Thursday, July 16, 2009


This week I had the good fortune to meet my first native Inuit. What a fine, amiable, gentleman he is. His name is Curtis. My nephew Corey taught school in Curtis' home village of Nuiksut, Alaska. On the north slope between Barrow and Prudoe Bay, Nuiksut is about as remote as it gets. You might conclude that folks from so far away with such a unique culture would be back woodsy in some way. Not so with Curtis.

I have long admired the Inuit. Curtis kindly taught me that "Eskimo" is pretty much the E word these days. Hearty, independent, friendly, resourceful are all appropriate descriptions for a people who live in one of the harshest environments on the planet. To get an idea of what I mean, you might take a look at an old film recorded in the 1920's called Nanuk of the North.

If you watch the film you'll note that despite unforgiving conditions Nanuk and his family were joyful, optimistic and courageous, not just some of the time, but day in and day out, month after month, year after year. The film depicts Nanuk taking his whole family and a dozen dogs onto the ice for the entire winter. Nanuk had to feed all of those mouths on a daily basis. He also had to provide shelter and move to a new location virtually every day. A life that seems unthinkable to me. This culture and way of life is so utterly foreign to me that it might as well have taken place on another planet.

A few things struck me hard. First, despite what I would consider too hard for existence, they were obviously happy, warm hearted, uncomplaining and joyful. Second as different as their life style was, there remained more similarities, between those people and we people, than differences. An example came as Nanuk was finishing an igloo. The family had gone inside for the shelter. As Nanuk was putting on the finishing touches, his wife came out and a discussion ensued. He seemed a bit put out; she seemed very insistent. Finally, Nanuk shrugged, smiled and set about cutting a block of clear ice which he replaced for a block of snow in the igloo wall. She had wanted a window.

The Inuit place markers across the tundra for direction in a land with few and shifting landmarks. They stack stones in the shape of a man to be their guide to shelter, food and of course home. I learned about Inuksuit (pl) on our trip to Newfoundland. They are a reminder of my need for others to show me the way. We don't get through life on our own. We need the wisdom, experience and pioneering of others to help us along.

Meeting Curtis, was to me, a chance to pay respect to a great people of courage and determination, who know how to live simply and elegantly in a harsh world. The intrusion of the modern cultures into their lives has been tough on the Inuit as is has on most all native cultures. Some have lost their way in a world too fast, cluttered, materialistic and cold. Curtis doesn't seem lost at all. He is marching into a wider wilderness, with the same cheer, courage, optimism and confidence that Nanuk did not so very long ago.

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