War: Part Six


The extent to which European-descended colonists influenced Inuit warfare is unknown, although it seems that firearms afforded Inuit a more efficient means of feuding. Already preferring a range of weapons, a vengeful individual must have thought a gun to be a dream come true — until his enemy came to own one.

The cycle of firearms influence upon Inuit culture is ironic: spurring Inuit feuding, assisting rebellion against colonial injustice, then finally representing a means by which Inuit were subjugated. A

laskans, for example, feuded constantly, and were seasoned raiders. With the acquisition of firearms through trade with Russian promyshlenniki, Russian sea-otter furriers, raids temporarily increased in lethality. It was not long, however, before Inuit began to focus their wrath upon the promyshlenniki themselves, who increasingly began to raid Inuit camps for slaves in their seasonal otter hunts. Inuit resistance was hastened by confidence in their new weapons.

Such resistance was quickly quashed, however, by the superior firepower of the furriers. William S. Laughlin (Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge, 1980:129) notes that in the 1760's, a Russian named Soloviev made a show of force by lining up a dozen Inuit to see how many a single musket shot could kill. Nine were slain.

Similar conflicts seem to have erupted across the upper half of the continent at one time or another. There are 19th century Copper Inuit tales of raids by "white men." While the Inuit men are away hunting, the camp is raided by "whites", who butcher everyone except for some hidden children.

Returning, the hunters track down the murderers and kill them. Interestingly, the tales are strikingly similar to even earlier tales of Indian raids, or raids by other Inuit bands. This tale type seems to be an Inuit folkloric template, where the latest enemy can be inserted to suit the current culture.

Above all, the east seems to have remained the most peaceful. While horrible family feuds were common, there are no known tales of organized conflict between Inuit and colonists. The acquisition of firearms, however, does seem to mark an upswing in the number of vendetta killings.

In the early days of RCMP activity in the north, there arose numerous cases where legal difficulties were presented by such vendetta killings. Once the RCMP became obliged to enforce Canadian law upon Inuit, the formerly allowable activity of murderous vengeance suddenly became illegal. RCMP officers found themselves arresting Inuit who casually shot their enemies.

Courts found themselves trying defendants who could not comprehend that they had done anything wrong. Further difficulties arose with individuals refusing to be tigujau - or "grabbed," as it was known - for exercising their "rights."

It is to the credit of the RCMP that, as far as the enforcement of colonial law goes, they have been comparatively gentle. From their earliest days as the Northwest Mounted Police, their level-headed and non-violent conflict resolution has ingratiated them to most Canadian aboriginal peoples, including Inuit.

Eastern Inuit are fortunate to have been dealing with the temperate RCMP, rather than the more brutal colonial powers that have savaged other cultures. It is the challenge of today's RCMP to maintain this record, which includes the abolition of organized revenge among Inuit peoples.

It is this author's opinion that, as important as tradition may be, there are some traditions that Inuit can live without. Inuit now live alongside cultures whose traditions of war and conflict make their own seem minute by comparison.

The cultures that have lately colonized the Land have known escalations of violence to horrific levels, levels that Inuit might just as easily have achieved, if not for intervening factors. By now, some colonial cultures have become skilled at maintaining peace in a large society, but they have paid dearly for such knowledge with monstrous wars.

And as much as Inuit have suffered under colonization, there are some lessons that Inuit culture has learned for free. Inuit may be thankful that they know relative justice, that they no longer have to fashion weapons to repel raiders, that they no longer have to waste lives in ever-escalating feuds.

To what degree can violence escalate? Inuit, while knowing the bloodshed that all humanity is heir to, have never had to learn the dreaded answer that other cultures have found: there is no end.



February 4, 2000

War: Part Five


In the last article, I had provided an example of a retaliatory attack by one camp upon another — murder inciting murder — that was all-too-common among Inuit in the old days. In that attack, the so-called "Greens" were slaughtered by the vengeful "Reds."

It was implied that the Greens lost for a reason, that reason being that they did not possess "people-killing" weapons, as did the Reds.

Weaponry is a normal part of Inuit life. Even today, many Inuit rely upon hunting big game, for which highly damaging weapons are required. If you want to eat a large animal, you must not only be able to hunt it down, but also possess the means to kill it.

