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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic

Reviewed: March 27, 2003
By: Norman Hallendy
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
127 pages, $35.00

One of the iconic images of the far north is the lone inukshuk (or inuksuk), a vaguely humanoid stone figure standing stark and clear against the tundra. One of the many things that Norman Hallendy wanted to understand when he began to visit the Arctic 30 years ago was where these stone statues came from and what they meant.

Because of his curiosity, Hallendy was given the Inuit name “Apirsuqyi”, the inquisitive one, by Inuit elders and it was one of these, Simeonie Quppapik, who told him what the word inuksuk (using the preferred spelling in this book) meant.

“It means that which acts in the capacity of a human.”

Some of them, Simeonie said, had been placed on the land by the ancestors of the present day Inuit, “but others were here before us. There are the inuksuit (plural) that were built by the ancient ones we call the Tunniit, who came and prepared the land for all of us.”

This was not the first time I had read of a giant people who lived in the north before its present inhabitants. There are similar stories in Alaska. In this case they seem to be inspired by the fact that some inuksuit are clearly larger than one person could built by himself.

Inuksuit have a spiritual and magical dimension that Hallendy found people were reluctant to discuss, but they also serve practical purposes, and they are also sometimes just a form of landscape doodling.

The form we see most often looks like a rock rendition of an expressionist illustration of a person, a rude sketch rendered in three dimensional form. There are, it turns out, many other configurations. Some inuksuit are simple standing stones, single rocks in unnatural positions; circles of standing stones not unlike those found the world over; pyramids - both normal and inverted; simple pointers used to give a direction or mark a cache; combinations of stone and animal bone.

Some represent people. Some were used to create illusions that would fool the caribou into going in a certain direction. Some were directional markers for travellers, warnings about rocky shorelines, indications that the caribou tend to travel in this direction, that there is good fishing here, and other messages. Some are shaped like windows and were probably originally used to taking a sighting on a some distant point used as a landmark when travelling.

Some probably marked the historical significance of events long lost to a forgotten oral history. This is not unusual in ancient cultures of all sorts. The Bible is full of tales related to stone altars erected to mark important events, often combined with an injunction to tell the story of that event whenever the people might pass by that place.

Inuksuit are also of various sizes. In photographs they often look large and imposing, but they range, depending on their purpose and the materials used, from something the thickness of a stone slab to an average height of 120 centimetres or the less frequent large piece that would be the height of two men.

Perhaps the most mysterious are those inuksuit that are shaped so much like post and lintel doorframes that it’s impossible not to think they might actually be gates of some sort. There are tales of shamen entering the spirit world at such places or receiving power through such gates, formally called tupqujaq.

One Inuit artist, Pudlo Pudlat, has created a series of Mystical Landscape drawings, in which the arrangement of inuksuit forms a map which might be followed in order to journey safely. Whether this journey would be physical or spiritual is not entirely clear.

Other inuksuit are probably memorials for respected individuals, sort of like putting up a statue.

 The book Inuksuit  is constructed as a series of mediations, or reflections, on the various aspects of the inuksuit, combined with little stories of visits to specific sites. Photographs of the vast variety of inuksuit take up about half of the book.

Hallendy has provided us with a fascinating look into a little understood, but often trivialized, Inuit custom. I will never be able to look at them in quite the same way.

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