Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut

Melinda Aubé

An Oral History of Nunavut, is a compilation of oral stories that allows the readers to better understand the culture of the Inuits of Nunavut. A major part of their culture is their rituals of death and burial and shamanism. There are two chapters in this book dedicated to them two important parts of Inuit culture.

Firstly, shamanism is present in almost all native's culture, as previously said in Diane Balthazar's, 2011, review of Ritual in Native North American Religions by Âke Hultkrantz, but this review will further analyze the rituals of shamanism, especially those of the Inuits of Nunavut by examining these oral stories. According to Ava Amitturmiut, 1929, shamans have the ability to cross border between the spiritual and the physical world. "With the aid of a helping spirit the shaman leaves the visible world and travels to the realm of the unseen where he enters into communication with the supernatural forces that influence the lives of people." Shamans are men most of the time, in Inuit culture, but they could be women as well and there are many known powerful women who were shamans. Boys and girls could show signs at a very young age or even before birth that they would grow to become powerful shamans. The elders would stay alert for those signs and they "could accept and encourage the development of shamanistic power in a child, or they could reject it" (Marie Kilunik, 1990). A person who wanted to become a shaman, only if they were a good candidate, was usually assisted and supported by a shaman, so they could be guided and learn about the higher power. To become a shaman the student needed to acquire the required amount of knowledge and wisdom to be transformed from a simple Inuk into a shaman (Anna Atagutsiaq, 1990). Before becoming a real shaman, the initiates "were usually tested, forbidding themselves from eating and drinking for many days, waiting for a new-found spiritual ability" (Eric Anoee, 1977).

Secondly, shamans receive their power from their helping spirit, or apiqsaq in Inuk. "Each shaman receives a different animal spirit to help him with his powers, such as a fox, walrus, polar bear, or loon" (Jim Kilabuk, n.d.). According to Armand Tagoona, 1975, when a shaman dies, if he or she had a helping spirit, at the time of their death, then that shaman's spirit would go live in that animal. For example, if the angakkuq, shaman, had a wolf as a helper, then his spirit would go live in the wolf after his death. Spirit helpers could also be the spirits of human beings that have already passed on to the other side, as for some of the spirit helpers of the shaman Arnaqaq. In 1922, "he had Nartaq, the pregnant one, who helped him in many different ways. Issituq's speciality was finding people who had broken rules. Naualiaq, the hair woman with only one arm, helped in procuring land animals." There are many taboos in Inuk culture, and so, there was an important connection between the transgression of a taboo and sickness. If one transgressed a taboo, they would almost always become ill and they would have to seek help from the shaman. Shamans were often seen as doctors, they were considered serious. The patent would be given certain restrictions to follow and they would have to tell the truth about their transgression if they would want to get better, because if they didn't, no one, not even the shaman could heal them. There were two different kinds of shamans, the good ones, who would help others and would not seek admiration and the evil ones, who would jealously keep their powers for themselves.

Thirdly, according to Martha Tunnuq, when someone was sick, the family would give a gift to the shaman, something that was valuable in their eyes, the shaman would then offer the gift to his helping spirit. Usually the sick person would then get better. It was very important to respect the taboos if one did not want to get sick, because the spirits were easily offended and ready to strike.

Fourthly, Death and burial rituals were also an important part of Inuk culture. Elders would often encourage their people to mourn and express their grief aloud, instead of keeping it in and trying to act brave in public. There was a saying that "if one hides his feelings, one's eyesight might get bad of it might cause mental disorders." They believed that after death, the soul lingers around its body for a few days, before passing on to the other side. This is the five day mourning period, in which people had to avoid offending the soul by following a few rules. During this period the soul is unstable and could attack at any moment if offended. There would be weapons kept close, among the Paallirmiut, during this time in case one encountered an evil spirit. When someone died, their body would be kept in the house or tent were they died for the night; "it would be wrapped in skins and placed on the back of a sleeping platform." The day after, the body would have to leave the house and it would be carried out the back door, on a new skin, to the grave. It was said that if the body came out the front door, that animals would stay away from hunters and that the hunters would starve. They would visit the grave morning and evening for the entire mourning period and they would cry out: "we call to the dead to make him return again though we know he cannot hear." Often the people who handled the body were required to throw away their clothes. Sometimes a person dying would have requests for after his or her death, and so, family and friends had to respect those final wishes.

In conclusion, there are many rituals in native culture, such as shamanism and death and burial. Books such as Uqalurait An Oral History of Nunavut, allows readers to discover this culture and these interesting rituals that would otherwise still be unknown to them. It opens the reader's eyes on the fact that there are many other beliefs in this world other than our own.


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