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Chesterfield Inlet

Chesterfield Inlet; photo by Kira Van Deusen

Inuit Journeys

In 2004 I made my first trip to Nunavut in company with filmmaker John Houston. We listened to 40 elders tell the story of their shaman-hero Kiviuq. I have since told his story in southern Canada have written a book about Kiviuq and his relationships with stories across the Bering Strait.

To read the stories in the words of the Elders please visit

Eleven years after that trip I gave a conference presentation about Kiviuq for the International Society for Academic Research on Shamanism. Here is what I learned in preparing the presentation and since. I now feel even more strongly the need for traditional knowledge context of today’s world.

Inuit shamans, traditional knowledge, sacred landscapes and the effects of colonization and global warming in Nunavut

Nunavut is a large but sparsely populated northern territory of Canada, with 85% Inuit population. The land is mostly treeless, with rocky shores, rolling tundra and many waterways. Ancestors of today’s Inuit migrated to this area about a thousand years ago, although other people lived there before them. Languages spoken in Nunavut are Inuktitut over most of the territory and Inuinaqtun in the west. But among the young, English predominates.

In 2004 I recorded the ancient shamanic epic “Kiviuq” from forty Nunavut Elders in all regions of Nunavut, working with filmmaker John Houston. Later I augmented my fieldwork through conversations with younger scholars and activists. At the request of the Elders, our goal was to make the important traditional knowledge contained in the story available to today’s youth. Houston made a film that is frequently shown on northern television, while I created a website for use in schools, gave numerous public storytelling performances, and wrote an in-depth book exploring the story’s deeper meaning as well as connections with Siberian cultures.

A lot has changed over the years since then. In this paper I will look at the value of traditional knowledge and shamanic practices in today’s world—Inuit have suffered greatly from colonization and more recently from global warming. Will traditional knowledge help them in the current crisis? Opinions vary.

The Inuit have a long history of shamanism, always very quiet and private. At least since the mid 20th century it has existed underground when practiced at all. Shamans (angakkuit) did not partake of the performance aspects so common with Siberian shamans. Thus people today do not demonstrate their ceremonies and shamans practice only when needed. Some young people are taking an interest, but that too is cautious, due to continuing pressures of church and community.

Over the twentieth century, political, religious, and educational oppression took their toll. Although Christianity had arrived earlier, serious missionary work by the Catholic and Anglican churches began in the early twentieth century, followed by Pentacostals and Evangelicals. Many Inuit converted sincerely. But the most devastating effects came around 1950, when the Canadian government forced settlement of nomads and the church-run residential schools took children from their families, feeding them new language and culture at the cost of their own.

Under these pressures, shamanic ceremonies—always quiet—nearly disappeared. Thus I refer mostly to the respected Elders who fill many cultural and spiritual leadership roles, whether or not they are shamans. Elders were trained in keen observation of their environment from earliest childhood. They are greatly admired for their intelligence and wisdom, and simply because they have survived—which tells us a lot about the rigours of the arctic world.

Traditional shamanic imagery is best preserved in the Inuit’s masterful art work, especially prints and stone sculptures that depict spirits and animals. For some reason the art was not forbidden by the missionaries, while other aspects of culture suffered badly. Music, dance, and storytelling were all important aspects of shamanic culture in the past but either disappeared or changed their function. Drum dancing is now mostly a social event whereas in the past it was a potent way for communities to convey their requests to shamans. It’s still beautiful. A man, (or occasionally a woman,) picks up the drum. A line of women, who all know him, begin to sing a song that pertains either to him or to his family. He then dances, drums and sings.

Throat singing too has lost some of its spiritual context. Unlike Central Asian throat singing, this is performed by two singers, usually women, who stand very close and sing a call and response in breathy tones until one finally breaks into laughter.

Storytelling, which ranged from short humorous tales to lengthy epics such as “Kiviuq,” has suffered from a language gap between generations as well as from threats of hell-fire from the churches. When I arrived in Nunavut my colleague referred to the Elders who were telling us the tale as courageous. It took me a while to understand what pressure they were under. Still they told stories remembered silently over many decades.

