Being on the Land

I CHERISH THE SUMMER OF 1976, when I first camped with Paulosie Attagutalukutuk’s family of nine in a canvas tent on Baffin Island. We ate raw seal liver on the sea ice and cracked open caribou legs to slurp out the marrow. I arrived a stranger and left with new tastes and a deep respect for my Inuit friends. It was a good day when other Inuit came to our camp and joked about me, the qallunaaq, the white man, and Paulosie told them that the qallunaaq had traveled with them for a long time, that he hunted and ate raw meat and was like a member of the family.

The lessons were endless. Being lost — not knowing how to get back to Igloolik, whether at sea or on land — was a common condition, for me at least. For Paulosie, however, everything was familiar. He was home. He belonged to the land more than the land belonged to him.

This is what led me to Igloolik: to document people who live on the edge of habitability, in one of the most adaptable cultures on Earth. I found a big difference between “settlement life” and “being on the land.” I didn’t much enjoy being in the settlement. It represented too much disharmony, dysfunction, and dissatisfaction. People were different on the land, more heartfelt, more genuine, happier.

One time during the darkness of December, while hunting with Andy Attagutalukutuk, Paulosie’s eldest son, we came upon the frozen entrails of three caribou. On closer inspection with my flashlight I could see how diligently the ravens had pecked away at the rock-hard piles. Andy told me that these caribou had been shot two weeks before. He named the hunters and told me who their relatives were. Earlier we had stopped where he said his father always found caribou. And before that was a place where a friend’s grandparents lived a long time ago, and before that was the place where his cousin shot a polar bear the previous year. Like his father’s, Andy’s Arctic is mnemonic and intertwined with history. Each place has a meaning that is inseparable from the stories and experiences attached to it. When I asked Andy how he knew where he was going, he simply said, “I follow my instinct.”

Late one summer, decades later, we were in Foxe Basin in Andy’s motorboat when fog, ice, and darkness came. After a few stops and maneuvers to push ourselves between the huge ice floes, my curiosity about Andy’s ability to navigate in fog, at night, with not even a wisp of wind to give him any hint of direction, got the better of me.

“Where are we?” I asked. Andy slowed the boat and, with a huge smile on his face, said, “I don’t have any idea where we are.” We laughed. “Is it a joke?” I asked. “No,” Andy said, “I really don’t know where we are, and I’m laughing because you don’t believe that we are lost. Do you know how to use a GPS?” He pulled a global positioning system instrument out of an old sock from his food box. Andy informed me that he had used his GPS only once, about a year before, and that the batteries might be dead and the instructions were at home. He then stretched out and was soon fast asleep. Waves lapping against ice broke the dead calm of the night sea. Then I heard the awesome sound of a bowhead whale breathing, very near us. Andy snored.

Going onto the land was a way to touch the Earth with people who put profound meaning on this connection. Making photographs was a good way to experience this. Now, they are fleeting reminders and memories that bind the heart and land — archetypal connections from a long way back that are more than they appear. They represent places I don’t live in, but that my soul yearns for. Places where the dictates of the forbidding ecological niche that the Inuit ancestors occupied presented few options for survival. Where hunting successfully and living with the weather were the preoccupations of everyone. Where accumulation was not practical or permanence a sustainable state. Where clothing and shelter were temporary, things that came and went, like words and ice and tools, which belonged to whoever needed them. Places that required pragmatic skills like hunting and the ability to trade. Where a willingness to share meat determined social status, and success was measured by wisdom, not wealth. And where, after everything else has gone, the experience remains, and my life was changed forever.

For me, these photographs are graphic reminders of connections that I believe are imperative to achieving a more sustainable and enlightened world. My biggest fear in publishing them is that they will be seen to perpetuate myths, to prolong romantic notions about the Inuit that serve only to numb us to the truth about them, and ourselves. There is already far too much propaganda in the world, too many bad beliefs. My hope is that these photographs will be tools of enlightenment, rather than tools of entrancement that keep us stuck in our modern but comfortable “dis-ease.”

Robert Semeniuk’s photo essay is drawn from his new book, Among the Inuit, published by Raincoast Books in May, 2007, and used by permission. He lives on Bowen Island, British Columbia.