Nunani: War (Part three)


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Any Inuit escalation to the level of organized violence has always been humble in beginnings, originating with one motive: revenge.

The most common cause for revenge was being made to feel insignificant. Personal ego was of extreme importance to traditional Inuit, which in part explains the strong respect dynamic in Inuit culture. The recognition of one’s isuma – personal and untouchable thoughts and opinions – was of paramount importance.

Additionally, Inuit worthiness was always relative to personal competence, with one’s worth directly measured by one’s ability to survive, and the ability to survive measured by one’s skills.

With these facts in mind, it becomes easier to understand why even the slightest attack upon one’s ego was considered tantamount to physical maiming, and cause for bloody retribution. The most common slight occurred not in the form of verbal abuse, but instead in the form of actions that diminished another’s significance. A hunter, for example, might flaunt his superior knowledge, a bold attack upon other hunters’ egos.

Even in Inuit culture today, there remains a tradition of playing down one’s own skills in public, saying for example, “Ah, I’m no good.” This derives not from true humility, but rather from a tradition of preserving oneself from the retribution of others.

In traditional culture, one had to constantly take care not to accidentally offend others by openly parading one’s ego. The dynamic has been mistakenly labelled as “envy” by observers, but it is actually one of assault and revenge.

Where care has not been taken to avoid this dynamic, the results have often been bloody, setting the stage for ongoing feuds. Thus has Inuit culture established a system where relative peace is maintained through the observation of tradition — a sort of balance where every individual’s isuma is respected, yet no individual is to be considered “greater” than another, lest all hell break loose.

Nevertheless, this was not a perfect system, for in a culture where no one was allowed to dictate the behaviour of another, it also became impossible to prevent conflict between two individuals who insisted upon antagonizing each other. Since Inuit culture is traditionally quite sensitive to the feelings that kindle an act of violence, rather than focusing upon the act itself, Inuit societies tended to recognize that controlled expression of ill feelings had the best chance of exorcising violent tendencies from people.

For this reason, many Inuit societies developed safe forums, such as song duels or punching contests, where the aggressors could publicly express their pent-up feelings towards one another, and thus achieve a kind of catharsis.

Such devices denote an understanding among traditional societies of just how delicate the balance of peace could be, of how hard a society might work to keep the peace within a small group. And it is interesting to note just how easily this balance is disrupted by rapid change, such as the presence of southern observers.

Observers – through no fault of their own – naturally tended to praise the skills of a given hunter that they had come to focus their studies upon. By attaching themselves to a specific Inuk, making him the “star of the show”, so to speak, they had inadvertently caused others in the group to feel small, and thus had made their “star” a target.

Asen Balikci, for example, tells with bewilderment of a sudden conflict between two fishermen who had always been good friends. Fisherman A had formerly been studied and filmed as the “exemplary” Inuit hunter, while his friend B had not.

While fishing, A stopped to cut up two fish for them to eat, one from his own catch, the other from B’s. B mistakenly thought that both fish were from his own catch, and angrily rebuked A, who treated the whole matter as a joke.

Suddenly, B attacked A, so that a third nearby fisherman had to step in and separate the two men. This is a clear case of ill feelings derived from the placement of one individual above others, thus upsetting the cultural balance of ego.

Yet there was not always a third person to step in and separate two aggressors, so that the ultimate result was murder – an event that often sparked a conflagration of vengeance killings between families, at times escalating without limit. While revenge precipitated murder, murder precipitated warfare.

(Continued next week.)

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