By Ted L. Cox
Dateline: January 12, 2019
The Inuit/Eskimo hamlet of Sanikiluaq is located in the Belcher Islands; a group of 1500 islands with many lakes, in Hudson Bay, Canada. The shore of Hudson Bay is 1000 kilometers to the East: a long boat ride or a one hour plane trip; or, if you’re hearty, a one week trip by dog-sled in mid-winter when the bay is frozen over. It is isolated from the rest of society, geographically and culturally, but stunning in its solitude; like a pearl shimmering in a mysterious ocean. An excellent place for self-examination and spirituality: your demons have not even trees to hide in. Your deeper self is exposed, just as the bare rocky hills must take the full force of the winter storms. You can no longer hide from your self-criticisms and fears which we are so good at dodging in our oh-so-busy and chaotic urban and television/media/information-dominated lives elsewhere. I spent 10 days there with my wife in August 2018 hiking the bare rocky hills and self-examining. Further, there’s no alcohol there to dull the usual anxieties. We experienced a “retreat”.
The current population of about 700 Inuit living now in about 100 basic modern houses, once moved freely around the islands and lived in temporary shelters. Their main source of food was a herd of resident Caribou. However, one winter around 1880 an ice-storm covered their main food source of lichens to the extent that the Caribou could not reach them and many died of starvation. Subsequently, the Caribou vanished from the Belcher Islands and never came back. The survivors from the icy winter apparently walked across the frozen Hudson Bay to the mainland. Reindeer have been “planted” on the islands to replace the Caribou with limited success.
For the Inuit of the Belcher Islands, the loss of the Caribou represents a disaster for this community and their culture. Some can remember stories of hard winters when they waited patiently and hungrily for the sled-dogs to starve to death so they could eat them. There is even a special word in their language for the gurgling sound a stomach makes when muscles try to squeeze food that isn’t there: “borborygmus”.
The permanent village of Sanikiluaq was built in the early 1970’s by the government to replace a portable camp further south where many lived. It is a new addition to the culture. Prior to that they made temporary camps on those parts of the Belcher Islands where food was most plentiful. But now, thanks to these “blessings of civilization,” they are rooted in one place. Or, had they followed the caribou to the mainland they would have had to deal with ownership of property and/or invading a foreign land. And so they have lost their mobility, both near and far; their ability to adjust to the changing environment is limited by the larger society of which they are now a part.
True, they have warm permanent housing, monthly checks from the government and the possession of ATV’s and snowmobiles, which can cover great distances more efficiently than sled-dogs. There is no doubt they have comforts unknown in the past. Still, they are living in a sub-culture that has no significant function in the larger society. The few huskies remaining, usually tied or penned up, are symbolic for the dry bones of a once vibrant primitive culture. Both people and sled dogs have lost their “raison d’etre”; they are both “deracine” (uprooted) from their once dominant culture and have not yet grown new roots into the dominant culture. Derelict dog-sleds dot the community landscape. Many are forced to consider the possibility of their own irrelevance ꟷ a pill so bitter in any culture that some will find an escape at any cost.
But the human spirit is amazingly resilient. After the caribou departed, the elders came up with a plan to utilize their large permanent population of Eider ducks for food and the down from abandoned nests to substitute for the caribou hides. The culture was back on track for a while and they even had a government sponsored factory where they made items from Eider down and carvings of local stone for sale to the “outside”. But then the Eider ducks began to die off as sea ice conditions around the islands changed.
These changes in the ice and water currents around the Belcher Islands have now been traced back to the release of fresh water from hydroelectric dams further south. The dams hold back water that formerly ran into Hudson Bay in the summer and release it instead in the winter during peak electricity usage. The Inuit factory closed in 2005 when the number of eider ducks diminished and government funding was withdrawn. However, it reopened in 2015 with renewed government funding.
From a cultural standpoint, the damage is not just physical but also psychological and perhaps even worse in that way. The people of Sanikiluaq have houses to live in, grammar and high schools, and a health clinic and they get checks from the government to survive. But their traditional culture, albeit a primitive one, has been shattered and they have not yet been able to “grow” a healthy replacement. They have abundant time to worry about being irrelevant. Pathologies are widespread. The men particularly have largely lost their hope for importance by being a famous hunter and the life-meaning and hope that flows from this. Sammy Kiliuaq was a famous Inuit hunter from the past said to be so swift that he could outrun a fox. The community of Sanikiluaq is named for him. Although both genders struggle with depression, violence, suicide and addictions to gambling, alcohol and drugs, the women fare somewhat better in cultural transitions. This is because in this case, at least, being stigmatized with inferiority by the culture, they have less importance to lose in a situation of cultural change and uncertainty. (One Inuit man was said to beat his wife every time he sneezed as he felt she was responsible.) The women can hope that their children will become significant contributors to the community in the future, thus bringing them importance and power. All of this probably contributes to the reason we encountered one friendly Inuit woman in Sanikiluaq but no such men.