The epic “Kiviuq” reflects a traditional shaman’s life and practice, and is told from Greenland, across Canada and in parts of Alaska. Coming from the mouths of Elders, the story is much more comprehensible, detailed, and human than the versions recorded by Rasmussen and others a century or more ago. “Kiviuq” has rarely been recorded since then, and never as a whole. Before hearing the live oral story I had wondered if I could find anything to like about the hero. Now he was nuanced and fascinating.

Kiviuq’s story is a spoken encyclopedia of traditional knowledge. It taught today’s elders about animal spirits and other non-human beings, consequences of human behaviour and ways shamans moved through the sacred landscape. Basically all the landscape is sacred, although some places are particularly remembered, such as the place where Kiviuq’s mother stood waiting for him to return from his first long journey. Elder Henry Isluanik took us to a place outside of Arviat—a flat rock marked only with a stick. The rock had calcified markings on it. He said, “Of course I’d heard the story all my life. But when I saw this place, it became real.”

Shamans and others could use the “folds in the environment,” (silaup putunga) to travel through the sacred environment. As do others across the arctic, Kiviuq had the ability to make accordion-like folds in the landscape in order to journey quickly from one place to another. This was used only in dire emergencies and to help others in need.

The story tells of his initiations, which include the several times he seems to have died and been called back to life by an incantation, and his increasing power and acquisition of helping spirits, even knowing which ones to refuse. The first helping spirits we meet are sandpipers. When Kiviuq was born, his grandmother chose a soft skin to clean the baby with. She chose the sandpiper and spoke into Kiviuq’s ear, saying that he would always be able to come home, no matter what the obstacles. When his first kayak was built, the kayak’s prow was padded with a sandpiper skin to prevent the wood from poking through the sealskin cover. He called the sandpipers when lost at sea. They spoke from inside the kayak and from the sky to guide him first to a foreign shore and later to his home. Other helping spirits included a great polar bear, other small birds, and his animal wives: a fox and a Canada Goose.

Shamanic competition appears in the tale and women also appear as powerful shamans; raising storms, protecting absent husbands, calling spirits, and reincarnating as animals.

Traditionally the story was not told all at once—Elders remembered hearing one part one day, and another several days later, which gave them time to digest the meaning. Thus there were many starting points among the forty elders. Nonetheless most of them began in Kiviuq’s community with the bullying of an orphan. This went severely against traditional Inuit law. The child has his/her own story—descended from a being who was half seal and half human. Most said the child was a boy, but one or two said a girl. Kiviuq was the only one who tried to help. He then survived a storm at sea when others drowned, and wound up far from home. Strikingly like Odysseus, on the way back Kiviuq had many adventures with shape-shifters, helping spirits, and women who detained him. At last he arrived home to find that his sons, who had been babies when he left, were now grown men.

He had further adventures with his two human wives and later with a grizzly bear. He made two other long journeys—one with his fox-wife and the other with his goose-wife.

Kiviuq teaches us the importance of walking away from trouble when possible. This is one of many arctic survival techniques. Although at times revenge may be justified, it’s likely to boomerang back on us. Calmness is greatly valued by the Inuit and it too is important for survival. One must remain calm in order to be alert in case of emergency.

Parts of the story show how various landmarks and phenomena, such as ice on the salt water, came to be. Like many world-wide, Kiviuq is a hero who makes mistakes and pays for them. Most strikingly he kills his two human wives in anger and later loses his animal wives and even his community.

Most elders believe he wound up in the south of what is now Canada. A century ago people told researchers that Kiviuq would someday return. The elders we recorded were uncertain, although most believed he is still alive. Perhaps this uncertainty includes the question of whether their culture will survive.

Inuit tradition makes clear distinctions between land and water, and the dichotomy comes up as an story image—for example when Bee Woman stands with one foot on land and one in the water, mourning the fact that Kiviuq has managed to escape her. Although he spends a lot of time on water in his kayak, Kiviuq is what we could call a land-based shaman. Certain shamans made the journey to the underwater world to negotiate with Nuliajuk, also known as Sedna, when she was withholding sea mammals from the hunters. They found out what people had done to cause the problem. This practice does not figure in Kiviuq’s story and he never goes under the water.

When asked what he had learned as a young man from the story, one Elder replied, “Sometimes I would be out hunting and get into a situation where I thought I didn’t know what to do. But then I would realize that I did know—and it was Kiviuq who had taught me.”

