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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Inupiaq Love.....

Since the internet became a part of my life I, and many others, have used it to expand the knowledge others have on our culture.  Back in the 90's it was very depressing what you could find, maybe a page or two, a reference to a paper or book.  I had a friend tell me that 'if you can't find it on the web, there a really good chance that it doesn't exist.'  Which made me laugh and cry at the same time.  Okay maybe it made me laugh the smack myself on the head and rub my temples.

In this journey of adding information to the web I have found myself in many, many debates over my subsistence lifestyle.  One of the biggest and most contended area is of course in the harvesting of animals.  Particularly in what we 'feel' about them.  You ask anyone from our culture how we feel about the animals we harvest and from elder to child we will respond with a simple sentence... "I Love that animal."  I love the Bowhead whale, I love the caribou, I love the wolf and the wolverine, I love the goose and the ducks.  We love these animals.  Sometimes this simple declaration can bring tears to the eyes the emotion is so strong, so deep.  And if you are not from a subsistence culture, which is pretty much almost the rest of the world, you will maybe snort a bit and say..."how can you kill something you LOVE?!"

I think the root of this query is of course a cultural perspective.  I like to call them our 'Culture Goggles."  Many people are unable to see anything beyond what their culture goggles show them.  I like to picture ours as brown and maybe UV resistant.  To us the term 'love' changes.  You can have different 'loves' though they are not less or more.  There is the love for your family, the love for your spouse, the love for your children, the love for your best friend, the love you have for your favorite pet, and the love you have for your history and land.  For most people this is where their culture goggles blinds them, they do not see many other other possible 'loves.' So what happens (I think) is they compare the word 'love' when I say it, to what they are familiar with....and of course they become a bit...appalled. Because they can't imagine experiencing any other type of love.

The closest that I can imagine it would feel akin to what we feel, might be for anyone that might farm or raise cattle or any other type of agricultural experience.  The feeling of love and indebtedness to another being that you care for and have such a deep knowledge of.   And then removing that soul and using it to continue your life, and starting again with the next batch the next year.  It's a bond that very few people can experience in this modern time.  The Western culture has promoted and idea of wealth and health to mean you are completely separate from your source of food, and who can have real feelings for Walmart or Mc Donalds?  This separation is what is worshiped today, like some demi-god.  People revel in the feeling of  being karmically clean because they never see or experience the death of an animal nor have they ever had to dig in the dirt to plant a seed.  Like somehow the distance makes them less indebted.

I think another issue that arises is the effect that ignorance plays in this monopoly game.  In a world where you go to a grocery store and find meat in plastic wrap, where does your knowledge of living a subsistence lifestyle come from?  Maybe a few 1 hour documentaries?  Something you read in a paragraph in middles school? A brief 5 minute video posted by PETA or Greenpeace?  Not to mention the bombardment of misinformation paraded on facebook, the king of 'click if you support' modules.  the point being that there really is no in depth information that is available, and certainly nothing that is 'click of you like me' quick.  People who live a subsistence life find it almost impossible to express what it entails....under 5 minutes.

Most people imagine hunting as walking out of town for half an hour, spotting a lone frightened animal shivering and in awe of our humaness, and smacking on the head with a club or something, walking back dragging the carcass and then presenting it to our fellow hunters with a hoot and smile and evil, evil laughter.  Then we take a photo and post it on facebook.  The problem with this is that in most subsistence cultures if you ask how they got the animal it will be a brief and not very detailed tale.  Simply because these tales are told to other people who are from the same culture and know exactly all the details that are not included.  For thousands of years we as a people have never had to share these intimate stories with people from another culture, and to say that we are lacking in skill in this area is a understatement.  There simply is no class you can take, so to speak.

Another area of gob-smacking ignorance is a very odd type of American acceptable racism towards Native cultures.  I have read many many many paragraphs of peoples reactions to various online encounters with subsistence cultures.  One of the oddest things is how people find it okay to culturally stereotype a scenario.  For example:  On a news report of Barrows first whale of the season a woman from the 'Lower 48' spent quite a bit of time writing about being disapointed in how the remains of the whale was treated.  She went on about how if we really 'respect' whales that we would treat them better as a Native culture.  What was she talking about?  Well they take the bones and put them in those huge metal trash bins.  She assumed that this was because they were throwing them away.  As you can imagine they still had a quite a bit of blood and meat on them, so she assumed it was all meat.  But if you are from the coastal villages you would be aware that they use the bins to transport the bones via tractor to the beach to let the bears clean them so that the bones can be used.  But instead of asking she left Barrow telling the world how horrible they treat animals.  It amazes me that people who have no familiarity with a very, very different culture can have such expectations of how animals should be treated.  It's almost like if you watched Dances with Wolves enough you know exactly how Natives will treat animals in every single subsistence culture.  This type of racism is widely accepted, and never objected to.  it's like me expecting and writing about how disappointed that every lower 48 American doesn't keep a perfect lawn and can you believe there was no white fences?  I watched every single episode of True Blood and have watched every single movie so I know what to expect when I go to Florida....right?