In old times, life was utterly dependent upon a successful kill. A hunter could not afford to let his prey escape. An animal that was not killed almost instantly would flood its system with adrenaline, becoming immune to pain. Such an animal could escape or, even worse, turn upon the hunter and end his life.

Inept hunters were soon dead, leaving behind only those bright enough to refine their hunting technology. This form of natural selection soon left behind cultures that crafted weapons causing maximal tissue damage. Added to this natural lethality eventually came the addition of specialized features intended to harm humans.

Barbed instruments, arrows or spears, were the favourites across the north. Arrows were preferable for their range. While heavy barbing was not necessary in most animal-killing weapons, it was known that a human's natural tendency, if hit by an arrow, would be to pull it out. The barbs of the arrow would cause as much damage coming out as from the initial wound itself. Assuming one survived the arrow, it yet might kill by causing great blood loss. Finally, upon releasing the arrow from the bow, the spin of the projectile would cause the barbs to turn, tearing their way into a wound. Out or in, the arrow would cause lethal damage.

The use of barbs was not unique to Inuit, but has arisen in many diverse ancient cultures. The Saxons, for example, were fond of their barbed angvar spears, while the Irish hero Cuchulainn wielded a barbed, maiming spear known as the gae bolg. It seems that barbs are a simple and popular device.

Alaskans were by far the most sophisticated of Inuit in their battle technology. Their retaliatory raids were large and constant. One of the most effective killing technologies they had developed was poison, originally intended for hunting whales - but just as effective against humans. Poison-tipped darts were hurled from sophisticated throwing boards which were, in design, not unlike the atl-atl used by the aboriginal peoples of Central and South America.

Many such weapons were made deadlier by the use of copper and iron tips (the origin of the iron is still in dispute; it is not known whether this was an indigenous technology that was later lost, or perhaps acquired from wayward Japanese fishing boats). With such dangerous weapons in use, it was not long before Alaskan Inuit began to armour themselves. Their clothes were hardened with applications of seal blood and resin, and there is some evidence of lamellar breastplates having been fashioned from ivory and bone. The wooden hats worn by Aleutian men were very likely intended as helmets.

Many Alaskan peoples even built permanent houses, set several feet into the ground, camouflaged by long grass, and containing secret compartments wherein women and children could hide from raiders. The ultimate weapon of such peoples inevitably became their dogs. Unlike the qimmiit of the east, which were bred for endurance and normally not considered "pets", the Alaskans developed the Malamute - a massive, incredibly strong husky, deliberately cross-bred with wolves.

The Malamute, whose name is an anglicised distortion of Malemiut (the Inuit who originated the breed), was intended to live as one with the family, guarding it against raiders and remaining loyal unto death. Interestingly, this might qualify it as a "war dog" - a dog bred to fight humans - not unlike the medieval German Rottweiler. A living weapon, it is gentle to its friends, and deadly to its enemies - as is the function of any such tool.

It leads one to wonder, of course, what Inuit might have developed before they were handed firearms.

(Continued next week.)


January 28, 2000

War: Part Four


Where warfare occurred among Inuit, it represents an escalation of murderous reprisals, an alternating series of vendetta killings, each side displaying more savagery and ferocity in response to the latest attack by the other.

The murder - even accidental killing - of a loved one was thought by many Inuit peoples to be a just reason to demand vengeance. It was the avenger's right and duty.

Make no mistake, however. The family of the victim, the males of which were invariably the avengers, would seek vengeance with or without the larger society's approval. Having no actual laws, but instead a series of traditions and taboos, the recognition of an avenger's right to avenge his dead relative was more like a sort of societal nod than an actual way of enforcing law.

The society itself - as an institution - would not move to avenge the dead, but neither would any of its members interfere if relatives "justly" insisted upon retribution. The vengeful impulse was, in such a situation, considered to be a natural one.

I personally remember the time when my "Big Sleeve" (a kind of cultural partner, of which I've written in past articles) experienced the death of his son. He was overwrought with grief, naturally, although the death was a completely accidental one. The son had been shot by a friend.

Even though my Big Sleeve knew that the friend had not killed his son intentionally, he was - for a time - extremely tempted to kill the friend. His tendency to want to exorcise his grief through vengeance was aggravated by the fact that, by Inuit tradition, such was his right.

