Archive for September 16th, 2009


There was a time when the Inuit were known as Eskimos and the word Nunavut didn’t mean much to them as it is today. Life was pretty hard then and those who lived in the outpost camps just survived by the skin of their teeth as the expression is. In such times families who live year-round away from established villages took on charge over whoever may be in need of help. This is such a story and we go back in time.

The Inuit live in and around Arctic Bay. They had never seen a worse winter than of the year before. The year of storms and blizzards. For three months they sat through the worst in darkness. Alone with a boy of thirteen plucked out of Africa. How did that come about? Mbeki was the sole survivor of a plane crash. He did not remember anything except his name, which he said every two hours. Mechanically. As if he were a mechanical toy ready to fall apart. “I am Mbeki. Get my father…” Apak the Inuit was the first one to reach him. The boy was in a shock. His father like everyone else in that plane was dead. “I am Mbeki. Get…” Apak pulled him out into safety. He nodded patiently as he rummaged among the debris. No one else was alive. Apak had all the papers found from the site deposited in a sealskin pouch. It had to go to Yellowknife where the Commissioner for NW Territories had an office. It was so far off. He knew it was someplace he could never feel at home. It was for those hunters who sat behind desks to ferret out the truth. They chased a paper trail while he was only a hunter of seals. He came back with whatever he could carry, and the boy. More dead than alive. “Spirits of our ancestors have given one more mouth to feed,” said Grandmother who was busy throughout the winter with her sewing. Apak knew the boy needed to get well. Yes, by February Mbeki was more alive than dead. He knew where he slept through winter. He knew his host family. He spoke to Nemo the son who was his age and they could get on well. He could well get into their daily routine as if he had lived all his life with them.

The sun came up by late February and the Inuit were once again connected to the outside world. Apak sent word through another Inuk (singular for Inuit) to report of the wreckage to the authorities. “Life must go on,” said Apak one morning. His dogs began howling till he had arranged his dog team. The animals were ready; so were the Inuit ready for the hunt. It was time for Nemo to be taken on his first hunt. Mbeki could not be let behind. Apak fitted him with caribou fur for his body and warm leggings made out of polar bear. His kamiks, sealskin shoes embroidered by Nemo’s mother, fitted him perfectly. The nearest he could compare to what he wore were the skins, which formed the part of regalia of his grandfather as the chief of his tribe. It was all that his father had kept as a reminder in his study. He had as much connection to the Inuit as his father had with that village somewhere in the heartland of Africa. Suddenly Mbeki remembered he could remember, somewhat hazily of his past. “So I am here visiting. But where is my father?” At that moment he realized where he was. He was about to travel with the dog team and he cast aside all other thoughts. Mbeki saw the icy wastes and said in a whisper to Nemo “Miles and miles of ice. I am sure we are lost!” The weather beaten face of Apak and eyes hidden by his tinted glasses did not show any change. He nudged his son who explained, ”See those pattern Mbeki carved by wind.” The boy looked about without catching the meaning. Nemo pointed once again, ”A snow tongue!” Mbeki saw it. His eyes widened with wonder, ”Yes, now that you say it. But. ”Nemo whispered, “We call it ukularog.” Nemo got the eye of his father who wanted him to keep his voice down. “Doesn’t it tell you something?” “No, nothing!” the African boy was certain. On second look he could see it all pointing in one direction. The unexpected sight of a shuffle quickly dried his throat. A polar bear stood right in front! Nemo said in a whisper, ”He is stalking a seal.” Apak explained he could smell a seal though hidden by ice. Nemo would have spoken but Apak quickly tensed. Shhh! He could listen to the hollow sound of the bear making with his paws. “Our sense of smell is not half as good as that of Mr. Bear.” Apak explained after the bear had moved on. An Inuk from experience knew from the sounds if the ground below concealed a seal or not. The animal ambled with intent. He suddenly let his hulk go easy. He waited by the side of a ridge, which Apak knew would mean only on thing. “Shhh!” Apak signaled them to keep quiet. Next instant the huge beast with one downward swipe broke the stillness. There lay his prey, which he had killed on the spot. Mbeki watched with horror and satisfaction how he went straight to the fat than his meat. Having eaten his fill he left the carcass for others. “He shows his respect for his enemies. They also are welcome to his catch.” Apak said in solemnity, which curiously did not sound strange to him. He knew his forefathers must have done similarly. (At least it was what came into his mind. Did he read it or his father had told him? He did not know.) Africa was as strange to him as the way of the Inuit. But it seemed so connected in some fashion.

Apak drove his sled in another direction. He stopped only to check a breathing hole. Nemo explained how seals needed to come up sometime to breathe. Mbeki knew a hunter needed to be patient and silent too. Just as Apak. Apak stopped in his tracks to sniff at the air. There lay a seal on the dry ice palping his body with his flipper. Apak quickly took his harpoon and checked it. The arrow was set in place and ready. Mbeki expected him to shoot. Instead Apak laid himself on the ice and slowly edged closer to the seal. Nemo explained his father was pretending to be another seal in order to get within close range. The Inuit boy explained that a seal from that distance could not see them well. Mbeki could only understand it when in a flash the arrow flew, pinning the seal down. Apak had made a kill. Mbeki could not help thinking Apak the hunter had to be silent. And patient. Besides he had to think like his prey. Or transform himself into a seal. In his mind. Just as his folks in Africa would have done. Drowsily arising from his near-death experience the boy had begun to think more of that source. It was still so hazy. As if for some sort of security he had to place each event now into his African context. Africa, which he had never seen with his eyes. The Inuit were no farther from him than his index finger from his thumb. As a feeling. Strange he felt. Yet it was there.

The End


Read Full Post »