the storyteller: wayfaring in the tundra

In the development of some of the legends, the folklore, the myth, strands from Inuit traditions and Western traditions merge. An exhibit by a French born, Canadian priest who spent fifty years at Inlet Pond in the far north of Canada is fascinating in placing us to view images which seem almost incomprehensible and remote to us today. Why?  Part of it is about family and what family can do to an individual, and how our own baggage within post-modern society is inadequate, an impediment in transcending our humanity and releasing anger into the vaporizing spaces of the eternal.

To the outsider, it can be a dangerous bewildering world with reverberating external complexities buffeting against forces of self-discovery, and a search for protection against despair. What seems like fable, fantasy and folklore is part of a larger meta-narrative as coherent with existential allegories that explore some profound complexities of Inuit identity in the far north; in a sense their own Diaspora and a search for a promised land. The stories that linger in memory, passed down through tradition…. Walter Benjamin: are the ones free of psychological analysis. This process of memorising stories, however, is becoming less and less common, because the situation in which it most easily takes place becomes less and less common: boredom. It is the hearer entranced in the rhythm of labour – such as weaving or spinning – who most naturally assimilates the story. As craftsmanship dies out, so does the story….

---Robert Flaherty’s classic film tells the story of Inuit hunter Nanook and his family as they struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay region. Enormously popular when released in 1922, Nanook of the North is a cinematic milestone that continues to enchant audiences. Read More:

…The storyteller does not try to convey dry, impersonal information; he sinks the story into his own life, in order to bring it out of him again. Story-telling itself is not a liberal art, but a craft. The great story is therefore a carefully crafted thing, the “precious product of a long chain of causes similar to one another”. It takes time, a lot of time, to create such a story; and this is why story-telling is dying out. “All these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated.” Read More:

Mary-Rousselière, a Roman Catholic missionary, worked in the Arctic for almost 50 years before he died in 1994. Much of that time was spent in Pond Inlet.The exhibit includes portraits and drawings made by Mary-Rousselière in the 1940s and ‘50s. Curator Lorraine Branson brought the images from Churchill, Man., where many were kept in storage. “We’ve been dreaming of this for a while, to have it somewhere that more people could see,” Branson said. “We receive a lot of people in Churchill, being an international tourism destination, but to have this in Nunavut where quite a few people pass through here, we appreciate this opportunity very much.”

The 31 images depict people and landscapes from many parts of Nunavut, including Pond Inlet, Baker Lake and Igloolik.

---C.F. Hall:The circle being formed, each person eats his or her meat in silence, thinking of Sedna, and wishing for good things. Then one in the circle takes a cup, dips up some of the water, all the time thinking of Sedna, and drinks it; and then, before passing the cup to another, states audibly the time and the place of his or her birth. This ceremony is performed by all in succession. Finally, presents of various articles are thrown from one another, with the idea that each will receive of Sedna good things in proportion to the liberality here shown. Soon after this occasion, at a time which answers to our New Year’s day, two men start out, one of them being dressed to represent a woman, and go to every house in the village, blowing out the light in each. The lights are afterwards rekindled from a fresh fire. When Taqulitu was asked the meaning of this, she replied, « New sun-new light », implying a belief that the sun was at that time renewed for the year. Read More:

i’m thinking that often times it takes a very well trained eye to recognize the story-line behind many seemingly ordinary lives. religious literature is filled with these storytellers, they are the fools, and innocents, and clumsies, the simple-ones, and the hidden sages that spend their days chopping wood and carrying water. often times cutting their own skins in the process and spilling the water as they reach their huts. but what is of more interest to me is the trained eye one must posses to recognize oneself as that storyteller too. ( Hune at Martin Buber Institute ) Read More:

Mary-Rousselière sent some of his photographs to National Geographic magazine in 1968, which found them so stunning, it published them with an accompanying article about how the federal government’s efforts to settle the Inuit altered their culture and lifestyle. In his 1998 memoir, former National Geographic writer and editor Thomas Canby recalled finding the photos “irresistible” and “technically excellent.”…