Additionally, his desire was considered by others to be understandable rather than abominable. Among his people, this was known as akigiaq, "to win back" - meaning the right to win back the piece of himself that had been taken from him with the death of his son.

To his credit, my Big Sleeve realized that he was merely blinded by grief, and thus chose not to exercise his right.

Nevertheless, akigiaq was very common in old times. The death of one individual, intentional or not, demanded immediate reprisal. P would kill Q. Q's family would avenge him by killing P, and perhaps a couple of P's relatives for good measure.

P's family would avenge these murders by forming a party to slaughter even more of Q's family. Q's family would retaliate by attempting to completely wipe out P's family. And et cetera.

Geert Van Den Steenhoven recorded a good example, which I'll relate below without use of specific names and locations. I don't want individuals today to feel accountable for the actions of their ancestors.

Once there was the "Red" group, whose members included U. There was also the "Green" group, whose headman was X.

A feud began with the murder of Y by some of X's Green people. The family of Y was determined to avenge his death. Armed with bows (with which they were quite skilled), the Red revenge party soon reached X's hunting grounds. One of X's sons spotted them and ran off to warn X and the Greens of the approaching Red party.

X realized the carnage that was about to result, and sent his sons far away to safety. X hid himself away. When the Red group approached, they began to insist that X and his Green allies take up their fighting weapons (of different manufacture than hunting implements), and face them.

Those among the Green group, especially the women, tried to defuse the situation by insisting that X and the other Greens did not want to fight. Nevertheless, the Reds insisted until X (who did not possess any fighting weapons) took up his hunting gear. He and some other Greens eventually assembled to face the Reds. Some of the Greens even recognized in-laws among the Reds, but this did nothing to abate the Reds' fury.

The Reds massacred the Greens. Dying, X admonished the Reds, claiming that the Red reaction was extremist - that they had slaughtered more men than was their due.

The Reds remained unmoved, in return pointing out to X that the Greens had originally overwhelmed poor Y ten to one.

X seemed to agree with this, and his dying wish was that Y's widow be repaid in precious iron objects.

(Continued next week.)

January 21, 2000

War: Part Three


Any Inuit escalation to the level of organized violence has always been humble in beginnings, originating with one motive: revenge.

The most common cause for revenge was being made to feel insignificant. Personal ego was of extreme importance to traditional Inuit, which in part explains the strong respect dynamic in Inuit culture. The recognition of one's isuma - personal and untouchable thoughts and opinions - was of paramount importance.

Additionally, Inuit worthiness was always relative to personal competence, with one's worth directly measured by one's ability to survive, and the ability to survive measured by one's skills.

With these facts in mind, it becomes easier to understand why even the slightest attack upon one's ego was considered tantamount to physical maiming, and cause for bloody retribution. The most common slight occurred not in the form of verbal abuse, but instead in the form of actions that diminished another's significance. A hunter, for example, might flaunt his superior knowledge, a bold attack upon other hunters' egos.

Even in Inuit culture today, there remains a tradition of playing down one's own skills in public, saying for example, "Ah, I'm no good." This derives not from true humility, but rather from a tradition of preserving oneself from the retribution of others.

In traditional culture, one had to constantly take care not to accidentally offend others by openly parading one's ego. The dynamic has been mistakenly labelled as "envy" by observers, but it is actually one of assault and revenge.

Where care has not been taken to avoid this dynamic, the results have often been bloody, setting the stage for ongoing feuds. Thus has Inuit culture established a system where relative peace is maintained through the observation of tradition — a sort of balance where every individual's isuma is respected, yet no individual is to be considered "greater" than another, lest all hell break loose.

Nevertheless, this was not a perfect system, for in a culture where no one was allowed to dictate the behaviour of another, it also became impossible to prevent conflict between two individuals who insisted upon antagonizing each other. Since Inuit culture is traditionally quite sensitive to the feelings that kindle an act of violence, rather than focusing upon the act itself, Inuit societies tended to recognize that controlled expression of ill feelings had the best chance of exorcising violent tendencies from people.

For this reason, many Inuit societies developed safe forums, such as song duels or punching contests, where the aggressors could publicly express their pent-up feelings towards one another, and thus achieve a kind of catharsis.

