The Inuits inhabit the Arctic region, one of the most forbidding territories on earth. Three of these tales come from the Inuit of Northern Canada, and two from the Inuits along the Bering Strait. The rest are from Greenland - that is, after Canadian Inuits moved to Greenland.
Inuit Tales from Canada and Alaska
The Inuits of Canada, Northern Alaska and Greenland form one large group. The other large group consists of the Yupik of Alaska and eastern Siberia.
Inuits are known to have lived up north in North America for about five thousand years. Dating differs by some thousand years in different sources.
Because of the long, dark and hard winter and frost, the inhabitants up north cannot depend on getting a living by cultivating the soil. They have lived on meat from reindeer, seal, bear, whale, and walrus a long time.
The Inuits of Northern Canada are known for snow houses ("igloos"), fur clothing, and sled dogs. They lived in other buildings too, such as single-room family dwellings that could be a blend of a tent and igloo, or a mixture of a tent and a sod house.
In the world-view of Central Inuits, women are connected to the sea, sea mammals, sea tools, and winter. Men are connected with the land, land animals, land tools, and summer.
The central Inuits do not commonly create images of supernatural powers. They prefer instead to make amulets from animal bones and other things.
Another Inuit group's traditional territory has been in Alaska along Bering Strait, Norton Sound on the Bering Sea to the Canadian border. One subgroup of these Inuits lives inland and another large group lives by the sea.
Alaskan Inuits rely heavily on hunting and fishing - walruses seals, some sorts of whales, polar bears, caribou, ducks, geese, rabbits, berries, roots, shoots, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and moose. Polar bears are hunted too.
And Alaskan Inuits along the coast and in the inland depend greatly on fish.
In our days, climate change is threatening the traditional Inuit lifestyle. Warmer winters bring with them much less and thinner ice and makes hunting for animals in the ocean even more difficult and risky. Warmer winters make travel more dangerous, too. Besides, increased flooding and erosion along the coast is a growing problem of many coastal villages.
Inuit Tales from Greenland
The Inuits (formerly: Eskimos) of Canada, Northern Alaska (sub-group "Inupiat"), and Greenland is one group. Another Eskimo group consists of the Yupik of Alaska and eastern Siberia.
'Eskimo' is not an offensive word in three older books of Eskimo tales I have looked in, but in Canada and Greenland the term has fallen out of favour and is widely replaced by "Inuit".
The following is mainly summarised from W. W. Worster's introduction to Knud Rasmussen' Eskimo Folk-Tales from 1921.
Storytelling for passing time and falling asleep
These stories from various parts of Greenland were taken down in writing from the lips of Inuit story-tellers by the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen.
The stories bring before us the daily life of the Inuits in the past, their habits of thought, their conception of the universe, and the curious "spirit world" which forms a part of their mythology.
The aim of the Inuit storyteller was to pass the time during long hours of darkness and send his hearers to sleep. Telling something interesting, yet something to fall asleep to - such a twin goal might have led to short summaries and details of fact or fancy expanded on at length. Thus there are longer and shorter variants of several themes.
This selection contains a mixture of different themes and sorts of tales - a variety. There is no claim that it is representative, only a result of the tastes of an edito or two.
M. P. Tooms writes in his foreword to Tales the Eskimos Tell (1944) that "Visitors to the Arctic region tell us that the Eskimos are the happiest people in the world. They laugh as much in a month as we do in a year."
However, Clara K. Bayliss writes in her preface to A Treasury of Eskimo Tales (1922): "Their life is a hard one owing to the rigorous climate, and they make it harder".
In their stories the Inuits tell of killing and eating whales, walruses, seals and one another also, but not growing cabbage. The way of living derives from the conditions on Greenland earlier. There were no greenhouses on Greenland back then, for example.
What we encounter in their tales includes fugitives who resort to magic to get rid of a stalking whale, and a traveller who has been away from earth for what seems an hour, and later finds that years of earthly time had passed when he returns.
Some animals are spirit protectors.
Spirit gifts are made subject to some condition of restraint: "Choose only one and no more."
There is ample use of "magic power" by wizards as a generally accepted way of solving any difficulty, as well as a tendency towards anthropomorphic conception of supernatural beings.
Inuits are poets.
Inuit stories from Greenland open, as a rule, with some traditionally accepted phrases. "There was once a man . . ." or "A fatherless boy lived in the house of the many brothers." The ending may occasionally point a sort of moral, but the "end" of a story often leaves much scope for further development so that little children get awfully tired and fall asleep. One hardly knows what is going to happen in a story of this sort. Poetic justice is often satisfied, but many stories do without.
Also, some stories are of a sort where something is about to happen, but nothing happens . . . still nothing happens . . . and the story ends.
It is sometimes difficult to follow the exact course of a conversation or action between two personages, owing to the inadequate "he "which is used for both. I have tried to remedy that when rendering tales.
The story-teller used to be free to insert something, such as a little explanation. The attitude to forefathers is of two main kinds, simply said: One looks down on them in some respects, and up to them in other respects as men who were yet skilful rowers in kayaks in a former age of greater strength and virtue, greater courage and skill, or a Golden Age of Romance.
Tales from a dissimilar culture, very different conditions and another time can seem odd and strange even when they are retold a little bit for the sake of present-day listeners or readers. If shortening a tale makes its good or essential features stand out or shine, that might be tried too.
The tales from Greenland in this little collection of largely retold tales are all on top of Knud Rasmussen's Danish Myter og sagn fra Grønland, (Myths and Legends from Greenland), a work in three volumes on Gyldendal publishers (1921).
Bayliss, Clara K. A Treasury of Eskimo Tales. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1922.
Morrison, Dorothy. Tales the Eskimos Tell. Selected and Retold by Dorothy Morrison. Regina: School Aids and Text Book Publishers, 1900.
Rasmussen, Knud, coll. Eskimo Folk-Tales. Edited and Rendered into English by W. Worster. Copenhagen, Christiania [Oslo] and London: Gyldendal, 1921.
Rasmussen, Knud, coll. Myter og sagn fra Grønland, [Myths and Legends from Greenland], Vols. 1-3. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1921.
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