Nunani: War (Part four)
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
Where warfare occurred among Inuit, it represents an escalation of murderous reprisals, an alternating series of vendetta killings, each side displaying more savagery and ferocity in response to the latest attack by the other.
The murder – even accidental killing – of a loved one was thought by many Inuit peoples to be a just reason to demand vengeance. It was the avenger’s right and duty.
Make no mistake, however. The family of the victim, the males of which were invariably the avengers, would seek vengeance with or without the larger society’s approval. Having no actual laws, but instead a series of traditions and taboos, the recognition of an avenger’s right to avenge his dead relative was more like a sort of societal nod than an actual way of enforcing law.
The society itself – as an institution – would not move to avenge the dead, but neither would any of its members interfere if relatives “justly” insisted upon retribution. The vengeful impulse was, in such a situation, considered to be a natural one.
I personally remember the time when my “Big Sleeve” (a kind of cultural partner, of which I’ve written in past articles) experienced the death of his son. He was overwrought with grief, naturally, although the death was a completely accidental one. The son had been shot by a friend.
Even though my Big Sleeve knew that the friend had not killed his son intentionally, he was – for a time – extremely tempted to kill the friend. His tendency to want to exorcise his grief through vengeance was aggravated by the fact that, by Inuit tradition, such was his right.
Additionally, his desire was considered by others to be understandable rather than abominable. Among his people, this was known as akigiaq, “to win back” – meaning the right to win back the piece of himself that had been taken from him with the death of his son.
To his credit, my Big Sleeve realized that he was merely blinded by grief, and thus chose not to exercise his right.
Nevertheless, akigiaq was very common in old times. The death of one individual, intentional or not, demanded immediate reprisal. P would kill Q. Q’s family would avenge him by killing P, and perhaps a couple of P’s relatives for good measure.
P’s family would avenge these murders by forming a party to slaughter even more of Q’s family. Q’s family would retaliate by attempting to completely wipe out P’s family. And et cetera.
Geert Van Den Steenhoven recorded a good example, which I’ll relate below without use of specific names and locations. I don’t want individuals today to feel accountable for the actions of their ancestors.
Once there was the “Red” group, whose members included U. There was also the “Green” group, whose headman was X.
A feud began with the murder of Y by some of X’s Green people. The family of Y was determined to avenge his death. Armed with bows (with which they were quite skilled), the Red revenge party soon reached X’s hunting grounds. One of X’s sons spotted them and ran off to warn X and the Greens of the approaching Red party.
X realized the carnage that was about to result, and sent his sons far away to safety. X hid himself away. When the Red group approached, they began to insist that X and his Green allies take up their fighting weapons (of different manufacture than hunting implements), and face them.
Those among the Green group, especially the women, tried to defuse the situation by insisting that X and the other Greens did not want to fight. Nevertheless, the Reds insisted until X (who did not possess any fighting weapons) took up his hunting gear. He and some other Greens eventually assembled to face the Reds. Some of the Greens even recognized in-laws among the Reds, but this did nothing to abate the Reds’ fury.
The Reds massacred the Greens. Dying, X admonished the Reds, claiming that the Red reaction was extremist – that they had slaughtered more men than was their due.
The Reds remained unmoved, in return pointing out to X that the Greens had originally overwhelmed poor Y ten to one.
X seemed to agree with this, and his dying wish was that Y’s widow be repaid in precious iron objects.
(Continued next week.)