Nunani: Nomad (Part one)



“Where my horse has trodden, no grass grows.”
-Attila the Hun

I’m looking out the window and seeing sweet, golden sunlight – not that pale, bleary light that I’ve been seeing too much of lately. The other day, I was stepping between a couple of large rocks, and happened to notice some tiny clusters of aupilaktunnguat (purple saxifrage) petals ready to uncurl. The snow buntings are back again, as are the seagulls. I even saw some shiny green flies dancing in the dust down near the shore.

Spring has arrived, promising summer, and just as the animals are obeying their instincts to relocate, I’m feeling my own. I feel it every spring, even when I lived in the South for a few years. My nomadic impulses start to whisper to me. I feel the need to roam, to see new things.

Apparently, I am not alone in this tendency. I have talked to many other Inuit about it, and they all seem to feel the same way. It has not been a simple matter for Inuit to make the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one, a fact that has been overstated and flogged nigh unto death in many a stuffy tome.

Nevertheless, the fact stubbornly remains true, and the nomad blood still calls. To this day, many Inuit resist community existence by hunting and travelling as much as possible. For numerous hunters, their house is just their base of operations, while their soul resides out there somewhere, on the land. Many Inuit, like myself, were raised on the go, and still remember how it seemed normal for whole families to travel everywhere by dog-sled. It is hard to make true nomads visualize living in any one place for the rest of their lives.

Inuit come across this tendency honestly. Their love of travel is ancient beyond belief, a need nearly transcending the cultural and bordering on the biological. Historically, this nomadic zeal seems to have remained consistent even among distant cousins of Inuit, even those hugely distant Asiatic peoples from Siberia and Mongolia. Think of the invasion of Europe by Huns and Mongols as … summer trips that got carried away.

It seems that there have been circumpolar nomads present at least since the last glaciation period, which ended around 10,000 BC. No one is sure exactly when the Inuit-Mongol style of facial features, build, and skin colour originated, but you don’t have to be an anthropologist to tell that such peoples are related. And to this day, Inuit and their distant, distant, distant cousins in Asia have all treasured the life of travel and adventure – that of the nomad.

Probably the greatest act of travel that the earliest ancestors of Inuit undertook was coming into North America at all. We don’t know what they called themselves in the Alaska of 2,500 BC, but archaeologists call them the Arctic Small Tool tradition. This period of history occurred before there was a Greece, Babylon or China. Europe was obscure and utterly tribal, with no cities or agriculture. The Egyptians had only recently begun to build pyramids. Bronze tools were considered high-tech. No one had yet thought to build chariots or ride horses. The superpower of the day was Sumeria.

Just as the southern regions of the Orient and Occident were refining their abilities to stay put (building cities, practising agriculture), the ancestors of Inuit were refining their ability to survive on the fly. The dog would eventually be their version of the horse or ox-drawn cart, and they were destined to develop quite the repertoire of technological tricks suited to their strange new home.

In 2,500 BC, primitive agriculture was difficult enough to practise in nice, warm climes. But it was never even an option for the ancestors of Inuit, ever dancing on a knife-edge of lethal cold, where edible plants were not exactly fond of growing. But as their nomadic tendencies drove them eastward over the next four millennia (except for some who went southeast, contributing to the ancestry of Navajo), there never seemed to be a need for agriculture, since there were plenty of animals. Sure, they developed different technologies as time went by, but those nomads would not reach a real crisis point for another 2,000 years. When the crisis came, though, it was a big one.

(Continued in Part two.)

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