Old Graves: Part Two of Two



Inuit dead were so respected that much-needed items were buried with their owners. One can best appreciate the strength of this practice when remembering how tough life used to be in the Arctic, as well as how pragmatic Inuit were forced to be.

Unless one expressed that he or she wanted an item passed on to a living friend or relative, it was left with its owner. Keeping a precious soapstone lamp might ensure the survival of the group through winter.

But, no, it went into the grave. Passing a good harpoon on to a living hunter who could use it to feed the living, might seem like a good idea. No, into the grave it went.

Amulets, tools, miniature bows and arrows for beloved children, favourite pieces of clothing — all were given up at the right time. Not all Inuit cultures were so strict, but the Netsilingmiut peoples, where we lived (we were originally from North Baffin), certainly were.

We used to stumble upon these things, long before the terms “heritage”, “archeological”, and “historical” came into use. We saw many old bone structures. We came across caribou pit traps, fox traps, and ancient fish weirs. There were remnants of old sod huts, wooden and bone tools, stone lamps, ivory miniature amulets and personal charms.

Perhaps these treasures were too common. After a while, folks began to talk about how “white people wanted them.” Visitors began to encourage Inuit to collect any such findings, ready to pay highly for them, since they were valuable curiosities in the South.

It began with little steps at first, just a bending of custom. People began to approach my father and ask, say, of old fire-bows they had found: were these “what the white people wanted?” Was this or that item considered collectible?

I’ve heard of cases where make-shift ivory dentures were literally bought out of the mouths of individuals. As such ghoulery became increasingly common, it became increasingly accepted, resulting in the ultimate disintegration of the old taboos, and the vulnerability of the dead.

And the can in my hands was labelled “Antiscerosin”. So it was that I found myself in the strange position of guessing whether it held any historical importance or not. And it was not alone. There were also the sun goggles I had found with it, in the same old tent ring. They were of the old-fashioned sort once used by mountain climbers, cold-preserved leather surrounding twin yellow glasses.

The can had come from a tent ring which was much larger than usual, as if built as a supply tent. It had almost certainly been canvas, since the size of the tent would have necessitated too many skins to make it practical. There were other bits of debris, such as rusty cans, which might have once contained some kind of meat.

In all of my amateur wisdom, I deduced that those camping here had neither lived on native food, nor had used native style tents. I fancied that someone had run out of their meds and panicked, maybe leaving their goggles behind. It couldn’t have been an Inuk, since no self-respecting hunter would ever have forgotten such a precious tool.

It was indeed tempting to tie all the clues together to make a larger story within which all occurences seemed to make sense. But the truth, I have to remind myself now as then, is that the old sites, their encampments and their graves, were always layer upon layer of intermingled history and happening. They are a hidden sea of images, glimpses into divergent pasts, slumbering beneath their single veil of lichen.

Robert Service wrote aptly: “The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold…” As well, I might add, the Arctic doesn’t easily give up her secrets, no matter how many people have pitted themselves against her.

I had no way of knowing whether or not the owner of the can and goggles had died out on the Land, or even whether one of the graves around me held his body. And the artifacts I had discovered in the tent ring might have held historic value, but I left them anyway, just in case.


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