Nunani: In the bones of the world (Part five)


The story that I have related over the past four articles is actually a fusion of two Inuit folktales, told in various forms all over the Arctic. These tales number among the many Inuit traditional stories featuring the Tunit – a strange, ancient people today represented within the framework of a peculiar mixture of paleoarchaeology and folklore.

The first tale was about a hunter who rescues a Tunik and is welcomed by the other Tunit as a hero. By itself, this is a “happily ever after” sort of tale.

The second story is of a hunter who tries to abduct a Tunik woman (again, the common female abduction theme in Inuit folklore). The Tunik woman’s husband tries to restrain the hunter, but accidentally breaks his wrists, ultimately killing him.

Less commonly, you can find these tales told as a single story, and this is the way I chose to present them here. I wanted to provide a good, meaty example of typical Tunit-Inuit relations in the folklore, so that we can have a look at who the Tunit really are.

Let’s deal with folklore first.

Tunit were the first people, those who were here before Inuit. As stated before, the males were commonly thought to be short and stumpy, dwarf-like, while the females looked just like the most beautiful of Inuit women.

The old stories agree on several points. First, the Tunit were prodigiously strong, even to the point of accidentally causing harm to Inuit. Second, they lacked practical survival knowledge. Third, they are now extinct.

Tales regarding their technology vary – some state that the Tunit were technologically lacking, having no knowledge of how to make proper clothing, fire or tools, and owning no sleds or dogs.

Conversely, many state that the Tunit were master craftsmen, existing at a level of skill that has never been seen before or since, and that when Inuit first settled in Tunit lands, it was the Tunit who taught them how to make bows and other valuable tools. Like mysterious, folkloric beings the world over, they were often thought to possess magical powers. Some tales speak of their ability to make themselves light or heavy at will, while others mention an ability to make themselves invisible.

The powers attributed to the Tunit are suspiciously similar to those attributed to another race of folkloric beings from Inuit tales – those known as “Inugarulliit.” The Inugarulliit are much like the beings mentioned in the faery lore of Europe and the U.K. – tiny versions of Inuit, who can appear and disappear at will, and who sometimes exhibit various other magical abilities.

But while Inugarulliit can choose the size they want to appear, it is commonly said that they use lemmings as sled dogs. This would seem to imply that they are “normally” very diminutive, making them quite different from the Tunit – the males of whom are simply short.

Also, the folklore seems to agree that Inugarulliit technology is identical to that of Inuit, with tools and weapons so tiny they resemble toys. This, too, is very different from the Tunit, for Tunit tales seem to go out of their way to point out how abnormal the Tunit technology is, whether better or worse than that of Inuit.

Tales vary from area to area, and many change over time. Consequently, some stories have gradually come to confuse Tunit and Inugarulliit, so that one sort of folkloric people takes on aspects of the other. This is only aggravated by the fact that many of the written records we can access on Inuit folklore – tales recorded by explorers and scholars – use the English term “dwarf” to alternately describe either Inugarulliit or Tunit.

But whatever the reason, the nature of the Tunit has become more and more magical in Inuit folklore as the years have rolled by. Folklore has lent the Tunit something of the Inugarulliit nature over time, so that in many of the stories we know today, they exhibit magical abilities.

It might seem like nitpicking, discussing what supernatural powers have been attributed to the Tunit. But the importance of this becomes more clear when we remember that the Tunit were very real – a people known to modern science as the “Dorset” culture.

(Next week: the last Tunik.)

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