10 August 2011


In 2000, I took a Christmastime trip to Quebec City with my mother and a group organized by my undergrad alma mater. (Washington and Lee University has a marvelous travel program, though the trips aren’t inexpensive because they stay and eat at the better places and take along a faculty member or someone else knowledgeable about the destination as a kind of “intellectual sherpa,” along with whatever tourist escort may also travel with us. I reported on another trip with W&L, to Istanbul, on ROT on 24 June 2010.) Quebec at Christmas is like a Currier and Ives winter scene and it was a wonderful trip, not least because I got to speak French again after many years of disuse. (I’m proud to say that a lot of it came back pretty quickly. It was fun to do that again.) Anyway, it’s become my practice to bring back as a souvenir from my travels nowadays a piece of local art or craftwork if I can find something appropriate that I like, and my selection from this vacation was a piece of Inuit sculpture. I ended up with a small piece called Inukshuk by Davidee Qimirpiq [Qimirpik; b. 1985], a Canadian Inuit artist from Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Baffin Island, in the Territory of Nunavut. The figure was a common subject among Inuit artists when I was in Quebec, and the carved green soapstone stands about eight inches tall and vaguely resembles the silhouette of a man assembled from large stones with two legs, a torso with a head, and two arms stretched out to the sides parallel to the ground.

The Inuit, still called Eskimos in the U.S., especially in Alaska, were nomadic hunter-gatherers well into modern times. Traveling constantly across land and water, the Inuit couldn’t really carry much that wasn’t of immediate practical use, so artwork, aside from a little carved ivory or bone, was uncommon. In about 1945, however, the Canadian government encouraged the Inuit to settle in towns, learn cultivation, and give up the nomadic way of life. The world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable, but the sociological effect was nevertheless profound. The government saw that the move to permanent habitation left many Inuit without traditional occupations. Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for the Inuit output. The plan succeeded: the Inuit had a latent talent for art of all kinds, and they started a co-op to market and price their work. Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south and several artists became renowned. (I published a profile of Inuit painter and printmaker Pudlo Pudlat on ROT on 28 September 2009.) Art museums organized exhibitions of Inuit works and collectors began buying the art. Whole villages thrived on the art turned out in their community studios. The themes and subjects of the art expanded from a focus on traditional culture to embrace the modern universe around them. The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists. Among the most popular subjects when I was in Quebec and later in Vancouver at the other end of the country were native animals, Inuit figures, and the mysterious and majestic inuksuit, a form nearly ubiquitous in the galleries and shops all over both cities.

The title of my sculpture, Inukshut, is actually a misnomer. According to Norman Hallendy’s Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington Press; Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000), an inuksuk (“acting in the capacity of a human”; pl. inuksuit) is a symbolic structure that conveys a message. Actual inuksuit aren’t anthropomorphic and may, in fact, be composed of a single large rock standing on end. The structure depicted in my sculpture, often called an inuksuk, is actually an innunguaq (“in the likeness of a human”; pl. innunguait). Innunguait aren’t really a category of inuksuit according to Hallendy, though other sources seem to consider them one. I suppose that the artists (or gallery owners) misnamed the artworks because, first, inuksuk is a little easier for us Southerners—to Nunavummiut (people from Nunavut), even Quebeckers are Southerners!—to say (it’s pronounced ih-NOOK-shook) and, second, most art patrons, unless they’re steeped in Nunavut sociology and anthropology as well as aesthetics, don’t make the distinction.

Whatever the reason, the facts about inuksuit and innunguait are fascinating. When I got home with my sculpture, I did a little reading on the topic; I’d heard a little about them while I was in Quebec and there were books around on them, but I didn’t have the leisure to get into the subject until I got back. (The English spellings of Inuktitut words vary from source to source, and apparently the preferred forms in Nunavut and Canada are inuksuk, inunnguaq, and inunnguat. I’m going to stick with the way Hallendy spells the words because he was my first source. I’ll let the Canadian government and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada come after me if they want.)

