Inuit shamanism and the code of silence
Since the time when explorers first began to poke around the Arctic, and
especially into Inuit culture, they have consistently exhibited a
fascination with shamanism. Even today, shamanism-related questions are
those most frequently posed. Today, especially, urbanites crave simpler
spiritual answers than many organized religions are willing to provide.
They often look to the cosmological systems of peoples closer to the earth,
seeking something exotic, harmonizing, elitist - perhaps even a "genuine"
source of magical power.
Unfortunately for such seekers, shamanism is the one topic Inuit
traditionally do not talk about. The tendency of Inuit to avoid the subject
has been a source of frustration to ethnologists since the 1920s. Some
literature on the practices of angakkuit (shamans) has been collected, but
it is far from complete, and most ethnologists are quick to bemoan the
difficulty in getting any information at all. Still, the reticence of Inuit
to discuss it has only served to make it more alluring. But why are Inuit
so quiet about practices that, supposedly, served as the basis for their
very cosmology and religion? After all, Christians are not shy to talk
about Biblical miracles.
Firstly, the modern mistake has been in assuming that shamanism was
religious at all. In truth, it was a jealously guarded ability, a
supernatural specialization that only suitably talented individuals could
learn. The way Inuit viewed their relationship to the "hidden" world
remained independent of such practices, so that shamanism did not dictate
Inuit cosmology, but only drew inspiration from it. Angakkuit (plural of
angakoq, or shaman) have mistakenly been portrayed as priests. But they
were more like tradesmen, specializing in the secret and dangerous powers
of the world.
In ancient Inuit thinking, will is the wellspring of action, the means by
which all things occur. The combination of intent and expression could warp
reality to make it reflect the mind of an individual. That which was
concrete, or corporeal, was most difficult to influence, while that which
was ethereal (such as spirit) was more fluid and could be influenced with
an errant thought or word. For this reason, an Inuk was very careful not to
speak of angakkuit practices - and thus of the unseen powers dealt with by
angakkuit - lest idle chatter attract such forces and bring their possibly
malign influence to bear.
These days, Inuit elders are becoming less reticent to discuss shamanism.
Perhaps they feel increasingly alarmed as they see their traditions eroding
before their eyes, inspiring a sort of desperation, a hitherto nonexistent
willingness to break the code of silence. It is better, some elders seem to
feel, to talk about a secret tradition rather than lose it altogether.
This is a good idea, since it is always better to see a tradition through
the eyes of those who remember it best rather than giving it time to become
misrepresented. Since shamanism possesses a certain allure for the facile
and power-hungry, there are an ever-increasing number of people popping up
with home-brewed versions of shamanism - always a misrepresented mishmash
of Inuit cosmology, American Indian traditions, Judeo-Christian thought and
the usual smattering of New Age ideas.
Such re-invention of shamanism is, frankly, dangerous. The practices of
angakkuit comprise a vital aspect of Inuit folklore, and many of us don't
realize the importance of folklore until we actually lose it. Folklore is
like the air - such a pervasive influence in our lives that we fail to
notice it until it is gone. Just as a human needs air, so does a culture
need folklore, which acts as an invisible social glue. Not only does any
culture tend to disintegrate when deprived of its folkloric traditions, but
a drastic shift in folkloric perspective can spawn very real cultural
Between the 15th - 17th centuries, Europe was consumed by witch hysteria.
And while much of the persecution of "witches" was financially motivated
(so that church and state could seize the accused's assets), it was enabled
by perverse interpretations of local folklore. Folklore, re-invented,
became an excuse to kill. Midwives, who had practiced herbalism since time
immemorial, were suddenly accused of concocting "witch's brews." Community
folk dances suddenly were interpreted as "Black Sabbaths." An ancient luck
symbol inscribed on a door was surely a mark of the devil.
In October of 1999, Indonesian police arrested 22 villagers who had slain
"shamans" suspected of killing by magic.
In sub-Saharan Africa, "witchhunting" occurs in seasonal cycles. Villagers
faced with dissolution of their Native cultures are convinced by wandering
"witchhunters" to seek signs of witches, after which they grab whoever is
least popular in the village, execute them brutally and pay the
Such horrors illustrate the sort of extreme behaviors sometimes occurring
in societies that have broken with their folklore, that have re-invented
their traditions in a negative way. And while ours seems like a society too
stable for such catastrophes, the loss - or worse, misrepresentation - of
proper tradition is still a threat. This is because the rapid erosion of
folklore invites its reinvention: it invites unscrupulous individuals to
pervert older beliefs in order to serve their own agendas. How many times
has folklore been reinterpreted, even by missionaries in the North, to
serve the ends of theocrats? How many times has it been re-invented to
serve as a weapon of assimilation?
With this in mind, the coming forth of elders to discuss actual shamanism
becomes all the more vital to the health of Inuit culture. While oftentimes
distasteful, the presence of angakkuit was indisputably one of the
strongest influences upon pre-colonial Inuit culture. It is by
comprehending what Inuit ancestors thought and felt that they are lent the
sort of remembrance and virtual immortality they deserve. Thus does the
culture have a firm base upon which to stand.
For Inuit can no longer count upon their isolation in the North to define
them as a culture. It is only through living generations acting as
custodians of past knowledge - speaking the unspeakable - that Inuit
culture can remain as strong as it remembers being.
Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25
years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern
world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.