlet. While I was still a little child carried on my mother's back, my parents left Baffin Land and settled at Iglulik.

"The first thing I can remember is that my mother lived quite alone in a little snow hut. I could not understand why my father should live in another house, but then I was told that it was because my mother had just had a child and was therefore unclean and must not be near the animals killed for some time to come. But I was allowed to visit her when I liked; only I could never find the entrance to that hut. I was so little that I could not see over the block of snow the others stepped across as they went in, so I had to stand there, calling out ‘Mother, Mother, I want to come in!' until someone came and lifted me over into the passage. And then when I was inside, the snow bench where she sat looked so high, so high, I could not get up there myself but had to be lifted. I was no bigger than that when I first began to remember things.

"The next thing I remember is from Piling, a big hunting ground in Baffin Land. I remembered gnawing meat from the leg of a bird, a huge big thighbone, and I was told it was a goose. Up till then I knew nothing bigger than ptarmigan, and thought it must be a terrible big bird.

"Then all my memories disappear, until one day as it were, I wake up again, and then we were living at a place called The Mountain. My father was ill. All the others in the place had gone off hunting inland, and I was left alone. Father had pains in his chest and lungs, and grew worse and worse. We were quite alone, my mother, my two little brothers and I, and mother was very unhappy.

"One day I came running into the tent and called out: ‘Here are white men coming!' I had seen what I thought must be white man; but when my father heard it, he gave a deep sigh, and said, ‘Alas, I thought I might yet live and breathe a little while; but now I know that I shall never go out hunting anymore'.

"The men I had seen were ijerqat, or mountains spirits. No white men every came to our country in those days, and my father took it as a warning that his death was near.

"Quite without thinking, I made no secret of what I had seen. But my little brother Sequvsu kept its secret, and died of it shortly after. One must never keep the matter secret when one has seen spirits.

"My father grew worse and worse, and when we realized that he had not long to live, we set off and carried him on a sledge to a neighboring settlement, where there lived a man named Qupanuaq, with his wife Qikertaunak. Father died there. I remember he was tied up in a skin and dragged away from the village, and left lying out in the open with his face turned towards the west. My mother told me that was because he was an old man, and such must always be set to face the quarter whence the dark of night comes, children to face the morning, and young people towards the spot where the sun is seen at noon. That was the first time I learned that people were afraid of the dead, and had special customs on that account. But I was not afraid of father, who had always been kind to me. And I thought it was hard that he should lie all uncovered out in the open like that. But mother explained that I must thence-forward never think of my father in the body. His soul was already in the land of the dead, and he would feel no more pain there."

To be continued.

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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