'Riddle me this'
Anyone spending enough time in talking to Inuit elders eventually realizes
that doing so is tricky. If you are patient and respectful, you will find
that part of an elder's charm is that he or she rarely gives a straight
answer. If you are impatient and disrespectful, you will be annoyed by that
very same quality.
One of the things to understand is that a true elder (not merely an old
person, but one of special wisdom and experience) possesses a mind steeped
in "classic" Inuktitut thought-patterns. While modern Inuktitut has been
heavily influenced by English, so that it has begun to express itself in
Qallunaatitut (i.e., non-Inuit) ways of thinking, classic Inuktitut derives
from a pre-colonial mindset. This means that when an elder talks, he or she
typically proceeds from old, even ancient, cultural assumptions.
One of the most important of these is that you do not advise the elder; the
elder advises you. Another is that you are not to guess at an elder's mind.
Guessing at someone's opinion might, at first, seem like a way to prove
mutual understanding; but in classic Inuktitut, it is utter rudeness. In
Inuktitut, someone's mind is their only true property. Only the owner may
comment on it. The older the mind, the more this is so.
The worst thing one can do, in the presence of an elder, is to comment on
their thoughts or opinions. Such a thing is considered no less than a
challenge to the integrity of their private mind, their isuma. The
traditional way for an elder to deal with this is to play the trickster, to
weave patterns of contradiction. Ironically, I might be contradicted by an
elder who reads this essay, since the act of scrutinizing elders is in
itself rude (but essay writing demands a Qallunaatitut mode of expression,
so it's the only way to set things down). Contradiction -- playing the
trickster -- is the old Inuktitut way of maintaining the integrity of one's
isuma. It is meant to puzzle and confuse.
In being an interpreter, my experience with non-Inuit who meet elders (and
sometimes younger Inuit unused to elders) is that they expect pearls of
wisdom to drop from every elder's mouth -- and quickly. They expect the
elders who are depicted in movies: direct and verbal. Too often, they blow
it by trying to "identify" with the elder, trying to impress them with how
much they already know. This, of course, automatically puts the elder into
Even more often, individuals are left discomforted by an elder's prolonged
silence, or cryptic references that seemingly have nothing to do with the
"topic" at hand. Sometimes, it seems like the elder tosses out nothing but
riddles. They take control of the clock, and are anything but direct.
English is a time-sensitive language, derived from the cultural traditions
of densely populated areas, where time has become a precious resource over
the centuries. Today, more than ever, English speakers must obey strict
time limits, whether for the sake of formality or simple politeness.
Among Inuit, there was much more time available in the old days, so that
someone whose opinion was asked had the right to speak at will --
especially if that someone was an elder. But these are not the old days,
and many elders, now faced with time constraints upon their opinions,
simply opt for silence. An instant contradiction is set by asking an elder
to express their opinion within an hour. To many elders, being asked to
time their opinion is tantamount to a violation of isuma, so that they
simply refuse to speak at all. Tragically, much traditional knowledge dies
in this way.
It is important to remember that elders communicate in a kind of
"elderspeak." To the unwise (or impatient, or disrespectful), they will
always seem silly and whimsical. Their stories may at first seem rambling,
nonsensical. This is not eccentricity, but their way of teaching. But
Qallunaatitut used to use a similar way, known as "riddling."
While today we think of riddles as something to make children giggle, there
was a time in tribal Europe when they were a valuable learning tool,
serving to jar the brain into lateral thought. They encouraged imagination
(which Albert Einstein called more important than intelligence), non-linear
thinking and, most importantly, culture. The hints to the solution of a
given riddle were often symbols relevant to its culture, such as a style of
clothing or domestic activity. Riddles were once a fundamental part of the
Qallunaatitut oral tradition, and the wisdom of individuals was marked by
the number of riddles they knew.
Riddling and "elderspeak" are related by way of their teasing method of
inviting a listener's mind to untangle what it is hearing. Either invites
the listener to draw their own conclusions from the lesson, a highly
personalized way of learning, nurturing the kind of creative and fluid
thinking necessary for survival. It was meant to beat back the sort of
rigid, lazy thinking that afflicts the impatient, modern minds of today.
So if Inuit are known for their adaptability, why can't elders adapt to
modern communication? The answer lies in the very nature of an elder's
expertise. Elders are experts on one thing: life. They represent a peculiar
combination of life experience and acute awareness of that experience.
Their magic lies in the way they talk, the way they teach. Put a cap on an
elder's time and you will not hear the hidden music they create as they
speak, the things to be learned from tales of their suffering and triumphs,
the hardships they have endured upon the land, and their intense love of
Unless you let them speak at will, you will never quite see the tears of
that which they once hoped for, nor will you come to see the sudden
youthful flash in their eyes as they recount a blessed moment. Your life
will be no different, because you will have taken in nothing of theirs.
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.