Hunters, Predators and Prey: Inuit Perceptions of Animals.
Hunters, Predators and Prey is far from another general work on Inuit hunting. In every respect, it is a deep (and in my view, timely) analysis of Inuit-animal relations.
This volume is, indeed must be, daunting, addressing as it does the deep ontological understanding of Inuit about animals in relation to themselves. It also has multilayered importance. First, it is a very powerful anthropological contribution to our understanding of Inuit relations to the world around them. Second, it draws upon a range of sources, first and foremost the authors' own interviews with Inuit Elders, but also material from the Iglulik Oral Traditions Project and passages from largely unindexed classic ethnographies, notably the Fifth Thule Expedition's Netsilik and Iglulik volumes, which together provide a comprehensive portrait of a vibrant ontological system. Last, this volume has critical relevance to contemporary discussions about Inuit and wildlife.
With respect to organization, the book's first three chapters focus respectively on anthropological perspectives of the relationship between various northern Canadian indigenous cultures and animals, on animals in relation to the wider environment, and on the cultural substance of being a hunter. Together, they provide context for the seven chapters that follow, which explore Inuit beliefs specific to particular animals or classes of animals and to penetrating the underlying ontological concepts that facilitate or disturb relations between humans and animals. In this regard, the testimony of the authors' informants, supplemented by observations drawn from early ethnographic sources, is much appreciated. The authors conclude this comprehensive work with an insightful discussion of the complexity of Inuit understanding about human-animal relations.
The "animal" chapters open with the importance of Raven. To non-Inuit, ravens are the most ubiquitous of Arctic birds, scavengers present all year around the settlements; however, Inuit know Raven to have many social roles: as Creator of the present world, as Trickster and possessor of knowledge, and as a creature that can be helpful at times, but dangerous at others. More than any other material in the volume, I found this exploration of the meaning of the raven illuminating.
The chapters that follow Raven engage readers with qupirruit (a category of creatures that includes insects, arachnids and crustaceans), the qimmiit (dogs), bears, caribou, pinnipeds (ringed and bearded seals), and cetaceans, notably the bowhead whale. Each chapter offers numerous insights into the nature of the relationship that Inuit have with each of these animals. Over time, I have been fortunate to learn, firsthand from Inuit, a few things relevant to some "keystone" species of the North, such as polar bear and caribou, but only bits. The material provided here certainly has helped me order what too frequently was more intuitive than reasoned. Where Laugrand and Oosten's hard work is especially remarkable is in relation to those animals that we Qallunaat either "know" (dogs) or acknowledge because of their annoying qualities (mosquitoes and flies). This material has given me a much fuller appreciation of the place of qupirruit and qimmiit in Inuit culture and life.
This volume, drawing as it does on the knowledge of Elders and ethnographic observations dating back to Boas and beyond, offers important insights into the multi-layered nature of Inuit-animal relations. For serious students of Inuit culture, especially essentialists like me, this material, coupled with the deep structural analysis employed by the authors to unpack what can seem to be contradictory understandings among Inuit of these non-human beings, is much appreciated, and it has a depth well beyond my personal knowledge. My one concern is that more casual readers may interpret these materials as speaking to things in the far distant past.
Laugrand and Oosten mitigate this somewhat in their final chapter and make an essential point that bears reiteration in this review because it is salient to the present circumstances of Inuit hunting: namely, that Inuit respect these non-human beings. At a time when so much research about Inuit and wildlife is centered on game management, conservation, and food security, not to mention the role or place of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit in northern science, what is rarely noted is that Inuit relations with wildlife are rooted in an ontological system the core of which is respect for the active sentience of animals. That critical quality is, in turn, respected by the "prey" Inuit hunt.
I recently had a conversation about the potential viability of commercial markets for traditional food in Nunavut. From a non-Inuit perspective, such markets seem an innovative way of reducing food insecurity and of improving the nutritional health of Inuit for whom access to traditional food has become too often irregular. Leaving aside more pragmatic objections, commercialization as a solution ignores the full content of the Inuit-animal relationship. Laugrand and Oosten make it clear that the willingness of animals to share themselves with humans rests as much on the hunter's respect for the animal's generosity as on his individual skill, so the hunter understands that the generosity he received brings with it an obligation to be generous with other humans. What we interpret as an action between a human hunter and an objectified animal is for Inuit a social transaction that reaffirms human-animal and human-human bonds. This idea is the essence of this volume, and the authors and the Inuit who shared their understanding have explicated this without reducing the complexity of the dynamics between Inuit and animals.
George W. Wenzel
Department of Geography
Montreal, Quebec H3A 0B9, Canada
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|Author:||Wenzel, George W.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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