Such devices denote an understanding among traditional societies of just how delicate the balance of peace could be, of how hard a society might work to keep the peace within a small group. And it is interesting to note just how easily this balance is disrupted by rapid change, such as the presence of southern observers.

Observers - through no fault of their own - naturally tended to praise the skills of a given hunter that they had come to focus their studies upon. By attaching themselves to a specific Inuk, making him the "star of the show", so to speak, they had inadvertently caused others in the group to feel small, and thus had made their "star" a target.

Asen Balikci, for example, tells with bewilderment of a sudden conflict between two fishermen who had always been good friends. Fisherman A had formerly been studied and filmed as the "exemplary" Inuit hunter, while his friend B had not.

While fishing, A stopped to cut up two fish for them to eat, one from his own catch, the other from B's. B mistakenly thought that both fish were from his own catch, and angrily rebuked A, who treated the whole matter as a joke.

Suddenly, B attacked A, so that a third nearby fisherman had to step in and separate the two men. This is a clear case of ill feelings derived from the placement of one individual above others, thus upsetting the cultural balance of ego.

Yet there was not always a third person to step in and separate two aggressors, so that the ultimate result was murder - an event that often sparked a conflagration of vengeance killings between families, at times escalating without limit. While revenge precipitated murder, murder precipitated warfare.

(Continued next week.)

January 14, 2000

War: Part Two


Where conflict occurred among Inuit, it mainly originated with passion.

The Inuit exterior, one of respectful quietude, might, over time give non-Inuit observers the idea that Inuit are entirely non-violent. Seeing the lack of public displays of aggression, a lack of fist-fighting or open combat, for example, observers might get the idea that Inuit have always found ways to get along with each other peacefully.

This illusion, where it occurs, belies the reality of human nature: violence will always find expression in one form or another.

Traditionally, Inuit violence has typically been internalized, like most of the Inuit passions. In an unforgiving environment, it has been of benefit to learn how to suppress individual emotions in the face of larger concerns — for example, famine, storms, cold, and so on.

It is not that Inuit were unemotional, but rather that they had decided for themselves when it was appropriate to express certain emotions - such as in the safety of the home, for example.

Due to necessity, emotional displays became selective, often finding unconscious expression in dances, gaming, and song. Because survival was a constant challenge, the group could not afford to let an individual's random displays of emotion disrupt their lifestyle.

Aggressive displays, in particular, were reviled by Inuit as a sign of madness, chaos that could not be tolerated. Invariably, such displays were not worth one's trouble, since they could cause a person to be ostracized, and perhaps even physically removed from the group.

Yet the emotions themselves remained, and often popped out at the strangest times. Non-Inuit observers, given enough time, have nearly all recorded a similar phenomenon: Inuit at first seem stolid, highly disciplined, and unaffected by any emotion whatsoever. Faced with a crisis or failure, the response - so popularly recorded by explorers as being typical of Inuit - is invariably the traditional expression, "It can't be helped."

Yet, just as the explorer resigns himself to what he perceives as Inuit stoicism, he is shocked to witness or hear of an Inuk exploding into sudden violence.

Geert Van Den Steenhoven, for example, has related in Legal Concepts Among the Netsilik Eskimos of Pelly Bay, N.W.T. a story that was told to him as follows (1959:73):

I. traveled on Kellett River together with A., S., and some others, who on their sleds had been visiting their caches. The weather was beautiful and we walked to and from each other's sleds, while the sleds were moving all the time. A. was seated on the back of S.'s sled and the latter sat in front of him. A. was eating a fish. I was driving my sled behind his. One moment when S. was turning towards his dogs or so, I saw A. suddenly make a lightning stab with his knife at S.'s back — a would-be stab, to be sure. Then he immediately looked around himself. But I looked already in another direction. S. is the son of I. And it was known that A. and I. did not get along well. It was my impression that this stab was prompted by an altogether subconscious impulse and that A. only became aware of it after he had done it. I believe he could just as well have really stabbed S. out of these feelings of resentment.

Knud Rasmussen, during his famous Fifth Thule Expedition, encountered this phenomenon first- hand. He wrote that he had come to consider one of his Inuit guides to be a close friend, a gentle and friendly soul.

