Inuit: Survival Stories
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Inuit: Survival Stories
The Inuit in the north were the last of the aboriginal peoples to arrive in North America, coming by sea from Siberia around 2,000 BC, long after the land bridge had disappeared. They settled in a place where the struggle to survive was paramount.

Living in small societies built around a few families, they moved with the seasons to hunt seals, polar bears, walruses and beluga whales on the coast and caribou and musk ox on the tundra. The continual struggle for survival is reflected in an Inuit story about a woman who had lost her husband:
Polar bear near Clyde River, Nunavut (As seen in Canada: A People's History)
Polar bear near Clyde River, Nunavut (As seen in Canada: A People's History)

"The woman, who was depending on charity, had become a burden of which they wished to rid themselves. So they put all her belongings into the sealskin boat and when they were on their way they seized the woman and cast her overboard. She struggled to regain the side of the boat and when she seized it they cut off her fingers.

"The woman, in her despair, screamed her determination to have revenge... the thumb became a walrus, the first finger a seal and the middle finger a white bear. When the former two animals see a man they try and escape, lest they be served as the woman was.
The Inuit hunted seals, polar bears, walruses and beluga whales on the coast and caribou and musk ox on the tundra. (Scene from Canada: A People's History, shot in Back River, Nunavut)
The Inuit hunted seals, polar bears, walruses and beluga whales on the coast and caribou and musk ox on the tundra. (Scene from Canada: A People's History, shot in Back River, Nunavut)

The white bear lives both on the land and on the sea, and when he perceives a man revengeful feelings fill him and he determines to destroy the person, who he thinks mutilated the woman from whose fingers he sprang."

Like many stories, this tale has several versions. In another telling, it is a father killing a daughter who is clinging to the side of the boat. He cuts off her fingers, but she manages to hang on. He cuts off her hands, but she still clings. He finally cuts off her arms and she drifts away, offering a curse and her severed limbs form various animals.
Inuit men sing to the accompaniment of tambourine-like drums. (Scene from Canada: A People's History, shot in Baker Lake)
Inuit men sing to the accompaniment of tambourine-like drums. (Scene from Canada: A People's History, shot in Baker Lake)

The Inuit oral history is particularly bloody, filled with stories of accident and starvation and also stories of ingenuity and will to survive. There is a fable of one old man who was left in an igloo with two dogs and little else as his family moved on, but he wasn't ready to die just yet. As the story goes, he defecated outside, let it freeze and made it into a knife.

He killed one dog, used the meat to feed the other dog and himself. Then he used the bones and the guts to make a sled and a harness and from the skin he made a coat. He hitched the remaining dog to the sled and rode off to rejoin his family.

The Inuit adapted to one of the sparsest eco-systems on earth and their connection to land and wildlife was intensely visceral. They wore caribou skins for warmth and were able to create everything they needed from bone, ivory, antler, or the limitless expanse of snow, from which they constructed houses.

Even their hunting tools came from the animals they killed -- fashioning bows from musk-ox ribs and knives from caribou antlers. In summer, the men danced under the pale night sky, banging a tambourine-like drum, singing a song of themselves, recounting their triumphant personal history.

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