The Naked Ladies: An Inuit soldier and cultural purgatory


Special to Nunatsiaq News

OTTAWA — We were finally seeing the secret collection.

For about a month now, there had been whispered gossip that a friend of my father, a distant uncle really, owned a secret collection. This collection, it was said, was comprised entirely of photographs of nude women. Rumour had it that he had purchased them while in the army.

The nudity itself wasn’t an item of curiousity. Unlike many other cultures, Inuit did not regard the naked form — male or female — as a focus for either lust or scandal. A human being without clothes was only that: an unclothed person. Boring.

Nor did Inuit ever idolize the human form in a Renaissance manner, as an object of beauty or perfection. In fact, Inuit never seem to have been concerned with nudity at all, and if you examine some of the oldest Inuit lore — the legends and myths — you will find that wherever there does arise any hint of eroticism, it is entirely unrelated to nudity. It is as though nudity has no relation to eroticism whatsoever.

No, our fascination with my uncle’s collection had nothing to do with the idea that his pornographic images were at all “dirty,” an idea that did not exist in Inuit culture. Instead, we were wondering why someone would be interested in such imagery. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Bizarre and freakish

To tell you the truth, the idea of lusting after some pictures all seemed rather silly. We wanted to see the collection because it was bizarre, freakish, and thus we might learn the reason why he bothered to own it.

“You know you can buy anything with money in America,” my uncle told us as he opened up his suitcase. “You can even buy people, or ask them to do anything for you.” He was always going on about his travels to America with the army; for some reason, that land and its excesses held a special fascination for him.

The suitcase was now open, and there they were, piled right on top of his clothes and his bugle. (That was the other weird thing — that he owned a bugle and was a “pisiti,” skillful one, at playing it.)

There were the naked ladies.

We had assumed that he would pass the photos around, and show pride in them; but when he reached into the case, he only tiredly shuffled the photos around a bit with his hand, feigning indifference, perhaps trying to seem worldly and thus bored at the sight.

Peering over his shoulder, you could easily see that the rumours were true — they were in fact photos of naked women. It is only now, with my adult sensibilities, that when I think back upon that time it occurs to me that my uncle was sort of hoping we would be shocked by what we saw.

He himself, having travelled abroad, had already absorbed the southern concept of pornography. In a sense, he was now bragging about how the world and its diversity, its bizarre entertainments, had altered him. Made him wiser, he hoped? Perhaps we would admire him?

At the time, we lacked the cultural basis upon which to label the photos smut — so they were, unfortunately for my hopeful uncle, neither shocking nor offensive. Now, ironically, they are not exceedingly offensive by today’s standards either.

Pornography based on cultural cues

What was then considered pornography is relatively common in modern media. Whatever various religious or political moralists may have to say about it, the popular acceptability of the naked form continues to skyrocket, and one has only to crack open the average mainstream magazine or peer at a common television commercial to see a great deal of proudly paraded flesh.

But such parades, while veiled as an acknowledgement of the beauty of the human body, are most often displayed in a seductive context, as though whoever watches the commercial or the magazine ad — whether male or female — is expected to be aroused by the sight of the bare skin.

Whatever you may think of it morally, right or wrong, it is important to remember that such methods — such flesh parades — are entirely based upon cultural cues. If you haven’t been taught that something is smut, then there is no smut. If you haven’t been reared with the concept of pornography, then pornography does not exist.

To my child’s mind, there was nothing really memorable or striking about the naked photos. They seemed to pose a greater mystery than ever. Southern men collected these, just as my uncle had?

Hilarious poses

The photos were glossy black and white prints. The women in them, typically, had very light hair and skin. Mostly, they shared similar features: long wavy hair, small noses, shiny lipstick, large bouncy looking breasts, overly long legs, and mostly pudgy, somehow doughy-looking arms — as though the women didn’t work very hard.

They had painted fingernails and toenails that gleamed under harsh lights. And although they were shown naked, they didn’t seem at all cold. A lot of the photos featured exposed breasts, but these were hardly scandalous in a culture where babies were openly breast-fed.

The really hilarious thing about the pictures were the poses of the women: with their legs and hips were all twisted around, and their chests stuck out. They were what in our culture was known as “qaqajuq,” what little kids do when they are trying to gain attention by deliberately acting cute and adorable, wriggling and jumping around so that adults will notice them.

Well, the family wasn’t sure what to think of uncle’s collection, but he was sure to expect great teasing about it, especially from us kids. Maybe he should have kept it to himself. Everyone just wrote the collection off as one of uncle’s personal idiosyncrasies, one of the many quirks he had picked up as a result of being in the army.