He was surprised, then, when huddled together one evening with his guide in a snow- shelter, the guide suddenly attacked Rasmussen without warning. A struggle ensued, and Rasmussen repeatedly tried to calm the guide and remind him of their friendship, while the guide continually shrieked his disgust at Rasmussen's ego and displays of wealth.

Apparently, Rasmussen's access to southern technology, and his willingness to distribute it throughout his expedition, had gradually built up a deep envy and resentment within the guide.

The guide, however, had kept his feelings under control, so that Rasmussen had not even noticed. Finally, once he felt safe and away from public scrutiny, the guide let it all out.

It is this old Inuit tendency to repress, and thus pressurize, violent impulses that forms the basis of Inuit conflict.

Next week: Revenge.

January 7, 2000

War: Part One


As everyone knows, Inuit have always been the most gentle, peaceful people in the world. Right?

Well, as with most things, the truth regarding such a topic resides within some shade of gray. Just as there are no true absolutes in life, so there is no absolute truth to the idea that Inuit are strangers to violence, or even warfare.

The need for organized violence in any society is of course shaped by necessity, the environmental and social parameters within which varying forms of violence become options.

Violence is always in origin a "problem-solver." Whether effective or not, it is always intended to right a wrong, to address a lack — whether deemed defensive (resisting assault, theft, or invasion), acquisitive (taking food, slaves, territory, etc.), retaliatory (avenging murder, rape, vandalism, or insult), or merely as a cathartic expression of frustrated rage.

The simple fact is that Inuit, over the broad range of peoples who lived from one end of North America to the other, actually engaged in a startling amount of violence, much of which was organized. In this series of articles, I'm going to be using my own definition of war, which is essentially that of organized violence. Webster's defines war as "armed conflict between nations, tribes, or other groups," which doesn't necessarily refute my own, so I'm sticking to my guns.

Also, I'm going to cite a lot of examples of Inuit violence — tastefully, of course. The examples will derive from peoples ranging across the North. Naturally, I don't want to put a bee in anyone's bonnet by dredging up some unsavoury fact about their ancestry.

All of our ancestors — this is addressed to non-Inuit out there as well — have displayed some sort of depravity at one time or another. So, wherever possible, I intend to omit references to specific peoples, whether they be Igloolik, Netsilingmiut, Copper, or Aleutian. These articles are intended to inform and evoke thought, not to make some readers ashamed of their ancestry.

With all of that out, I'd first like to admit that you will have to look pretty hard among Inuit histories and folklore in order to find anything that obviously resembles war as it is fought today.

After all, Inuit have always been nomadic. In its most recognizable and organized form, war derives from stability. It is based upon the principles of land, territory, and cultural solidarity. It is necessarily launched from a base-point, a home ground, and most often involves the specific goals of seizing ground from an enemy, who also campaigns to do likewise from his own base.

Having had no permanent bases, and lacking even the concept of land as property to be held or defended, the culture of war took no root in any Inuit society. The very idea of territorial warfare might have been laughable to pre-colonial Inuit.

As I've pointed out before, the Land - Nuna - was always considered an environment within which animals and people resided, not as an object with distinct parts that could be divided up and actually owned. There were therefore no constant bases from which to launch campaigns, nor was there any ground to take even if there had been.

So what about resources? Again, resources — such as food or slaves — were no reasons for Inuit to go to war. Inuit tended to follow their food (caribou, for example) to wherever it was seasonally available. The caches and larders of other peoples were rarely worth stealing, since this sort of theft would invariably have taken up too much time, energy and risk for what amounted to a very small prize, especially when compared to the availability of animal prey.

Slaves, a very real reason for raiding among most cultures, were kept by Inuit only rarely. They were not highly valued, since they merely represented another mouth to feed. In the south, you can make a slave tend a crop for you, but you can't send him out hunting, since this is tantamount to setting him free.

Instead, the most common reasons for Inuit conflicts tend to derive from the most ancient and primal human characteristics, old like the culture itself: passion. In fact, the recognition of this fact by ancient Inuit offers us some clues as to why various traditions have come to exist.

We'll have a look next week.

