Inuits study white folks in this new academic field
Like many Inuit boys of my generation, I had a fascination with Qallunaat that bordered on awe. The few we encountered lived in warm wooden houses, while we grew up in igloos. They seemed to lack no material thing. Their food was what the word delicious was invented for, all their women were beautiful, and even their garbage was impressive! As a boy, I had an innocent ambition to be like them. The measure of my success would be when my garbage equaled theirs.
I lived among the Qallunaat for seven years. In my time in their land, my discoveries of their peculiarities sparked my interest in what could be called Qallunology.
Many of us who have been exposed to Qallunaat-dom through deep immersion in their world could write some credible discourses on the subject. Their social mores and standards of etiquette could fill several volumes. Their language contains all sorts of weirdness. Their sameness and distinctness can be utterly baffling. An Irishman from Northern Ireland looks exactly the same as one from the Irish Republic. A close look at Albanians and Serbs has them all looking like bona fide Qallunaat. Why such savage conflict among such same-looking civilized people?
Look, Look! See Sally Run! Oh Dick, Oh Jane! Why do your parents have no name? Are all dogs in Qallunaat-dom Spot, all cats Puff? There was absolutely no Fun with Dick and Jane as we Inuit children crashed head-on into the English language. The cultural shocks and tremors have never completely worn off those of us who were zapped with such literature.
The Qallunaat custom of abbreviating first names does not seem to follow a standard formula. Robert can be Rob, Robbie, Bob, Bobby or Bert. Joseph is Joe, James/Jim, Sidney/Sid, Arthur/Art, and Peter/Pete. Charles is Charlie but can be Chuck. What sleight of hand makes a Henry a Hank? And how does Richard become a Dick, if not a Rich or a Rick? Do you see a B in William on its way to be a Bill? Don’t ever say Seen for Sean (sh-AWN) or John for Jean, if the person is a francophone male.
Qallunaat women can have very masculine names clicked feminine by ending them with an A: Roberta, Edwina, Phillippa. Shortened names are mostly chopped versions — Katherine/Kate, Deborah/Debbie — except for some ready-made like Wendy and Kay. Liz is drawn from the midsection of Elizabeth, unlike in Inuit use, where these names are entirely separate as Elisapi and Lisi. Many names can fit both sexes: Pat, Jan, Leslie, Kit.
One of the most distinctive features of life among Qallunaat, the one most markedly different from Inuit life, can be summed up in this expression of theirs: keeping up with the Joneses. Not much is communal and few essentials are shared. Life is based on competition, going to great lengths to “get ahead,” and amassing what you gain for yourself. People around you may be in want, but that is their problem.
We know Qallunaat, of course, by the way they eat: with a fork and a dull knife known by Inuit as nuvuittuq (without point). There is a whole etiquette to eating too cumbersome to describe in detail. But, if one has the misfortune to burp, belch, or fart during the meal, one has to be civil and say “Excuse me!” in a sincere enough demeanor. Never forget to say “please” in asking for the salt or potatoes to be passed. Don’t ever just up and walk away from the table.
Having visitors over (company) is mostly attached to some ritual or activity, such as a bridge game. If alcohol is served to guests, it is amazingly incidental, and not the main item of attention. Nobody gets drunk, but there is a lot of talking! Then there seems to be an obligation to talk even more at the door before leaving. Guests and hosts lingering forever at the entrance to talk about nothing in particular is one of the surest trademarks of being in Qallunaat-dom.
There is a ritual called dating, which is hard to describe in Inuit terms. It can’t really be described as husband- or wife-hunting. Maturing people of opposite sexes mutually agree to “go out” to some form of enjoyable activity. Sometimes it is to test their compatibility as a possible couple, sometimes simply to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. It seems to be a permanent occupation of some, whom Inuit might call uinitsuituq or nulianitsuituq, meaning “un-attachable to a husband or wife.”
I don’t proclaim to be an expert on Qallunaat and what makes them tick. But my commentaries on Qallunology are based on having eaten, slept, and breathed their life for some years, learning their language, and tumbling along in their tidy-square thought processes. The resulting recollections are no more superficial than those of the first Qallunaat to encounter the Inuit, who unwittingly illustrated their educated ignorance when they tried to describe us. That has changed. Today, even Qallunaat with strings of academic degrees attached to their names are more often seeking guidance from the reservoir of traditional Inuit knowledge.
Eskimology has long been a serious field of study by Qallunaat. Scores of museums and universities all over the world have great departments and sections devoted solely to the subject. Serious Qallunologists, on the other hand, are likely to sweat and toil in unrewarding anonymity until the academic currency of their field of study attains the respectability of being labeled officially with an “-ology.”
Eskimologists have carted off traditional clothing, artifacts, hunting implements, tools, ancient stories and legends, and human remains for display in museums, bartering these for very little. Qallunologists will find nothing worth carting away for display. All Qallunaat stuff is for immediate use, much of it disposable, easily replaceable, and now available in mass quantities to Inuit as well. It all costs quite a lot, and one will be prosecuted for stealing any of it.
Eskimology was triggered by others’ curiosity about who we are and how we live. It has flourished to the point that we Inuit have in some ways benefited from it by reclaiming some essences of our identity from various collections in others’ possession. Qallunaat, meanwhile, are not in any danger of having to go to museums to pick up remnants of who they once were.
From This Magazine (Nov./ Dec. 2003), a leading Canadian alternative journal. Subscriptions: $23.99 (6 issues) from 401 Richmond St. W. #396, Toronto, ON M5V 3A8; www.thismagazine.ca. A version of this article originally appeared in Inuktitut Magazine.