Would that still be the case today? Most Inuit no longer live nomadically, in constant contact with animals and the elements. Social pressures and sometimes force have brought people off the land, to live in small communities. Most have not had the traditional education that comes with the hunting way of life. They no longer have the astounding powers of observation that the Elders were trained in from earliest childhood.

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Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a renowned Inuit activist and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, writes about how Canadian colonization has resulted in a loss of independence and the capacity for self-help. Schools and health centres are not adapted to Inuit circumstances. Living in small communities makes hunting more difficult since these hamlets are not conveniently located.

Inuit have experienced huge changes in language, religion, and their beloved and healthy traditional food. Most of the change has happened over one or two generations. All this has contributed to problems with youth suicide, alcohol, drugs, and violence. Watt-Cloutier also maintains that some of this has come about because children are inadequately challenged in school.

In early June 2015, Canada was rocked by the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as they completed six years of research on the Canadian government and the ways the school systems had failed our aboriginal people. The commission is an independent body that includes both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. Their report brought many things to public attention that had been conveniently ignored.

Seven thousand people from all over Canada gave testimony. The report is lengthy and includes horrors. 4-6000 children died in the residential schools, which were funded by the government and run by the churches. Many of them were buried in unmarked graves. There were endless stories of abuse on all levels, and even torture. Children were taken forcibly from their parents and routinely taught that their culture, including shamanism, was backwards and evil. The commission called it cultural genocide and came up with ninety-four detailed Action Items.

In addition, the Canadian model is said to be the basis of the formation of similar schools in the Soviet Union. The last Canadian residential schools closed only in the 1990s. It is to be hoped that now major steps will be taken not only by government but by all Canadians.

Environment (Sacred Landscape)

In recent years global warming has struck especially hard in the arctic. In some cases Inuit elders noticed the changes before the scientists did.

  • As the climate shifts, skilled hunters are no longer at home on the ice. Its qualities have changed radically over one or two decades, making travel difficult and dangerous. Thinning of the ice leads to shorter hunting trips, and thus less food as well as a loss of confidence. Experienced hunters have drowned.
  • Bridges and buildings have collapsed due to melting permafrost. Flooding ensues.
  • Certain animals have appeared where they had never been before. Many elders told us a story about Kiviuq’s meeting a grizzly bear, but none of them lived on Baffin Island, since no grizzlies lived there. Now they do, and they have even mated with polar bears, whom they had never seen up until a short time ago. Other new species of animals and insects have developed.
  • Changes in hunting necessitated by melting ice have a dangerous effect on the foods people eat. Many of the animals are unhealthy due to rising temperatures and toxins in their environment. And yet buying food from outside is prohibitively expensive.
  • New diseases have arrived.
  • Experienced hunters can no longer predict the weather and birds are confused in their migration.
  • Elders have noticed a shift in positions of the sun and stars, which means that the planet is tilting. Tides have changed.
  • Seals are coming out of the water in order to cool off. The water has become much warmer. Glaciers are melting.

One of the hardest aspects of this is that the toxins and warming do not come from anything northern people have been doing. For example Nunavut is nearly as big as Mexico and yet has a total of only 20 km of roads and thus very few cars or trucks, although there are snow-mobiles. There is very little industry. The damage comes mostly from outside and yet the effects are strongest in the north, where the warming is happening twice as fast as the global average.

I have great admiration for the Elders who are very active in their communities, feeling they must help bring Canadian law into harmony with Inuit values, and protect their physical environment. Motivated by a sense of responsibility to the youth, both Elders and younger people consider bringing back parts of their spiritual past to solve today’s urgent social and ecological problems. They wish to pass on lessons about care for animals and humans, non-violent solutions to problems, and counselling—talking things out. All of this has connections to their shamanic traditions as well as to arctic survival techniques.

When asked a few years ago whether younger people are returning to the practice of shamanism, Elders expressed concern about the dangers of the spirit world for young people. Although Inuit shamans were not trained in the way shamans of some other cultures were, they were surrounded by its ceremonies and practices in their daily lives. This gave them a stable background that today’s young people lack. Elders realize that shamanic spirits can be both helpful and harmful and must not be taken lightly.