December 23, 1999

Nativity Scene


I love to gaze at nativity scenes at this time of year. There are all varieties, all shapes and sizes, from minuscule ones that you can place on your shelf to life-size replicas all afire with splendour and radiance. Some are clay with painted faces, others white porcelain, trimmed with gold. There are collections that you can set up yourself, with as many sheep or angels as you wish. In many, Mary is depicted as adoring her new baby, while Joseph is off to the side, looking on. Wise men kneel before the rough wooden cradle, and there is a star above the whole scene.

To me, it is a symbol of what has become the drama of the Christmas message: the Christ child recognized as the coming King; God's love for mankind as he reaches out to us in our own form. And not only to us, but to all creation as well, for a variety of animals are present, surrounding the cradle in the manger as witnesses to this marvellous event. There are choirs of angels in the starry sky. There are rejoicing shepherds.

I try to imagine what it must have been like to have been a lowly manger owner, kind enough to give shelter to travellers, one of whom was heavy with child. Did he also give them supper to eat? Who owned the sheep? Where did the wise men stay? Did they bring tents?

We are given an opportunity to guess at what Mary might have felt, knowing something of what lay before her, perhaps mulling it over in her heart.

How, then - as I observe our Christmas traditions today - did we stray so far from the simplicity of rejoicing in the humble beginnings of this truly grand faith? How did we go from that simple message - Good News for Mankind - to the complexity and insanity that we consistently experience at this time of year? Its transformation over two millennia is as startling as its original message.

I'm not humbugging Christmas, here. I enjoy my holiday celebration, even a bit of the commercialism, as much as everyone else. In some past years, I've even enjoyed it a teensy bit too destructively for my own good. I'm sure that many people can say the same. But I still wonder if we, in our fantastic rush to get it further, faster, better, and more fun, missed the major point of it all?

I don't even object to the mixing of other traditions, so called "pagan" elements, into the holiday season. Everyone has their way, and most of the festive stuff is tribal in origin anyway. I like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Disney cartoons, and even the endless reruns of "A Christmas Carol". On the other hand, I can do without the "Nutcracker Suite" either in skating or ballet form. Or carols sung in country 'n' western. But I still hang up my socks on Christmas Eve, and some poor soul had better fill them up. (Or I'll pout on Christmas day).

As I get older though, and have gradually become more inured to the same old societal embarrassments — poverty within one of the world's wealthiest nations, unchecked violence, the refusal to build much-needed housing, etc. — I rejoice more frequently in the simpler things of life. I guess that's why, this time of year, it's particularly significant that the star shines brightly over Bethlehem, and breaks through the darkness of night.

(As it was away in a manger, so long ago.)


December 17, 1999

Hag: Part Two of Two


Are old women really all that scary?


Well, the simple reality is that the old possess power. Whether the young want to admit it or not, an older mind holds more facts. And when the mind acquires a new fact, it isn't merely added to a sum. It is combined with the facts before it, spawning an infinite number of new ideas. This is power.

Now, an old male is not complex. A male goes through one major transition in his physical life, which is puberty. The boy disappears. The man - husband, hunter, warrior, father - replaces him. And an old man is exactly the same as a young one, generally having the same role in society, and the same utility to it, even unto death.

An old woman is totally different. Like a male, the female passes through puberty, marked very distinctly by her first menstruation, an occurrence accompanied by no small amount of ritual across the world. Also like the male, this time marks the female's ability to have children, until recent times perceived as the major contribution of every single individual to their society - the defining factor in being human.

With age, however, the female diverges from the male, in that she eventually undergoes menopause. Menopause, or the cessation of natural procreative ability, is the second major phase in a woman's physical life.

Now, it is important to remember that although we today know a lot about the human body in advanced old age, much was unknown before the advent of modern medicine. The average lifespan, throughout most of history, was approximately 30 years.

It has always seemed to humanity that men undergo no major changes other than puberty. Long-lived women, however, have been observed to undergo menopause - a sort of procreative reversion to pre-adolescence. Think, for a moment, of how this comparatively rare phenomenon (remember, most women didn't live long enough to reach menopause) must have been perceived by early peoples.

Not only does an aged woman become haggard, grey, and wrinkly, but she also loses the ability of procreation. At the same time, however, her very age makes her a wellspring of knowledge from which a community of the young can draw. But beware: don't get on her bad side. The hag may assist her allies, but she is wily enough to undo her enemies in an instant.

