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Nunani: Qimmiq (Part one)



I’ve never quite grasped whatever impulse ovecomes people when they want to view their dogs as status symbols. Although Inuit have been known to be proud of their dogs, such pride lies more in having an efficient team or pup-bearing bitch than in an individual dog.

And Inuit of course attach no significance whatsoever to a breed. You’ll never hear a hunter bragging:

“This one is a pure bred Kimmik, from the finest Baffin line, acquired from Imaittuq kennels, which operates out of Arctic Bay. Imaittuq just had a litter, and I was lucky to slide in on their waiting list, since a friend of mine from this year’s dog show happens to know the owner. But such a pedigree is worth every penny…”

I was astounded when I eventually learned that the dogs I grew up with are now recognized by kennel clubs as a distinct breed — the “Eskimo dog.” although recent political correctness has allowed the name to give way to the “Kimmik.” Even the latter name is extremely weird to me, since in my language a qimmiq is a dog – any dog, simple as that. So, when southern dog owners banter in English:

“What a lovely dog! What is it?”

“Thank-you. It’s a Kimmik.”

I instead hear,

“What a lovely dog! What is it?”

“Thank-you. It’s a dog.”

I think it took the experience of actually becoming a pet owner, and eventually mingling with other pet owners, for me to realize what great importance is placed on breed and pedigree.

Obviously, my dad’s dog team was comprised solely of working dogs, a few of whom were so temperamental that you wouldn’t want them as pets anyway; in fact, you wouldn’t want to stand too close to them at feeding time.

Such dogs – while excellent bear hunters and sled haulers – were a class unto themselves. They understood that they were the dogs, and we were the humans. My experience is that most hunters’ dog teams are similar. The dogs and humans are not part of a single “pack.”

Instead, only the dog team is the pack, while the humans are a species that commands and maintains the pack. It is a symbiotic relationship that the dogs endure, because of their own needs and the fact that they know no other existence.

Their ability to consider themselves and their human overlords as separate, yet dependent, is displayed by the fact that a dog team will occasionally abandon its owner if the team feels the need to — and has the opportunity to escape. Every once in a while, my father’s dogs would get loose and run off at high speed, their dreams of unfettered hunting at last realized.

He used to get them back by firing off a shot into the air. It would make them think that a bear —their most hated enemy, I’m still not sure why — had been bagged, and they would come racing back again, hoping for a piece of the action.

Yet as clever as this tactic may seem, it wasn’t foolproof. There were times when the dogs did not respond to the rifle shot. In such an eventuality, my dad was simply forced to wait for a few days, knowing that the dogs couldn’t catch a thing on their own, and thus would be forced to return out of hunger.

Having been raised in an environment where dogs were strictly valued for their utility, where with rare exceptions affection was peripheral, one can understand my rather slow adaptation to the idea of dogs as pets — especially house pets.

In adult life, various friends began the slow process of acclimatizing me to house pets. I never quite got used to the idea until living with my in-laws for a while, and getting to know “Emma”, a plump yet dignified labrador retriever, who acts as though she had been Cleopatra in a past life.

Emma spends most of her time indoors in front of a heating vent, and has her own bed. She occupies her time by begging for pi a scraps, and getting armpit rubs from her humans. I love her.

I still remember when I showed my cousin in Arctic Bay – who is older and very traditional, speaking only Inuktitut – a photo of Emma in front of a Christmas tree.

“She has isuma (a mind)!” my cousin gasped.

(Continued next week.)

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