---Now arises a cry of surprise and all eyes are turned toward a hut out of which stalk two gigantic figures. They wear heavy boots; their legs are swelled out to a wonderful thickness with several pairs of breeches; the shoulders of each are covered by a woman’s overjacket and the faces by tattooed masks of sealskins. In the right hand each carries the seal spear, on the back of each is an inflated buoy of sealskin, and in the left hand the scraper. Silently, with long strides, the qailertetang approach the assembly, who, screaming, press back from them. The pair solemnly leads the men to a suitable spot and set them in a row, and the women in another opposite them. They match the men and women in pairs and these pairs run, pursued by the qailertetang, to the hut of the woman, where they are for the following day and night man and wife (nulianititijung). Having performed this duty, the qailertetang stride down to the shore and invoke the good north wind, which brings fair weather, while they warn off the unfavourable south wind....Read More:

…“The story they told was priceless. Through the lens of his camera, Father Guy-Mary Rousselière had recorded a unique and poignant chapter of Inuit history: the closing moments of their traditional l

as subsistence hunters and fishermen, and their irreversible transition to a new, settled life shaped by a well-intentioned but not infallible government to the south,” Canby wrote. Read More:

When Christianity and Christmas met the Inuit: …the time and/or place of joy , is rooted in Western as well as in Inuit traditions. In contemporary Western societies, Christmas is part of a complex cycle in the Christian liturgical calendar celebrated in the church, at home or in the community at large. The traditions of the Church and those of popular religion usually co-exist and interact. They may also clash and this may even lead to attempts to repress supposedly non-Christian dimensions of Christianity as illustrated by D. Miller (1993). The burning of an effigy of Santa Claus in Lyon by two bishops in 1951, described by C. Lévi-Strauss (1952), evoked a pagan ritual and illustrated the complexity of the separation of Christian and non Christian elements in the Euro-American tradition….

---Impressive as the photos are, of even greater importance were the voices that he documented. Father Mary would sit with Inuit elders for hours, traveling to their homes, their hunting camps, to listen to their stories. Oral tales, passed down from generation to generation, about the initiation rituals of a young shaman (think: no water for five days, no food for 10). Or the origins of “white people,” a race, according to Inuit legend, that were cast out to sea by the Sea Woman in the soft sole of a mukluk with the simplest instructions: “Fend for yourselves without getting wet.”--- Read More:

…from a rational perspective, the concept of ‘god’ -as defined by the theistic religions- contradicts the rules of logic. only when we agree to suspend logic and explain the idea of god with the aid of poetic paradoxical license, we may get a glimpse, not as to what god is, but to what we want it to be. at the same time, from a rational standpoint, the concepts of eternity and evolution when combined to explain a beginning that does not exist and the process of appearance and unfolding of complex forms of consciousness, defies common sense and many of the most fundamental rules of logic. only when we accept certain premises as basic postulates, without requiring a logical foundation to sustain them, we can begin to extract from them a derivative chain of logical causes and effects….

---Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller:The art of story-telling is dying out. With it also dies the human capability that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences (Erfahrungen). The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away....Story-telling is dying out because wisdom, the epic side of truth, is dying out....A new form of communication has arisen with the rise of the press (read: mass-media); this new form is information.* Information is antithetical to the story. Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation. It is left up to the reader to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks....Read More: image:

…it is for those reasons that the existential approach to god asks that we do not consider the concept or idea of god, but only our ability to dialogue with it. we do not need to admit to a reality that reason can’t explain, nor that reality and language are two separate realms of being. the separation of facts from reason opens the doors to unending beliefs and dangerous superstitions. the point is only that we acknowledge, as buber stated it, that there is nothing we can say about god, but we can address him, or embrace him. Read More:

