When souls become sustenance

Houston’s latest film explores delicate issue of eating one’s spiritual equals


Rankin Inlet Elder Mariano Aupilardjuk wants the world to understand more about Inuit and their traditional knowledge.

“‘Isumamainapunga,’ that’s the only thing I think about,” is how he puts it in Diet of Souls, a documentary film by John Houston that premieres this week in Ottawa and on television throughout Canada.

Diet of Souls asks two tough questions: “how can animals be both spiritual equals and one’s daily bread” and “what does it mean to kill and eat creatures who possess souls.”

These aren’t questions hunters agonize over daily, so they’re ambitious questions for Houston to tackle in less than an hour.

But this documentary largely succeeds in its attempt to tell the world about the close spiritual relationship between Inuit and the animals on whom they depend for survival.

The starting point for the film’s reflections is the apparent clash between Western thought and Inuit Qaujimatutangit.

In the Bible, in the first chapter of Genesis, God sets the human race above the animal kingdom, granting humankind dominion over all other living things on Earth.

But in the ancient religion of the Inuit, the birds and beasts have souls, just as we do, notes Houston, and are equally worthy of respect.

If that’s so, how can people eat animals, that is, have a diet of souls?

Houston sets off through Nunavut, seeking out hunters who were raised in the old ways so they can explain the relationship between Inuit and animals.

At the heart of Diet of Souls are those interviews with hunters and elders, including Jayco and Annie Peterloosie of Pond Inlet, Mariano Aupilardjuk, Simon Tookoome and William Noah of Baker Lake and Gino Akka of Taloyoak.

Their interviews, conducted in Inuktitut, are sub-titled in English.

Diet of Souls also uses carvings and prints to illustrate the traditional world, where animals and Inuit both had souls and shamans knew how to move from one form to the other.

Jayco describes the shaman’s perception of how a seal feels at the moment when it rises to a breathing hole, and when its last breath and the hunter’s harpoon merge.

Simon, an artist who hunts to feed his extended family, tells how he still feels the powerful bond between his own soul and those of the animals.

“If I could speak their language,” he says, “I would want to hear everything they have to say.”

The elders explain a few of the rules that govern the treatment of animals, such as pouring water into the mouth of a seal to ensure more animals return or only hunting as many animals as are needed.

And they offer a powerful message on the need for respect and conservation to Qallunaat and Inuit alike, reinforced by shots of Inuit shooting wildly at beluga from a boat, or researchers trapping caribou for tagging.

Diet of Souls is at its best when it catches action on film, such as a 50-year-old shot of a Netsilik hunter pretending to be a seal on the ice or the efforts of Akka as he now teaches his grandson David Jr. the art of the seal hunt.

For Gino, the seal equals survival, and he approaches David’s training with infinite patience. The two stand for hours in the cold waiting for a feather above the breathing hole to quiver and show a seal is on its way up.

“If you’re still trying to catch one next year, or even the year after, and beyond that still, even then, we will keep doing this. Only when you catch your first seal will I be done with you,” he tells the boy.

The attentive face of young David Jr. lights up every scene he’s in, as does that of his patient and loving grandfather.

Diet of Souls is less successful when it tries to recreate the shamans’ voyage through time and space. At one point, the “shaman,” dressed in sealskin clothes, drum dances among the snow-covered hoodoos on Bylot Island.

He keeps on reappearing throughout the film, as if he was under the ice, peering and grimacing up through a breathing hole: an interesting touch, but distracting.

And, although Houston is present in the documentary, providing the narration or interviewing Mariano, if you didn’t know more about him, that he is the son of James Houston, who first commercialized Inuit carving in the South, and that he grew up in Cape Dorset, you would surely want to know more.

Diet of Souls is the third in a trilogy, written and directed by Houston and produced by Peter d’Entremont, which explore Inuit culture and spirituality.

The first was Houston’s highly personal, Songs in Stone: an Arctic journey home, a tribute to his parents and Inuit art.

The second is Nuliajuk: Mother of the Sea Beasts on the story of the sea goddess and its place in northern culture.

Nunavummiut should make an effort to watch Houston’s exploration of the “original communion” when Diet of Souls makes its world television premiere on VisionTV Thursday, June 24 at 10 p.m. ET.

Tomorrow, at the Larga Baffin patient home in Ottawa, Jayco and Annie Peterloosie and Mariano Aupilardjuk, along with Nunavut Commissioner Peter Irniq, who also has a brief appearance in the film, will be present for an afternoon of storytelling.

On Sunday, the National Galley of Canada in Ottawa is also hosting a special screening of the film.

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