The name inuksuk is based on the Inuktitut word inuk, which means, simply, ‘person.’ (It’s also the singular of Inuit, which consequently means ‘The People.’ This is analogous to several American Indian tribes, such as the Navajo, whose name for themselves is DinĂ©, which also means ‘The People.’) Innunguaq, despite its different appearance, is derived from the same word. Innunguait are probably more recognizable to non-Inuit, though they aren’t the most common form of stone structure, because of the striking shape and the dramatic sight they provide when seen looming upon a hill or rising up on the horizon, like a giant guardian standing watch over his land.

Inuksuit are of uncertain age; though, since they’re practical objects, they’re constantly being built and rebuilt or allowed to fall into neglect and deterioration when they’re no longer useful. (Inuksuit may decay naturally—polar bears have been known to knock them over—but it’s considered sacrilegious to destroy one or remove its stones. Bad luck will plague anyone who does.) Some of the most ancient, turned “black, dark green or blazing orange” with lichen or white with “the signatures of countless birds,” have been dated back to the Tuniit (or Tunniit) people, known in the West as the Dorset Culture but whom the Inuit call their ancestors. The Tuniit, a tall and strong people, migrated to Greenland from Alaska between 500 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E. (The appearance of innunguait, the cruciform stone constructions that resemble humans, may only date from the arrival of Christian missionaries in Arctic Canada, but that conclusion’s debatable. After contact with the Vikings around 1000 C.E., the first Europeans to interact with the Inuit and other inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic were an English explorer in the late 16th century and then North American colonials in the 17th century.) Many of the ancient inuksuit are venerated regardless of their usefulness today because of their age and because they were built by the ancestors of the Inuit. Whenever they began to appear, inuksuit could be monumental stone constructions built and used by Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, and Yupik peoples, and other inhabitants of the North American Arctic. In a region where the flat tundra presents few natural landmarks—the terrain’s either featureless or the snows and ice shift constantly, obliterating any recognizable topography—the man-made cairns served as navigational signals and markers to later travelers in a land where the natives were nomads who followed the scarce game as well as the open water ahead of each year’s freeze. In addition to the trackless terrain, there were no trees on which to carve signs or symbols, so those who passed through first left piles of stones that loomed up on the horizon as the next travelers arrived. An inuksuk might point the way to a plentiful fishing or hunting ground, warn about danger, blaze a safe trail, or mark a good camping site or cache of food. They could also convey more complex messages that only the knowledgeable and astute hunter could read.

According to Hallendy, some inuksuit, like the ones intended as navigational aids, were made to be visible from far away, while others, such as those that designate a cache of food, might be hidden so that only the intended traveler could see them. Some inuksuit were built so they stood out against snow; others so they could be seen on the shore from sea. In some cases, a series of inuksuit were sited so that they could lead travelers over a great distance along a difficult route; in other instances, the cairns have been arranged in a circle, marking a site of power or reverence, like a kind of Inuit Stonehenge. Some inuksuit are large enough and so fortuitously situated and constructed, says Hallendy, that they can create their own “microclimate” with their “own temperature, wind conditions and humidity within a one-metre (three-foot) circle.”

Some inuksuit are as simple as a single stone, as I said, and some are constructed from three or four large, flat stones fashioned into a kind of doorway or some abstract shape, but many are immense stacks of large rocks, standing many feet tall and sometimes covering several feet of ground as well. (My little sculpture is a single piece of soapstone carved to look like assembled rocks. It is, of course, Qimirpiq’s representation of an inuksuk, not a miniature replica.) Clearly it took many hands to construct these, though Inuit nomads traveled in small bands, usually a single family, and often the father would travel ahead to hunt or scout the route to the next fishing or hunting ground. Yet somehow the huge cairns were built to send messages to those following behind. Hallendy describes how one Inuit created an inuksuk as he observed:

Because of the importance placed on inuksuit, their construction was rarely taken lightly. I often watched an elder studying a jumble of broken rock, without so much as touching a single stone, visualizing how one piece could fit with another. Only when the picture was complete in his head would a helper bring the selected stones to where the inuksuk was to be built. The figure that emerged was determined as much by the shape of the stones selected as by their arrangement. Since it was essential to shim and balance the rocks as they were put in place, often a wonderful construction came into being as the builder cautiously sought the centre of gravity to give his inuksuk a long life. Like a three-dimensional puzzle, the pieces fit together with such precision so as to be held in place by the force of gravity. Though they may be of varying sizes and shapes and perform a variety of functions, inuksuit are not only a pleasure to behold but are so well balanced and constructed that they can withstand the ravages of time and countless storms. “Nakalanagu!” its creator may exhort: May you stand forever!
It’s not clear how a subsequent trekker could interpret the earlier travelers’ messages, but somehow the inuksuit communicated not only from one nomadic band to the next, but across the years. (Inuktitut, the Inuit language, had no written form until one was invented by Europeans in the 18th century, so there was no way of leaving notes or inscribed messages to explain what the inuksuk meant.) There’s nothing overtly recognizable in the shape of the cairn that would suggest a meaning, and no two inuksuk obviously resemble one another so that some kind of traditional iconography might seem to have been established. Hunting partners might devise common signs and signals, but it’s just a wonderful mystery—and it must have worked or the Arctic people wouldn’t have kept using inuksuit for so many centuries. For existing inuksuit along a familiar route, someone who knew the path might explain the cairns newer hunters will encounter, often in the form of a song.

There are many stories about what inuksuit and innunguait have been used for, including forms of defense against Indians, who were threats to the Inuit in past centuries. (The ancient enmity between Indians and the Inuit is, in fact, part of the reason the name Eskimo isn’t used in Canada. It’s a “foreign” word: the derivation is arguable, but in any case it’s believed to be from one Indian language or another and is considered derogatory.) Hallendy figures from the stories he heard that the inuksuit were built to look at a distance like crouching Inuit to scare away the invading enemy. Whatever their purpose, the giant innunguait do look like sentinels standing watch, though how effective that’d be as a deterrent is certainly questionable. Some of the stories say that the innunguait were armed with spears and draped with skins to fool the Indians who, the tales insist, were effectively frightened away. Hallendy reports that Inuit friends have told him that some inuksuit can make whistling or moaning sounds, perhaps from the wind blowing through the stones, creating an eerie effect. (There are inuksuit that are made with a kind of Aeolian harp installed so that the wind would cause them to clang and clatter across the soundless Arctic terrain.) Well, that’s the story, anyway. It makes great folklore.

Inuksuit are among the oldest and most significant man-made objects on the vast Arctic landscape and for the Inuit, inuksuit possess spiritual meaning as well. The inuksuk has become a part of Inuit folklore and a symbol of Inuit history. The Inuit people celebrate the inuksuk through the handcrafted carvings, like the Qimirpiq I own, that sell in galleries all over the world. Today many Inuit display the inuksuk to show pride in their native culture. This may explain why the flag of Nunavut, established in 1999 as an Inuit homeland (the name means ‘our land’ in Inuktitut), bears a bright red innunguaq imposed on the half-yellow, half-white banner. The inuksuk has become not only a symbol of Inuit culture but is increasingly serving as a Canadian national symbol. The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, for instance, adopted the innunguaq as an official symbol, and the lobby of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., boasts a large innunguaq-like sculpture by Inuit artist David Ruben Piqtoukun.

Because for centuries they’ve guided hunters to safe passages across the measureless Arctic tundra, the inuksuit remind the Inuit of their dependence on one another and the value of strong community. Because they’re ancient, they connect the people to their past and inspire awe. Because not even the Arctic winds and snows can knock them down, they represent endurance. Because they are constructed only of stones found on the spot, they demonstrate resourcefulness. Because there’s no mortar or cement, they exemplify ingenuity. Because they serve practical functions, they have significance. Though each stone of an inuksuk is a separate entity, it supports the stones above and is supported by the stones below it. Its significance comes from its meaning as a whole, not the parts that compose it; its strength lies in its unity. The inuksuk symbolizes cooperation, balance, and selflessness. That’s a pretty admirable symbol for a people—or a nation.

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