---"Here are some photos taken in Nunavut. You can see a picture of the back of an Inuit teen playing hockey. You can see that he has typical American clothes while the elders are wearing traditional boots. I think that is the story of teens in Inuit. They are pulled between a traditional way of life that still involves fishing and hunting for survival, and the one imposed by the Canadian government".--- Read More:

…Many studies have been devoted to these rituals and their interpretation. Thus C. Lévi-Strauss argues that while receiving presents from Santa Claus the children represent the dead. Santa Claus himself is a complex figure, combining the features of a saint with those of the devil. In some parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus was a member of bands of masked figures, sometimes with black faces and chains, roaming the streets, terrorizing the women. They were wearing attributes of devils and associated with death as well as sexual ribaldry. Santa Claus was introduced in North America by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. At that period, the feast of Santa Claus was celebrated as feast of children and youngsters. The sexual overtones of the feast were obvious. The ambiguous behavior of Santa Claus was adopted in America when the Dutch and German Santa Claus traditions were integrated into American culture. The sexual connotations were suppressed in most places, but often preserved in songs and attributes of Santa Claus…. Read More:

---F. Boas witnessed it in Qiqirtat (Kekerten Island), Cumberland Sound, on November 10, 1883. The feast was celebrated late in the fall. The tupilait, the spirits of the dead, who did not arrive at their final destiny in the land of the dead, attacked the community, people as well as dogs. These evil spirits brought sickness, death and bad weather. The angakkuit were intensively performing their practices inside the house to protect the people. In a large hut the ritual of harpooning Sedna, was conducted by the angakkuit. She was lured up by a magic song and harpooned with a seal spear. She freed herself from the harpoon and descended to the underworld again. The angakkuit showed the blood-sprinkled harpoon to the audience. The next day a great festival for young and old was celebrated. All wore protective amulets (such as the garments they wore after birth) to protect themselves against Sedna who was still enraged....Read More: image:


Father Mary-Rousselière’s 1946 discovery of beach ridges of the ancient Dorset people just south of Igloolik and some distance inland suggested a lifeway and environment different from the present inhabitants. In the 1960s, he reported many interesting Dorset art pieces eroding from low coastal cliffs at Button Point near Pond Inlet. Emergency excavation was unknown at the time, but fortunately he collected at the site for
many years as the bank subsided. One very important find was the Button Point mask which appeared as an illuminated backlit photograph on a 1971 cover of artscanada magazine. However, his most important site was Nunguvik where he excavated over the years, training students in arctic archaeology and adaptation. Read More:

---The sexual intercourse between men and women plays an important part in the ritual. Its meaning remains implicit, but it is also a recurrent feature of the Inuit winter feasts in the North Baffin area, the Tivajuut5. More generally, it is a striking feature of ritual exchange in Inuit communities that directly drew the attention of the missionaries and became one of the main issues of controversy. Apparently this sexual intercourse was thought to favor the hunting of game. The exchanges in the feast as described by Boas concern small gifts such as « meat, ivory trinkets, and articles of sealskin into the yelling crowd, of which each one helps himself to what he can get. No hut is omitted in this round (irqatatung). » These distributions resulted in a general competition (scramble) for the goods. The distribution of Boas’ own beads follows the same pattern. The distribution of the women is quite another matter. It is regulated by the intervention of the representatives of the spirits who organize the adults into pairs.---Read More: image:

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If this is so, then there seems to be a connection between the decline of story-telling and the slow vanishing of the concept of eternity from how we conceive our lives. Indeed. The idea of eternity has its source in the idea of death. It is the vanishing of the idea of death that is linked to both the dying-out of story-telling and the dwindling of the communicability of experience.

Death used to be a central part of life; but it is so no longer. In modernity, the phenomenon of death was slowly removed from daily reality. (Who still lives in a house in which at some point someone has died?)

It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life — and this is the stuff that stories are made of — first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. A the moment of death, suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story. Read More:

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