She's scary.

In this sense, the hag becomes a supernatural being, exaggerated in fancy to mythic proportions, possessing a wealth of preternatural powers. In the real world, it can be this very tendency to mythologize an old woman that drives her to live at the edge of her community, perhaps even forsaking it altogether, which further compounds her folkloric image as the witch in the wilderness.

So is it any coincidence that most hag-monsters victimize children - which are a symbol of the potential of life - stealing or consuming that which they have been denied? Such monsters naturally drain the life-force from the young, for their very hag-like state has left them with a deficit in this area.

Or is it any coincidence that many folkloric hag-monsters, such as the Inuit amayersuk, possess a hollow in their bodies, into which they may abduct their victims, or by which their horrible secret nature may be identified? Such hollows are much like an inverse womb, a trait that represents the fact that, while young women may bring life forth from the depths of their bodies, the hag possesses a hollow that instead only consumes it.

Thus is fear, as usual, a matter of hysteria. And perhaps we would do well to realize why we, like the many cultures before us, fear the hag so greatly - a fear that has translated into either hatred or respect over time, but remains fear nonetheless.

And perhaps each of us had best catch ourselves before seeing the aged woman, she whose womb has become a hollow that no longer issues forth life, as a hag to be feared. Perhaps we had best assess her mind before her womb, lest we leave her with a hollow only in her heart.

For, after all, there is no point in fearing what we will become. Maybe the vision of our future selves is the most inescapable terror of all.

And given hatred or respect, let's err toward the latter.


December 10, 1999

Hag: Part One of Two


I have already written of how many Inuit groups used to fear the wrath of Nuliajuk — known to southern art collectors as "Sedna" — the fingerless, lice-ridden hag beneath the sea — mistress of marine mammals.

I was thinking of her the other day, as well as of the dreaded amayersuk, the cannibalistic crone who kidnaps children, tossing them into the great hole in her humped back.

Then I remembered the mention of monstrous hags in other folkloric traditions, and started to ask myself: what's with the hag thing? So I sat down with the books, and soon found that it was worse than I had at first suspected - human beings around the world are positively obsessed with their fears of hags.

Japan is rife with them, such as the knife-wielding, cannibalistic adachigahara, who treasures the blood of children, and ambushes wilderness travellers. Variations include the horned hannya, and the tongue-flicking nure onna. Also similar is the yama-uba, a hag whose hair transforms into serpents, catching her victims and pulling them into the opening in the top of her head.

There is the langsuir of Malayan folklore, once a woman who died in childbirth. She is marked by her long nails and hair, the latter concealing the hollow in her back. A corpse may be prevented from becoming a langsuir by placing eggs under her armpits, beads in her mouth, and needles in her hands.

There is the azeman of South America, an obsessive hag who drains the life-force of sleepers. She can be stopped by throwing down a handful of seed, which she is compelled to count.

The British Isles are worse than Japan. There is the Celtic banshee, the anglicized version of the Gaelic bean sidhe or bean sith, meaning "woman of the fairies, a crone - often attached to specific families - whose keening foretells an impending death. A variation common to Ireland and Scotland is the bean nighe, once a woman who died in childbirth, now a ghostly hag who washes bloody clothes by the river. The sight of one is an omen of one's own death.

Others include the adh sidhe of Ireland, sharp-toothed hags that rend the flesh of sinful persons, and can only be seen by such individuals at midnight.

There is the black annis of Scotland, a massive cave-dwelling hag, whose claws are iron and whose one-eyed face is blue. Being cannibalistic, she loves to snatch children from their beds.

There is the Baba Yaga of Russia, an ogress that flies about in a giant mortar and pestle, and whose hut dances upon massive chicken legs. Her favourite dish is children, of course, whom she rends with stone teeth, or crushes against her stone breasts.

There is the Berchta of southern Germany, an ugly old woman used to frighten children into behaving. Although kind to good children, she may cut open bad ones in her search for food, afterwards resewing them with iron chains.

There is the nocnitsa of Eastern Europe, who prowls about villages at night, with the intent of tormenting children. Mothers may keep her at bay by drawing a circle about their child's bed, then placing an iron weapon underneath it.