But some of this caution is being re-thought. In May, 2015 retired Inuit politician Piita Irniq had this to say:

“My friends, instead of looking at Angakkuuniq/Shamanism as evil, primitive and a source of intellectual curiosity, today we must look again at this historical source of strength and power. We must look at it as a positive answer to our social problems. Inuit had found a source of peace in their spirituality and Nunaliurti/Creator/God knows we all need more of that in our lives today. Some of the practice of Shamanism and Inuit Spirituality has survived to this day; let us find a way to recognize and protect it. Let us find a way to bring Shamanism and Christianity into focus and search for the strengths that Inuit have lost over the past 100 years of contact with the 'white man.’ I think we are really praying for answers from the same Almighty, Nunaliurti/Creator/God. Don't you think so, also?”

He also recommends adding Inuit shamanism and culture to the school curriculum. “If they know more, and are more informed about our original religion, they have a past. And if you have a past, you have a future. Know where you've been, know where you are, and know where you are going.”

Many people agree with him, but some do not, feeling that they will be ostracized in their communities if they return to the old ways. They also remember the damage that could be done by ancient curses.

In spite of the deep influence of a Christianity that even today threatens hell-fire for the telling of ancient tales, rumour has it that some young people are attracted to shamanism. Looking at their social and physical environment, one could say the youth is already living through the equivalent of a collective shamanic initiation. Some have quietly asked for advice and information from their Elders. Not a moment too soon, as many of the Elders we recorded have already passed away.

At the same time filmmakers revive ancient stories. Best known is Atanarjuat the Fast Runner, the first film written, directed, and acted by Inuit in the ancient oral language of Inuktitut. The film is magnificent in every way and received many awards. One interesting thing about it is that instead of ending in revenge, as the ancient story did, it ended with an even more powerful scene without violence.

Some communities now have a deepened relationship to drum dancing, which was severely frowned upon by the missionaries. We may hope that as the background for shamanism returns, the practices may too.

How does traditional knowledge such as that in the ancient shamanic stories relate to global warming?

Inuit point to the importance of adaptation, which is what they have always done in periods of change. Solutions include shortening the length of hunting trips, new equipment, solar power, change of diet…

They also engage in global action. Inuit have begun to reach out to others with related problems in other parts of the world. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, along with a number of Inuit organizations, has joined with global activists to work on the problems of toxins and global warming. They try to balance the needs of the arctic with those of the tropics and places in between. Inuit Elders have been consulted by scientists for their insights and the information they have gained from keen observation of the environment.

Is Kiviuq’s knowledge and skill still valid? Some say it is too late, that the old knowledge is no longer reliable, whereas others say traditional knowledge is essential. Perhaps not in specifics but in its broader sense. Lively conversations continue everywhere from community halls to Facebook.

In March 2016 many top Inuit performing artists gathered in Iqaluit for the Qaqqiq Summit. Over the course of a week they put together a performance of Kiviuq’s story. ( One of the directors and performers, Laakulak Williamson Bathory, gave an interview to CBC. She said that Kiviuq’s story was chosen because it is known all across the arctic and thus unifies the artists and the people. He gives them the impetus to find solutions to today’s problems. “We have in our hands something we can change.” Healing and inspiration is the goal of their group. “We use our language, culture, and traditions—that is the healing.” She emphasizes the importance of the arts in this venture, saying that one of the Elders would only share her knowledge with the artists, as opposed to the educational, justice, or other systems.

The thickness of ice cannot be gauged in the same way as even a decade ago, nor can a hunter predict the change of seasons and the behaviour of animals. On the other hand, Kiviuq was cautious in danger—he always left his kayak pointed out to sea in case of emergency. He gave and received help and sang his way through the environment. He walked away from trouble instead of letting his anger get the better of him. The one time he did give in to anger sends a powerful message to those who hear the story. All of these and more indicate that traditional knowledge does have value in the current crisis.



Laugrand, F. and J. Oosten. 2007. Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. Igloolik: Isuma Productions

Watt-Cloutier, Shiela. 2015. The Right to be Cold. Toronto: Allen Lane Books

Bennett, John and Susan Rowley. 2004. Uqalurait an Oral History of Nunavut. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Van Deusen, Kira. 2009. Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and his Siberian Cousins. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.


Kunuk, Zacharias and Ian Mauro. Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. Isuma Productions 2010. Available on Youtube.

Kunuk, Zacharias. Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. 2001. Isuma Productions. Available at

© Kira Van Deusen 2015


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