So what does a subsistence life entail you ask?  Well.  I will try to be brief.  Your training starts around the age that you can carry a gun.  Usually a BB gun at first.  You learn to take care of it.  To sight it.  To carry it.  To respect it.  You upgrade to a .22 and go through the same lessons.  You practice for about 7-30 hours a week, either with the gun or just in observing the animal that you are hunting.  At a young age you start with squirrels, which are used for clothing or bait.  You watch them.  Watch them.  Track them.  Observe them when things happen.  If you throw a stick at them what do they do?  What do certain whistles mean?  what does stomping the ground mean?  When do they hibernate? how does their coat change over the year? how many offspring do they have? what eats them?  what do they eat? And a million other amazing details of this singular animal.  You build the map of knowledge about this animal, a huge massive map, that is always continually being added to.   Elders tell you stories about them, your uncle shows you ancient ways to trap them, your mother schools you on the perfect way to skin them for use as clothing.  You become a walking book about that single amazing animal.  You basically earn your Masters degree in Arctic Ground Squirrel before the age of 14. 

And then the real stuff starts.  Your territory expands, you are expected to build you books on every ...single...animal you encounter.  Imagine having 50 Masters Degrees by the time you are 25.  Imagine the dedication you must have to get theses Masters degrees.  The stamina.  And even then this massive amount of knowledge will only give you a slight...slight....edge in hunting. Because most people don't realize, or maybe they don't want to acknowledge, that the animals we harvest....are smart.

I found that when I told people about some of the encounters with the animals we harvest they were incredibly surprised to find out that these animals had brains.  Brains sharpened over the thousands of years interacting with humans trying to hunt them.  As we were developing ways to hunt them, they were developing ways to outsmart us.  It's simple evolution really, but for some reason people assumed that animals are incredibly dumb.  Maybe it's because the only animals they see are in zoos, or maybe because they have been taught in school that humans are at the top of the food chain.  I don't really know why people think animals are dumb and don't evolve.  Caribou release a scent through a gland between their feet and if they are attacked they release a smell that says 'stay away danger' and no other caribou will walk there.  Wolves will teach their young how to spot and dig up traps.  Birds in cliffs will drop stones and create avalanches to try and kill you.  Whales can kill an entire crew simply by flipping the boat over with a flick of their tail.  Every animal has a defense against humans, has the brains to avoid us and even some of them to harm us.  Humans have been interacting with animals for hundreds of thousands of years.

Couple that with the fact that most animals can hurt and/or kill you.  For some reason American  Culture likes to avoid that fact.  Maybe it's the influence of animal society groups.  Maybe it's this weird movement of perfume for your dogs and cat psychics.  But for some reason no one wants to discuss the fact that animals can and will kill you.  And when confronted with this little fact people always seems to lay blame on the human involved.  Whether you are hunting them or not.  They are not weak and harmless beings, and in fact in our culture it is considered rude to imply that an animal is weak and cannot defend itself.  Imagine if everyone around you was calling you weak and dumb and sad.  Yeah it would be rude.  In one year we were attacked probably around 5 times...just driving around in the tundra.  Bears mostly but the one time a moose came after us was probably the most intense experience of my life.  It stalked us for two days straight.  All we were doing was digging up roots to eat.  But in 10,000 years of living here we have pretty much mastered the art of not getting killed by animals. 

Now add to that,the fact that each animal has it's own season.  It could be the two weeks they travel through, or the few months where the coat is prime, or the months the animal is not filled with rutting hormones, or the few months that they are healthy enough to eat...etc etc.   And add to the pot that these seasons change every year, and are vastly controlled by the whims of the ever changing weather, and the little jokes Mother Nature loves to play.

Now add to that that we have to invest time to even find them.  Use our knowledge to guess what they might be doing and where.  Just in this one village alone our 'hunting' grounds are about 300 square miles.  That's about 192,000 acres of land.  And you have to find a single animal, that is trying to avoid you, and that has the brains to do it.  The odds are literally against you, and there are many many trips where hunters leave and come back with nothing.  This is why when people do happen to be able to coax nature in to telling a secret we congratulate them.  It's an amazing piece of luck and timing and knowledge to even encounter an animal and to have the skills to bring it home.