Even in Judeo-Christian and Islamic lore, there tell of Lilith, said to be the first wife of Adam (before Eve). Refusing to acknowledge Adam's supremacy over her, she was exiled from Eden, and later spawned generations of demons and monsters. When most of her progeny were killed, she took to killing human babies in vengeance. In the Middle Ages, the names of three angels were inscribed upon cradles and amulets to ward her away from sleeping babies.

The word "hag" comes from the Old English hagge or hoegtesse, a witch. The specific European monster known as a hag or nightmare is a hellish crone that visits sleeping victims, riding their backs throughout their dreams.

When the victim awakens looking haunted and dishevelled the next day, he is known to be "hag-ridden." Death was ultimately the result of repeated visitations. The "mare" of the word "nightmare" pertains not to a female horse, but instead to the Old English mare, a demonic hag. So the word "nightmare" actually stems from what was thought to be the visitations of such monsters.

So what's going on here? Are old women really all that scary?

(continued next week)


December 3, 1999

Mrs. Knoxley


We couldn't believe it — we were walking on a road! And there were trees! We had never seen them before, and they were every bit as beautiful as we had imagined them to be.

We were walking on Indian land. As our eyes searched the forest, we could easily tell that the Indians must have been very skilled, must have known this peculiar environment well, in order to live here.

It was surprisingly difficult for us to walk among the roots and branches, over the uneven forest floor, with twigs and moss occasionally falling on us from above. We were used to the hard, frozen ground of our home. It was a good thing that we Inuit kids, who had been flown over a thousand miles to Inuvik, were young and flexible enough to evade crippling culture shock.

To us "Qarmaaliit" (as we were derogatorily known by the other groups of native peoples), our exile from home was at once a horrible odyssey and a grand adventure, on the scale of Alice in Wonderland. And what a wondrous land it was, if you could overcome the situational drawbacks inherent to it.

We came to know her as Mrs. Knoxley, but as we emerged from the needle brush that day, she appeared as a strange apparition hunched over a small garden patch — a garden, we knew, that was an anomaly even in these sub-Arctic climes. Almost as in a story, like Kiviuq stumbling across the Spider Woman, we approached her with caution.

She beckoned to us, indicating where to step among the plants she had carefully placed in scant, soft dark earth. She immediately seemed like a sweet old lady — an impression later proven to be true — totally engrossed in what she was doing, almost as if, in her garden, she were recreating her own part of the universe. Here, she chatted away, were something-somethings. And over there were dah-dah-dahs. She spouted off the names of the plants as if we knew what she was talking about.

We responded with, "Wow, that's great!" and truly meant it. We had never seen anything like it before. Her garden was amazing, with cold-stunted cabbages and carrots and herbs defying the harsh environment.

Nearby, we found a beautiful patch of moss, with tiny flowers sticking out of it in clumps. I took some, later keeping the treasure in a little plastic bag in my locker. Every day, I'd take it out and wonder that the thing was still alive.

That is, until the day one of the older girls in my dorm tore its tops off. She was pretending to play airplane with her hand, and with each pass, she'd swoop down and rip off another little part of the plant. It survived for only a while afterward, before I had to throw it away when it became dry and lifeless.

On some level, the kindnesses of Mrs. Knoxley, juxtaposed with the cruelties of day-to-day institutional life, seemed to epitomize my time at residential school. With all the stresses we had to endure under that system, dealing with conflicting cultural values and the absence of family, we had to take kindness and caring wherever we could find it. Mrs. Knoxley was one of only a few people who treated us with any warmth and humanity at a very critical time in our personal growth.

Small mercies will make or break a life.

I've noticed that plants, however grand or tiny, seem to mold themselves to whatever environment they are given. A flower will wriggle out from a crack in concrete, and a tree will flow right through a fence in its path. Some plants have a harder time than others, but they persevere — insisting upon life.

While willows grow tall and mighty in the south, they nevertheless thrive in the north as well, altering themselves to grow low and out of the wind, to hug rocks and terrain that allow them life. And perhaps we ourselves were willows straining against the storm of social change, and the harshness of our situation.

Sometimes, it is as though we were part of the garden, tortured and beleaguered by our environment, yet never quite stamped out — thanks to Mrs. Knoxley's caring ministrations.

Thanks to little kindnesses.