A striking photograph of an Inuit girl taken at the beginning of the 20th century made me think of the situation indigenous cultures find themselves in. With the world changing so fast how are they coping?
The Inuit (the appropriate name to be used for the people who inhabit the Arctic is not agreed, see below) at that time were having increasing contact with whalers, hunters and the explorers seeking the north west passage. As always in these situations their way of life was threatened. The conditions they lived in were so extreme that until then there had been virtually no contact with European settlers. There were some advantages for the Inuit to be had from this contact, the acquisition of pots and pans for example made life much easier. However there were also alcohol, guns and infectious diseases like measles which killed many and destabilized their society.
In a real sense these situations present an opportunity for Learning and reflection. We may have much to learn if we accept the opportunity. Because they have arisen haphazardly in the past the first meeting of indigenous cultures with ours has been with adventurers,explorers, hunters and gold miners there has been little exchange and much exploitation. The absence of any valuing of these often fragile cultures continues to this day. The conquest of South America is a classic example. The inhabitants of Madagascar are fighting to stop the unique flora and fauna of the island being exploited by others from abroad.
The languages are important also: It has been said that the death of a language is the loss of a window into the collective history and soul of humanity. In a real sense we all share a common heritage and the differences between us are important to appreciate, value and try to understand.
An eskimo girl, I was struck by this beautiful photograph in the British Museum.
Looking back at me you were a daughter,
Perhaps a sister and a mother.
You name is strange to my ears and pen.
I had to check a dozen times to spell it right.
You are lovely still there as if alive
After all this time embalmed; a thin
Silver film on view in a museum.
What were you thinking looking so relaxed and cool,
As any top model of today your trusting eyes regard.
But was your heart beating sixteen to the dozen?
So natural yet ephemeral in your Sunday best.
How long did you take to choose your outfit?
Did you have a mother or a brother to advise?
A shining band tied tight around your head,
You wear a braided jacket top thick and warm.
Though appearing fragile you are not frail.
Used to the weather that makes grown men cry.
You follow the caribou and search for seals.
Living in the arctic winter north of Hudson’s Bay.
Then I spent an evening searching the net.
Now I know so much more about you who were
Born deaf and dumb and featured on the cover
Of a book writtn by Geraldine Moodie
Who photographed you with such sympathy
And loving care. From your eyes it seems
This was returned.
Geraldine Moodie was the wife of a Mountie and went with him on assignments to the wilds of Canada during the second part of the 18th century. She became very well known for he ethnological photographs which are now an important record pf the indigenous peoples who lived in the north of Canada at that time:
This site gives an excellent description of the history and life of the indigenous peoples of the Artic:
George Comer was a sea captain who was one of the first people to visit and trade with the Inuit peoples of the north of Canada. Several times he overwintered with his boat and crew. He was very sympathetic to these peoples and took time and trouble to understand their ways and to help them cope with the cultural changes this contact wth the outside world brought. Thes changes are still happening.