So it's hard, you say. Why do it in the first place? you say....but that does not make you love these animals does it? No but that is part of it.  A good part of it.  How can you know so much about an animal; the way they smell, the silly games their young play, the bravery and skills they have, and not walk away with some respect? we don't just think a wolf is Pretty.  We know their packs personally and can tell individuals by their tracks.  We don't just think whales are Neat, we hear the song they sing when they travel and know the power they hold.  Our knowledge of these animals is all encompassing and spans over thousands of years.

But to us the word 'love' means something else.  Not just knowledge, but action.  And not just 'liking' a photo on facebook action.  But generations of action.  Before our encounter with western statehood we fought for generations to hold these hunting grounds.  And now we fight a different war and do what we can to enable these animals to survive and thrive.  We know from the thousand of years of hunting them that our take doesn't harm them, but we are aware of other things that can and does harm them.  Real threats like encroaching cities, oil development and environmental pollutants.   Threats that also affect our own health and well being, because of how closely we are tied into the ecosystem here.  If you ever want to get a bunch of people riled up and angry and emotional, just mention doing anything to the animals and/or land in the arctic.  The arctic villages are at the forefront of the battle, dealing with the oil representatives personally.  Face to face.  And it's amazing to me what doesn't make it in the papers.  The list of bribes they send to the villagers is amazing in itself.  The parade of people they send to wear everyone down is exhausting.  But no one complains about the task.  Because Love means your actions follow your words.

But the biggest emotion that inspires our love is indebtedness.  The knowledge of and acknowledgment to a being whose life is taken to ensure our lives continue.  And this is hard for some people to understand.  In this modern western culture of separateness from food source they cannot imagine what it is like to have that personal connection to their meals.  In fact my friends have told me that if they hunted their own meals they imagine that all they would feel is guilt and heartbreak.  But in reality you gain an extra....lobe.. in your heart.  A new chunk of soul and feeling and connection.  After living in California for 7 years I came back with a different perspective on subsistence hunting.  And I prefer the feeling of debt and gratitude towards the animals we harvest to the feeling of indifference and fear that you order at KFC or Mc Donalds. This is the hardest thing to express to people not from this culture.  this feeling alone, because it has no analog in the western culture at all.  Nothing compares to it. 

There are a hundred valid reasons for us to continue to live a subsistence life.  It's incredibly incredibly healthy.  It will save our ancient culture.  It saves us massive amounts of money.  It creates a community of giving and unity.  It enables our communities to boast having no starving individuals.  And many other reasons.  But for me it will come down to whether or not I could live without that connection, could I suffer the loss of that extra lobe in my soul.  Just thinking of this possibility fills me with so much fear and loss that it makes my chest hurt and my eyes fill with tears.  And this to me is love.  An Inupiaq Love.   Completely unique.  Exquisitely Exclusive.  And if we take my friends belief to heart, now utterly exists because it exists on the internets. 

A photo of my grandmother, with a pair of boot she made.

My husbands hands work to butcher a caribou in the darkest part of winter, in -20 degree weather.


  1. As I was reading the first part of your post, I was already thinking about my experiences with ranchers. My grandfather was a cattle rancher, and mother's siblings were ranchers. About how the intense familiarity breeds respect, and a kind of love.
    I remember my mom teaching me that even a little calf is dangerous by arming me with a bottle of powdered milk and telling me to go feed it. Me, a city girl. I was shocked the first time it knocked me over. I was angry the second time. The third time, I was respectful.
    And then you learn about their little quirks. That one walks through fences, that bull is ornery, that cow drops calves like clockwork, that heifer's mom was a fence jumper. That one is the one that came out with a water head and my mom pumped its chest for what seemed like hours, while 7 months pregnant, to make it breath, and when the cow wouldnt take it, she bottle raised it,
    You watch them mate, and birth, and grow, and watch the little calves turn into huge animals that wouldn't just knock you over, but stomp you flat.
    You learn about what they eat, and how they turn that food into muscle, and how to feed them so that muscle turns into a good product.
    You learn their bloodlines. You learn how to read their thoughts just by looking at their bodies. You dream about what the next generation will look like, how it will carry its meat, whether its feet will be good, whether that temperment will breed true.
    And then you have them slaughtered, and you eat them. And people raise their eyebrows. HOW COULD YOU EAT BLACKIE?
    I don't know. It's a different kind of love.
    I still remember when they were getting ready to sell the ranch and my aunt came with our portion the last bull slaughtered, all neatly wrapped in white wax paper, stacked in perfect towers in the freezer. The end of our connection, the very last one. He kept us in beef for a year.
    And now there's that niggling doubt when I go through the aisles and look at those neat packages, treated to be bright red, with all their marbling face up. I ask myself, what did you eat? was your water clean? were you crowded and stressed, or did they keep you fat and happy in sweet hay and green fields? How many chemicals did they put in you? Did they make sure to wait all the months so the birth control was out of your system, or are you full of hormones and heartworm medication and antibiotics.
    I used to have those answers.
    It's definitely something you should hold on to, when you can.