But the larger tragedy has other dimensions. The outside society would like to help; especially the churches. It is similar to the feeling a mother has for her struggling infant. But the problem is so overwhelming that society goes into a kind of post-partum depression. The mother cannot rescue her ‘infant’ from the conflicts, tragedies and perplexities of the world. She can no longer be omniscient and omnipotent and relieve the grief and anxiety of her “infant” as she could when he/she was in her womb. At the same time, the “infant” perceives her as omnipotent and so expects her to fix everything as she once did with food, warmth and even breathing, when he/she was in the womb. The “infant” must struggle on its own to find defenses against the gnawing suspicions that neither mother nor anyone else is omnipotent and that he/she is basically alone and vulnerable to random tragedies. To protect herself from overwhelming grief, the mother may withdraw into her depressive cocoon where she at least achieves some distance from the agonies of both mother and child. Just so, the Inuit people must struggle to come up with a new and viable culture that fits their past and the new world around them. That is, they need a culture that will provide hope and a sense of meaning and importance in a world where these qualities are increasingly rare.
The “withdrawal of mother” is exemplified by the termination of government funding for the factory in 2005 mentioned above. The funding was renewed in 2015 perhaps demonstrating Canada’s struggle with its “post-partum depression”.
The community is faced with three alternatives: Their traditional largely defunct hunter-gatherer culture, held together by animism, shamans and the elders; one of the Christian religions; or the fast, easy and slick electronic media with almost no spiritual content but a guarantee to distract and dull the pain. It’s easy to see which one is the favorite of the younger generation, which unfortunately compounds the overall problem.
Christian missionaries were in the area in the past and provided a copy of their bible that had been translated into the Inuit language and this was a part of a tragic and bizarre episode culminating in the murder of nine Inuits. In 1941 there was a large meteor shower prompting two Inuits to proclaim they were God and Jesus and that the end of the world was coming. The resulting conflict and confusion included instructions from the would-be new leaders to kill all of the sled-dogs as the people would soon all be flying and would no longer need them. The self-proclaimed “God” killed one man who refused to believe him. A large group of Inuits were ordered (by the sister of “God”) to stand on an ice flow to wait for the arrival of Jesus through the air in his kayak. Many ran away but four children and two adults waited and froze to death. Two more Inuits were murdered for refusing to go along with the fantasy/delusion making a total of nine dead. This episode seems to represent the desperate attempt of a culture in its death throes to achieve some concrete manifestation of a social system that would give them the importance, meaning and power they so desperately wanted and needed.
But it also reflects a pathological aspect of monotheism or one-god religions, in general. The human ego inherently craves importance and omnipotence. We can only conceive of ourselves, when as infants self-consciousness begins to form, as at the center of attention of the universe. As we age, this infantile perception must be carefully tempered by care-givers and the agents of socialization around us. The more we are neglected or abused in the beginning, the stronger becomes this perception in order to compensate. Monotheism, with its central idea of one omnipotent/omniscient being, feeds our hunger for self-importance and staves off our abiding fears of irrelevance. The evolution of human beliefs toward monotheism could be seen as a desperate, but pathetic, methodology for returning to infancy. When in fact, all we really have is each other and we will improve our connections with one another to the extent we can “back off” from some of our projects of self-importance.
On the other hand, with animism, in which all objects in the environment have souls, we are encouraged to focus on the web-of-life around us, of which we are only a small part. Even polytheism at least provides a focus on a group and the interactions between spirits. With the evolution to monotheism, however, we are encouraged to consider the model of one omnipotent being for ourselves. This is more congruent with our initial infantile perception of ourselves. Perhaps we too could be like God and return to the solace of our sense of super-importance from infancy. Thus, it is not a large step from the 9 murders in Sanikiluaq to the mass school murders in the U.S. Eric Harris, the central planner of the Columbine murders, wrote in his school planner: “I am God”. This “one omnipotent God mentality” also helps us to understand the wars, genocides, sexual abuse and other heinous behavior of many monotheistic believers individually and within their institutional settings: Christian and otherwise.
Religion does more often hold the community together, but rational supervising minds are necessary to restrain it from “running amok” under the influence of leaders and individuals convinced that they are some variation of the omnipotent, omniscient God and therefore “above the law of the land”. President Trump provides a timely example.
As for the future of Sanikiluaq, if I was in charge, I would bring back animism, albeit tempered with gender equality. It provides a structure for meaning, moderates our selfish God-like fantasies, and helps us to respect and protect the planet we are dependent upon for survival. I take that “religious” stance because the majority of our species cannot seem to function without belief in some super power and/or system of explanatory ideas. And as demonstrated by Trump, lies don’t matter. They are “trumped” by feeling relevant through our connections to demagogues. But I’m not in charge and no one else is either, and besides, effective new religions cannot be imposed from the top of society anyway. They must arise from the spirit of the people. Since we don’t know what will happen in the future, I will close by quoting Yeats. [We must wait and see]: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”
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Ted L. Cox is an 88 year old sociologist and psychoanalyst (retired) who until 2018 divided his time between Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y. and Sainte Agathe des Monts, Quebec, Canada. In 2018 he married his Quebecois partner and applied for a residency in Canada. He was born in an upper middle class family in Albany, Georgia (1930), grew up (partly) in New Orleans but, a chronic misfit, has moved sporadically northward ever since; often changing careers and partners. His odyssey might be called a search for truth. In Quebec he lives near ski slopes, cross-country trails, hiking/snow-shoeing trails and a 200 kilometer bike path. When winter ice melts, numerous lakes and streams beckon for canoeing. He and his wife spend some time in nature almost every day. He is the author most recently of The Real Enemy Is Reality: A Challenge for us All.
At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic – Lawrence Millman (2016)
Voices from the Bay: Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay
Bioregion – Miriam McDonald, et. al. (1997)
Nanook of the North – Robert Flaherty (1922);
People of a Feather – Joel Heath (2012)