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Voices | Linda Matchan

Through Inuit eyes

A trip to the Canadian Arctic offers a new perspective on our perceived ‘normal’ lifestyle

By Linda Matchan
December 21, 2009

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I spent a couple of weeks in the Canadian Arctic recently. I was with a friend, and we were in a tiny town above the Arctic Circle where most of the people are Inuit. Almost every day we had the same odd experience: Someone would ask us if we were sisters. “You look exactly the same,’’ they’d inevitably say.

We look completely different. But from their perspective, I suppose, we are the same - we’re interchangeable “Qallunaat,’’ the term used by Inuit to describe white people, though it’s usually used more generically. “It doesn’t refer so much to skin color as a state of mind,’’ says Zebedee Nungak,a writer and satirist who is Inuk (singular of Inuit).

Nungak lived among Qallunaat for several years as a boy and apparently spent a good chunk of time observing us to see what makes us tick. He finds us deeply amusing.

“Many of us who have been exposed to Qallunaat-dom through deep immersion in their world could write some credible discourses on the subject,’’ Nungak wrote in “Qallunaat 101,’’ a credible (and humbling) discourse on the subject published in a Canadian alternative journal. “Their social mores and standards of etiquette could fill several volumes. Their language contains all sorts of weirdness. Their sameness and distinctness can be utterly baffling.’’

Why, he wonders, do Qallunaat always plan some ritual or activity when they have visitors over, such as a bridge game? Why do they always talk so much when they get together? And why do guests and hosts linger forever at the door before leaving?

Good questions, come to think about it.

Why is one of the most distinctive features of Qallunaat the hyperfocused way they try to keep up with the Joneses? And why the cumbersome etiquette around eating, the obsession with utensils like the “fork and dull knife known by Inuit as nuvuittuq (without point).’’

And what’s with the custom of abbreviating first names, which don’t follow any standard formula? Robert can be Rob, Joseph is Joe, “but what sleight of hand makes a Henry a Hank?’’ Nungak wants to know.

It is strange, and there’s no better way to get a fix on exactly how strange we really are than by visiting the Arctic, where most liberal Qallunological assumptions are turned upside down. At the home where I was staying someone rang the doorbell one day and surprised my hostess by dropping off a dead baby seal. He’d bagged it on a hunting trip. (For the next few days I had to step around its frozen body to get in and out of the house.) But in the Arctic hunting seals is a good thing - you eat them, feed your sled dogs, and make warm clothes out of them. It’s not fodder for the anti-sealing movement.

Another example: recycling. Here in the “south’’ it’s trendy to recycle by buying more stuff, like eco-friendly $20 designer lunch boxes or sustainable bamboo clothing. In the Arctic, where people barely have any money to sustain themselves, let alone the environment, Inuit reuse the things that they already have. They also resourcefully find new uses for them, as I discovered one day in the local co-op store. My friend was paying for some Diet Coke when an Inuk man who struck up a conversation told her he’s found Coke does a great job of cleaning rusty chains.

More than once I found myself wondering what the Inuit would make of those three-initial equipment stores that are common here, the ones designed to make Qallunaat feel hardy and adventurous by buying $35 “green’’ shoe insoles or $60 all-terrain boots for dogs.

“Being in the Arctic was a startling revelation for me - the idea that I was a member of a culture as opposed to a normal human being,’’ said Canadian filmmaker Mark Sandiford, who spent 16 years in the Arctic and made a film with Nungak called “Qallunaat: Why White People Are Funny.’’ (Reasons include they greet each other with inane salutations like “Wazzup?’’; go camping in trailers in parking lots; and complain a lot about being cold.) “It doesn’t take long before you realize that in that place all the other people are normal and you’re the one behaving off script. You start to think, “Why do we have three meals a day? And why do we constantly manage our kids so much and make them so dependent on us?’’

According to Inuit interviewed in the film, another reason white people are funny is the long history of Qallunaat who write authoritatively about their adventures in the frozen North.

Point taken. Qallunaaq guilty as charged.