    1. Love this post! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Always a pleasure to hear your elegant voice--if only in my head as I read, and to read your writing! I'd love to see this particular post published to a very wide audience. Your analogy to earning a Masters degree in each animal is something I observed in Barrow and something I think any reader not hopelessly biased can understand.
    Hope you and yours are well, safe, and well-fed. J

  3. Thanks a lot for all this ! I live in a rather small village in France surrounded by fields, very close to a forest... but what we call nature here is in fact a kind of big old garden that we hardly see (any way every inch square of land belongs to someone) or we see it as a beautiful picture. OK we grow a few veggies (well some of us do) but I am quite sure hunters here are not quite like you up there : I won't say they are all sadistic brutes, but I'm not sure it's such a beautiful thing as what you discribe so well - here it's a leasure (necessary in fact because we have destroyed the ecological balance, and humans are here the only predators for some of the biggest animals) and not every body does it in a "good" way ; I mean I can't approve when animals are bred in farms and then put out in the forest for one day or two just for the fun of shooting them .... but that concerns only some hunters. I hated hunters when I was 5 o 6 years old, but I grew up and changed my mind. My meat comes in plastic bags but I feel guilty about it and I think I would be much more respectful if I accepted to kill my own meat, I once had hens, only ate the eggs. but I understand it's not respect to eat bird that are just allowed to live exactly 45 days in terrible conditions. I can't be a vegan (I turn boulimic when I try) but I think your way of living far far more acceptable than mine. and by the way you say it in a marvellous way)

  4. As a white westener, I am not going to pretend I understand the love you speak of because, while I empathize with it. I don't understand it.
    I grew up in a culture where I never knew where my food came from so I never learn that kind of knowledge and respect substance culture did. Yet, recently people are just NOW starting to raise awareness to local foods and local farms and people are reconnecting with the cycle again. However it's "Trendy" rather than necessary and it's frustrating to see how people look at local foods to be this "new cool thing". That aside however, I have been reconnecting with my food. I know who grew those tomatoes that I am consuming, I know the farmer who grew those peaches, plums and apples. I met the cows that I will be eating. I am starting to see the whole pattern again and frankly it's a bit surreal. But I am starting to show great respect again. To love the cows, the pigs and lambs that I consume. To love the mushrooms, the plums and the basil that I grow and eat. The food feels real now. It doesn't feel....distanced if I get it from a commercial store. But when I grow my own tomatoes. They feel real.

    Sorry if this comes off ramble-y and nonsensical.

    1. Not rambling at all! Thank you for your comment! I'm growing vegetables this summer for the first time ever. Each one will be incredibly special I am sure!

  5. This was absolutely beautiful. I grew up in Western culture, complete with the mindset that to eat animals means that you don't love them. However, the older I get the more I've come to understand the Inupiaq way of thinking, and to realize that it's the truest way to honor an animal. My husband hunts, and every time I eat moose I give thanks to that animal. Unlike being forced to say a thanksgiving prayer as a child, these silent thoughts are solemn and heartfelt because I understand the animal more than I would if we'd bought the meat from a store. I felt myself nodding as I read your piece. To say that it touched me, and that I understood exactly what you mean, is probably the biggest compliment I know how to give.
    Thank you so much for posting this. Now I can share it with my family and friends in the Lower 48 who might not understand this as well as I do.

  6. So grateful to have stumbled upon your tundra wisdom! You have developed an urgent, truthful and beautiful voice for all Inuit and am soo grateful that their are other Inuit who have left home to become eloquent and fierce guardians of our land! LOVE YOUR PRODUCTS TOO!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! And I am so glad that you also love our products as much as we do!

  7. Nakuuluni Ukiutqiutiqsi