Nunani: Riddle me this… (Part two)



English is a time-sensitive language, derived from the cultural traditions of densely populated areas, where time has become a precious resource over the centuries. Today, more than ever, English speakers must obey strict time limits, whether for the sake of formality, or simple politeness.

Among Inuit, there was much more time available in the old days, so that someone whose opinion was asked had the right to speak at will — especially if that someone was an elder.

But these are not the old days, and many elders, now faced with time-constraints upon their opinions, simply opt for silence. An instant contradiction is set by asking an elder to express their opinion within an hour. To many elders, being asked to time their opinion is tantamount to a violation of isuma, their personal mind, so that they simply refuse to speak at all. Tragically, much traditional knowledge dies in this way.

So, if Inuit are known for such adaptability, why can elders not adapt to modern time constraints? The answer to this lies in the very nature of an elder’s expertise.

Elders are experts on one thing: life. They represent a peculiar combination of life experience and acute awareness of that experience. Their magic lies in the way they talk, the way they teach.

Put a cap on an elder’s time and you will not hear the hidden music they create as they speak, the things to be learned from tales of their suffering and triumphs, the hardships they have endured upon the land, and their intense love of the same.

Unless you let them speak at will, you will never quite see the tears of what they once hoped for, and lost, nor will you come to see the sudden youthful flash in their eyes as they recount a blessed moment. Your life will be no different, because you will have taken in nothing of theirs.

It is important to remember that elders communicate in a kind of “elderspeak.” To the unwise (or impatient or disrespectful), they will always seem silly and whimsical.

Their stories may at first seem rambling, nonsensical. This is not eccentricity, but their way of teaching. Qallunaatitut used to use a similar way, known as “riddling.” While, today, we think of riddles as something to make children giggle, there was a time in Europe and the ancient world when they were a valuable learning tool, serving to jar the brain into lateral thought. They encouraged imagination (which Einstein called more important than intelligence), non-linear thinking, and most importantly: culture.

The hints to the solution of a given riddle were often symbols relevant to its culture, such as a style of clothing or domestic activity. Riddles were once a fundamental part of the Qallunaatitut oral tradition, and the wisdom of individuals was marked by the number of riddles they knew.

Riddling and “elderspeak” are related by way of their teasing method of inviting a listener’s mind to untangle what it is hearing. They invite the listener to draw their own conclusions from the lesson, a highly personalized way of learning, at once stimulating the brain’s ability to think creatively — a skill especially crucial to survival in the times when Inuit were nomads or when Europeans learned by their oral tradition.

Riddling has lost its significance in the impatient modern era, where lazy minds are allowed to flourish, and the way in which elders traditionally teach is going the same way for the same reason.

But it is possible that this style of teaching is simply fading because it is too subtle for its own good. After all, there is a lot to distract modern people, whether Inuit or Qallunaat. There probably is not much hope of resurrecting the riddling tradition, but as far as elders go, we still have some available to listen to, if we are willing to do so in the proper way.

The oral tradition is disappearing, and that is a fact. While this is saddening, it is simply a result of changing times.

But the loss of the oral tradition only becomes a true tragedy if we fail to record the knowledge that passes with the elders. We children are blessed in that we have this one fading chance to exercise patience, and hear the voice of tradition.


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