Let People Be



It is a thing that has always been an especially great mystery to me. Will somebody please explain to me why my grandfather’s life is stored in a museum, as a show of a quaint and “primitive” lifestyle?

It’s as though someone were to walk into your house, to begin a room-to-room search, bagging or boxing anything they think would look interesting to other people — your TV, dishes, books, couch, the stuff of everyday life.

Each time I open an encyclopedia in any language, there is my grandfather: stalking a seal, running a dogteam, carving, smoking his pipe. There is a sort of Cigar Store Indian feel to the whole thing.

I wish I could express to southerners how it feels to watch some blowzy, gold- and jewel-bedecked, middle-class female looking at photos of your grandfather, gesticulating with one hand, and commenting dryly,

“Those kamiks, they are late Igloolik, no?” as though it were a wine-tasting festival.

“And this fish liester, what is it made from, ivory or musk-ox antler?”

They never seem to want to hear that, as a child, I was forced to stay indoors for many hours while such “period pieces” were painstakingly staged and shot by photographers who felt that us children should not be included because we did not look “Inuit” enough — whatever the hell that means.

“What was the name of your Earth Goddess? Every tribe has one, you know.”

“How exactly did Inuit nature shrines look?”

“You people are so surprisingly interesting…”

And the worst comment of all, presented under the mask of a compliment, yet repulsive in the cultural assumption it betrays concerning Inuit education:

“You speak such good English!”

What should I say? “Thank you?”

Don’t get me wrong. I value a genuine interest, by non-Inuit, in Inuit culture and language — and thrill at addressing some of the more thoughtful of the numerous questions I receive by e-mail from all around the world. I think most Inuit would be surprised at the level of interest in their lifestyle shown by people as distant as Polynesia, Russia, France, Australia, Mexico, even the Middle East.

Just the other day, I fielded a great question from a school in the States: “Down here, our exposed faces get cold in the winter. How do Inuit prevent this?”

I can’t very well ignore such questions. After all, I myself am fascinated by other cultures. Truth, as the saying goes, is stranger than fiction, and although I enjoy fiction in various forms, there are few writers who can anticipate the peculiarities of many alternate lifestyles — the tribe in Eastern Africa, for instance, who when invaded by thousands of enormous caterpillars, holds a gigantic village feast upon them!

It is important, I believe, for Inuit to understand that — while they may view many other cultures as odd and fascinating — such cultures in turn share the same feelings toward them.

But it is one thing to view other cultures as equal yet fascinatingly exotic — and an altogether different thing to thing to view them from the stance of a superior regarding an inferior.

Condescension — racism with a smile — is more obvious than our blowzy middle-class female believes. Such characters may be surprised to learn that not only are Inuit aware of when they are being talked down to, but also that it is obvious to them when someone possesses only puerile knowledge — Inuit trivia displayed for the sake of vanity.

In other words, Inuit can tell when someone is bullshitting them.

Eternally, I am grateful for the meager handful of non-Inuit who labour so that Inuit may be heard in their own voices, their stories and thoughts told in their own words.

So many non-Inuit, since so long ago, seem instead to want to tell Inuit what they are, rather than letting Inuit tell of themselves. Does it take so much to simply let people be?


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