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Oral Traditions

Until recent times, there was no written form of Inuvialuktun - the language of Inuvialuit. History, knowledge and traditions were passed on by elders from generation to generation as stories, legends and songs. These helped young people learn about the ways of doing things and the ways of behaving.

During his travels in the 1920s, explorer Knud Rasmussen was amazed by the Inuvialuit's oral tradition.


This is the first time I have encountered story-telling regarded as an art and cultivated as such since I left West Greenland, and the result I obtained was unique and good. 

- Knud Rasmussen


Today, elders are being interviewed for several oral history projects. These recordings will ensure that the Inuvialuit of today, and those of future generations, will remember and draw upon their culture, traditions and language. You can read a selection of these oral stories below.

 

The angatkuq (shaman) of long ago was a man or woman with magical powers. He was always a private person and believed to have animal powers. The powers flowed through mystical amulets. It was said that he could watch and hear people by changing his form into that of a creature.

At times he seemed to be all around the camp using his supernatural powers. Many angatkuq used their powers only to help people. A few were fearsome and not to be trusted, for they arrogantly used their powers against other people. The elders advised that the angatkuq could only harm those who submitted themselves to them. Stories are told over and over of people that turned to the angatkuq for help in solving their problems.

These people were held forever in the power of the very ruthless angatkuq. There were also prophets and they were not shamans. They simply had a gift for seeing into the future of the people. A story is told of the prophet who foresaw the coming of the Tan'ngit. He saw that though they appeared friendly, they would bring much pain to the Inuvialuit.

Indeed, soon after their arrival, the Inuvialuit died in great numbers from sicknesses foreign to them, such as small pox and measles. In later times, the prophet Isulik predicted that people would travel through air and water. He foresaw things moving over land and huge buildings erected. He predicted these things before the Tan'ngit moved into the North.

I would like to tell the story of one of the last shamans around Kitigaaryuit and Qikiqtaruk.

If he was not the last, he was one of the last ones well known and spoken of. Many of us, now getting older, here in Tuktoyaktuk or elsewhere such as Aklavik, Inuvik, or Banksland, didn't see him in our younger days. But we heard stories of the deeds of Kublualuk, the flying shaman, stories of wonder and marvel ... Kublualuk was young then, around 1900.

He was a man of good stature, about six feet tall. There was not too much shamanism then as the younger generation did not believe in it and they mocked the shaman. Joking about the shaman was quite common amongst the younger people. But Kublualuk did not participate in these games. One day he decided that he would like to be a shaman also and to learn about it. This, of course, was greeted with laughter and sneers. However, it seems that his determination continued, for it was said later that Kublualuk could fly, really fly.

Then wanting to learn and to practice, Kublualuk left Kitigaaryuit for Qikiqtaruk. He was then still young. At Qikiqtaruk he married an old woman. On that island, there were some well known and respected shamans also, known as the Flying Shamans. Tomoala was ... a common observer and told us then what happened. He was in the house himself with the usual shaman ready for the session. The window was well covered with a skin as a curtain.

Everyone was told to lean forward and close their eyes tightly and then were asked not to open their eyes for any reason at all, not even briefly. And then they could hear a noise, like a bird flying, flapping its wings. At another time, Tomoala also being present ... another strange thing happened. Kublualuk came in through the stove pipe. A noise was heard coming from the pipes and then Kublualuk's voice. When they let in the light, there was Kublualuk standing, hands, face and clothing darkened and covered with soot.

Long ago people always traveled together because that way they had a better chance of surviving in groups, helping one another when the other is in need. These large family relations traveled along the coast hunting and fishing in search for food. Summer came. They decided among the men to travel inland to hunt for caribou so that each family could have enough skins for making clothing.

So they set off with their dogs as backpackers. Some families camp where it was good for fishing in rivers and caribou hunting. Other families moved to other places. They would tell each other that as fall comes they would meet at the main river along the coast. The wives dried up caribou meat, cleaned up every usable part of the caribou. Nothing was wasted.

They made caches for pick up in the fall time. They would go out on the sea ice hunting for seals through seal holes because they needed the fat for cooking and heating in the cold winter. All winter long they hunted. The women sewed warm clothing for every member of the family. They even bartered items they needed from each other. Sometimes some would get angry with each other because they didn't get a good barter. At times a bad barter could mean death. So each person had to be very careful about how to barter goods to one another. But all in all they tried to live in good faith with each other.

In the early infancy of man, people were never alone, whether they lived in a settlement or were travelling on long journeys. They were surrounded by a spirit people, Ijerqan, who lived as human beings and were in fact human beings — except that they were invisible.

Their bodies were not for our eyes, or their voices for our ears. And when people travelled and pitched camp and began to build their snow huts, one might see round about the snowdrifts that the snow blocks began to move, being lifted out of the drifts…and piled together into a snow house which seemed to grow of itself.

Occasionally one might see the glitter of a copper knife — that was all! They were clever people, these Ijerqan, and they did not mind people coming into their houses, which were arranged just like those of human beings. All their belongs were visible, and people could trade with them very profitably. If one wished to buy something, all that was necessary was to point to it and at the same time show what one was prepared to give for it. If the spirit people agreed, the object required lifted itself up and moved towards the man who wanted it. But if they declined the bargain, the object remained where it was.

So people were never alone; they always had small silent and invisible spirits around them! But one day it happened that during a halt a man seized his knife and cried: What do we want with these people who are always right on our heels! Saying this he flourished his knife in the air and thrust it in the direction of the snow huts that had made themselves. Not a sound was heard, but the knife was covered with blood! From that moment the spirits went away. Never again did anyone see the wondrous sight of snowdrifts forming themselves into snow huts when one made camp, and forever the people lost their silent, invisible guardian spirits.

It was said that they had gone to live inside the mountains in order to hide from man, who had mocked and wounded their feelings. That is why to this day one can see the mountains smoking from the enormous cooking fires flaming inside them.