To the Inuit, the native peoples of this land, the Arctic animals meant life. Just like other predators, they had to live in balance with their prey or it compromised their own lives. If their hunts were too successful and the animals upon which they depended for food declined, then the Inuit people starved and died until the balance between the hunters and the hunted was restored. Before the white man came, said scientist Ian McTaggart Cowan, “The native people were a dynamic element in the balanced ecosystem.”
This total dependence upon the Arctic animals for survival molded the Inuit’s mental world in ways similar to the ideas formed by Europe’s ice-age hunters. They imbued all animals with souls and felt linked to them by mystic ties of kinship. This animal mystique pervaded their thoughts and dreams, their myths and legends, their actions and their art. They saw animals in the stars and constellations. The Big Dipper was Tuktu, the caribou; the Pleiades were the ‘little foxes,’ and the Milky Way was made by the ‘tracks of the great raven.’ They hoped that wearing animal amulets would give them the natural attributes of these creatures. For example, an Inuit male might wear a wolf’s paw in order to become a great hunter, as enduring and hardy as the wolf; a ptarmigan leg helped the wearer to blend into the landscape like this cryptically colored bird; and a bit of ermine fur encouraged speed and agility.
Man did not have pre-eminence over animals, nor did he belong to a separate realm. As the Inuit Nalungiug of the Netsilingmiut explained to an ethnologist in 1924, “In the very earliest time…a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals, and there was no difference. All spoke the same language.” This belief is reflected in many legends.
In one story, Kiviuq, the mythical hero of many Inuit tales, saw a lovely fox that shed her skin and laid it upon a rock to dry. When the vixen entered her den, Kiviuq stole the skin. The fox returned, saw that the man had taken her skin, and pleaded with him to return it. “Only if you marry me,” said Kiviuq. The vixen agreed, received her skin, and they married and lived, presumably, happily ever after.
The theme of this story is universal and archetypal; it occurs in thousands of legends and fables around the world that tell of werewolves, or of maidens who changed into swans, as in the story of Swan Lake. It may hearken back to an age when all humans were primarily hunters who identified closely with the animals that gave them life. Until quite recently, many Scottish fishermen regarded gray seals with superstitious dread, for they believed the ancient tales that they were really selchies – men and maids turned by enchantment into seals; the Scots called them ‘the folk of the sea.’
Since the Inuit believed that animals had souls and regarded them, to some extent, as brothers, an obvious ethical problem arose when they had to kill them in order to eat. The people were quite aware of this quandary. “Life’s greatest danger lies in the fact that man’s food consists entirely of souls,” an Igloolik Inuit told ethnologist Knud Rasmussen. “We fear the souls…of the animals we have killed.” The Inuit tried to circumvent this problem with the twin concepts of reincarnation and respect.
After death, Inuit believed that animals were reborn. If the hunter treated an animal with the utmost respect at the time of death, it was believed that the animal would allow itself to be killed again in its next incarnation. As a result of such beliefs, a multitude of rites and taboos had to be observed in order to propitiate the souls of dead animals. Whales and seals, when hauled from the sea, were thought to be thirsty, so water was poured into their mouths. Ekalun, an old Inuk of Bathurst Inlet, never failed to thank a seal profusely for permitting itself to be killed, and thus providing him with food. And when hunting was unsuccessful, the Inuit consulted the angakkut, their shamans, to discover in which way they might have offended the animals.
Out of such beliefs grew a certain ethic and harmony, and many eminently sensible rules resulted. Wasteful hunting was regarded as sinful, for an animal’s soul would be deeply offended if its body was not used as food. It was also taboo to hunt walruses on ooglit, their hauling out islands, for if they were disturbed there too often, they might leave for regions unknown. It was forbidden to camp on pikyoolak, the places where eider ducks nested, for then the brooding ducks might depart and there would be no harvest of eider eggs in future years.
Then came the whalers who killed for gain and used only the valuable baleen, leaving the giant carcass to rot; the traders who killed only for furs; the missionaries who scoffed at shamans and taboos; and the guns that made hunting infinitely easier. Alien values and ways instantly superseded all the ancient beliefs. “Now that we have firearms, it is almost as if we no longer need shamans and taboo,” said Ikinilik of the Utkuhikhalingmiut in 1924.
With the dissolution of the intense spiritual ties that once bound man to the animals of the North, an ancient way of life ceased. Many older Inuit mourn its passing. Reminiscing about the changes he had seen, Koonoo Muckpaloo of Arctic Bay on northern Baffin Island said in 1975, “It seems it was such a short time ago that we were still living in our own way, and today when you look around, it is all dying out…For myself, I am sad that the Eskimo way has gone.”