Of course we asked uncle why he had the photos. He wouldn’t say. We finally left it alone, figuring it was some silly personal thing we couldn’t understand — his own isuma, his private thoughts.

But that fact didn’t stop us from mercilessly teasing him about it. He suffered for about a month or so, and it started a kind of taunting war between us brats and our uncle. We would of course ask any visitors who happened along: would they like to see all our uncle’s girlfriends? He would in turn avenge himself upon me by chanting whenever I was sullen or crabby:

“Raigilliujunniiqputiit qinutuungugaviit (you are no longer Raigili — Rachel — as you are always crabby).”

“I’m going to spit in your bugle!” I would yell, knowing how precious it was to him — somehow sensing the unspoken link between the instrument and the naked ladies. He would respond in kind by singing,

“This one is to be left at the floe edge,” summoning forth primordial fears of infanticide.

It was never a lasting battle, though. I was a fickle enemy. Truce was always declared when he gave me a pack of spearmint gum.

Those times were at the end of our long journey to Spence Bay. We had spent months living in a tent over rough ice, and would soon be en route to Gjoa Haven, where my father, a new minister, was to start up his church.

Cultural confusion

Secure in my child’s world, where any person’s eccentricities were merely silly and amusing, I could not feel the sadness for my uncle that I now do. For my uncle was a man who had somewhere lost his understanding of what culture he should call his own, and had thus lost sight of where to see himself as belonging.

In later years, I learned that my uncle was not the only Inuk who had been trained by the armed forces — which I had viewed as a sort of aberration. Shockingly, so had my father, as well as several uncles and hunters whom I knew.

My father’s training had occurred at the tail end of World War II, when the military had built a sort of militia out of Inuit men, for the purpose of fighting in cold environments. The Inuit soldiers were trained and given .303 rifles, and in fact a ship was suppposed to pick them up, to bring them to God only knows where.

But, luckily, that ship did not show up, and another potentially disastrous episode in post-colonial Inuit history was averted.

Such knowledge went a long way to making me paranoid, and my overactive child’s imagination and only partial understanding of the world grasped hold of it, giving me terrific nightmares. What, I wondered, if my father been killed in the war and I hadn’t been born?

Or, worse, what if I had been born and not known my father? What if I had been an orphan, or an unwanted child? It was suddenly not a far stretch to my uncle’s songs of being left at the floe edge…

But unlike my father, my uncle was a soldier who had travelled abroad. The army had become his culture, reworking him in its own image, as is an army’s function. Taking him from the Arctic, from the Land, it had given him the experience of new lands and alternate forms of knowledge. Somewhere, at some time, it had given him his beloved bugle — and the ever silly suitcase full of naked ladies.

Why then, in his worldliness, had he returned to us? He took pains to seem so macho and jaded, and yet craved acceptance from our closed little family from the East.

Unfortunately, such acceptance was the one thing that his own new, strange ways would continually block. Although he was always a good hunter — something ever valued among Inuit — he remained what we considered “soft,” preoccupied with scented colognes, and obsessed with having his hair perfectly slicked into place with some sort of cream.

We were living in Spence Bay at that time. My father was from Cape Dorset, as were my immediate cousins and other assorted relatives. We were “modern” and “capable” Inuit, considering ourselves to be complex and sophisticated, yet possessed of tremendous traditional knowledge. We were of the proud seacoast peoples.

A new culture

It occurs to me that my uncle, too, had still retained pride in our lifestyle — the lifestyle that had once been his before the army, before his travels, before the suitcase of naked ladies. But he had been given a new culture, one that in comparison to ours seemed to him far richer and more advanced.

And yet he had left it to seek our culture once again, after having returned, after finding that he was no longer the same person, the hunter that he had been before the army. Instead, he had come to exist in two separate and distinct spheres of culture, spheres that he could not reconcile.

When living his Inuit life, he would find himself suddenly craving the life of a soldier and a traveller. When living his worldly life, he would suddenly crave the old life, the life on the Land. Caught in between worlds, he could be happy in neither, and thus had built for himself a sort of cultural purgatory.

We never saw the naked ladies again, and after a while even lost interest in the subject. We were content in our lifestyle, but my poor uncle never did quite manage to fit in. He, like his collection, remained a sort of oddity, existing somewhere in the twilight. But he was loved, and perhaps that is all that matters in the end.

And I can still remember his bugle — the sound of which we all enjoyed and which thrilled him to no end — signalling our bedtime with the playing of Taps, resounding into the long, cold night.


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