The Shaman Committee
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
A few years ago, I was doing some work with the RCMP, having the good fortune to visit Arctic Bay — a peaceful community, strongly tied to its elders, and nestled at the base of a ring of hills like the precious chick of a solemn mother bird.
It was there that I spent quite a few hours talking to my older cousin, Kudlu. I could always find her in the work-shed out back of her house, where she sat like a traditional Inuk, constantly sewing caribou-skin clothing for southern game hunters, who invariably underpaid her.
She did not speak English, nor did my husband speak Inuktitut. But with myself as translator, we nevertheless had some wonderful three-way conversations. Kudlu was a story-lover, the source of innumerable old yarns, especially those concerning monsters and shamanism.
She would tell such tales with shivers of mingled delight and horror, pausing between stories to comment on clothing — such as remarking about my husband’s military parka, “It’s okay for a few hours. Then snow builds up in the crannies around the stitching, making it cold. Caribou doesn’t get cold.” There is no formal training for such knowledge!
Kudlu listened to radio and television like anyone else, and raised very modern children. She possessed contemporary knowledge. The thing that was most interesting to me, however, was how Kudlu processed such knowledge, reconciling it with the things she had learned as a girl in a traditional lifestyle.
I have no doubt she was convinced that some of the stories of the exploits of shamans were true, that there really might have once existed some of the rather horrid monsters owned by Inuit imaginings.
But I think that, despite her inclination to view folklore as reality, she nevertheless felt compelled to heed the things that modernity had revealed to her. The result was that she tended to mix belief systems, taking elements of one or another that she felt made the most sense, to produce an entirely new cosmology for herself.
I personally love such “cosmology-building,” since I think it represents the very foundation of myth. So I would like to share my favourite Kudlu story, that of the “Shaman Committee,” a modern Inuit myth in which one can recognize elements of Inuit tradition, science, theology, and pure imagination.
A long time ago, some of the most powerful shamans got together to form a committee. They conferred with each other for a long time, and decided that the best use of their powers would be to learn about the nature of the world and the moon. They were incredibly powerful, and knew how to fly anywhere they desired.
So they designated tasks to one another: this one would travel under the sea, while that one would fly up into the sky, while another would travel under the earth. The responsibility of all the shamans was to scout out wherever they went. After doing so, they would rendezvous back to where they had originally met, and explain to each other what they had witnessed.
In collective agreement, they at last departed upon their respective missions. They were gone for a time, flying everywhere in creation, until they finally returned and met with each other again.
They had learned some incredible things about the world. As the words and descriptions poured from each shaman’s mouth, it was revealed that the Earth was in fact round, and unbelievably huge. Around it circled the smaller moon, which was also round, but barren and desolate. Beneath the deep sea were forests, from which came the driftwood found along the shores. Below the ground, however, there were vast lakes of flammable oils. And there was also much fire.
It was these oils under the ground that the shamans were most concerned about. They used their powers further to look into the future, and they learned the terrifying truth about how the world would end. The fire would light the oils, so that they would burn and crack the surface. The planet would split asunder. Fire would pour out of these great cracks, consuming all.
And the shamans looked no further into the future, terrified of what they has seen. But that is how they have always known the way in which the world will end.