Introduction to Inuit orality

Introduction to Inuit orality

Only today is orality finding its place in the field of Inuit Studies and being recognized as an important issue for both Inuit and researchers. Indeed, since the early days of contact between Inuit and Qallunaat (Russians, Europeans and Americans alike) orality has been disregarded. This new interest reveals what is still seldom acknowledged: how widespread orality, in its various forms, is in contemporary Inuit life, both in the public and private realms, despite the presence of the written word. Indeed, the common practice favoured for daily transactions even by northern administrations is the use of the written word, considered a guarantee of truth. Researchers schooled in Western, rational, ways of thinking struggle to understand how orality and literacy can both be so present in Inuit daily lives, as they tend to consider the use of the written word to be in direct opposition to the concept of Inuit qaujimajatuqangit - "Inuit wisdom spread through the spoken word"1. Yet, according to Inuit epistemology these two ways of thinking are complementary and must find a way to coexist; exactly how is still being explored.
In Nunavut the Inuit concept of qaujimajatuqangit lies at the heart of local government; it defines a whole set of values, objectives and practical applications in order to inuitise civil society. But because people work with multiple interpretations owing to their own lived experiences and conceptual understandings, there is no single, accepted definition of qaujimajatuqangit. This makes it difficult for both the Inuit themselves and outsiders to agree on a basic working definition; in fact, the numerous possible translations suggest how difficult its meaning is to pin down.

The theme of orality also leads us to investigate the richness of Inuit discourse when it infiltrates new social settings. While the Inuit claim that the reach of our tongue, the spread of our language determines our homeland, how much weight do they give to this idea in their new work and new life settings? Beyond the usual association of place and language, of "the land" and the Inuit language vs "the village", and the use of English in Alaska and Canada, what are the actual daily practices in both public and private places in local communities? This question also surfaces in those spheres devoted to public debate, especially the elected regional assemblies in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Labrador and Greenland. A study such as Language in Nunavut: Discourse and Identity in the Baffin Region (Dorais and Sammons, 2002) offers many avenues; however, it is clear that these issues need to be addressed through their actual linguistic dimension (observing neologisms, for example).

We also need to reflect further on the increase in collaborative work between outside researchers and indigenous communities. Since the 1990s we have seen a move away from the dominant paradigm that tended to incorporate Inuit knowledge into social research labelling it Traditional Ecological Knowledge. In spite of its merits, its attempt to ground and acknowledge the validity of Inuit knowledge, this approach was found wanting: its potential as a matrix for framing and shaping ideas was unexploited. This left many Inuit feeling dissatisfied with the outcome of this kind of study, as Aqqaluk Lynge warned the scientific community during the 13th Inuit Studies Conference in Anchorage (Alaska) in 2002.
This brings us to epistemological and methodological issues that as anthropologists, linguists, historians, geographers and more recently natural scientists we face as soon as we step into any environment peopled by voices. By choosing orality as the theme of this 15th Conference, we seek to give Inuit Studies practitioners an opportunity to rethink the researcher/researched relationship in light of recent findings. How should we interact with each other? How should we exchange ideas and conduct our dialogues? How can we laugh together, for humour as Inuit well know - can diffuse tension and dispel misunderstandings? How can we hear the wide variety of Inuit voices and listen to each speaker and their own narrative? And let us not forget that the Inuit remain more troubled by the gap between generations and the ensuing disparities than by gender issues. In keeping with their system of values, they bestow Elders with special privileges, seeing them as the legitimate bearers and transmitters of Inuit culture. So where do young people's voices figure in this landscape? This question is crucial since they have tended to voice the loudest concerns regarding the accumulation of knowledge by researchers in far flung places beyond their reach, outside the Arctic.

Researchers have become more sensitive about their own research practices and the need to disseminate their findings; and this has led to more communication and exchange of ideas in Arctic communities. Some progress was made this decade as the titles of the 2002 and 2004 conferences in Anchorage and Calgary reveal: Indigenous Voices and Bringing Knowledge Home. Yet these advances must stretch beyond fieldwork and filter through to discussions in seminars and conferences where dialogue and debate occur. This process remains in its infancy: in these settings researchers and Inuit tend to satisfy themselves with each other's presence rather than taking up the challenge of elaborating together a common language. We see the theme of orality as an invitation to seriously try, as the issues of ethics and scientific truth claims are lying directly behind this problem. Our call has indeed been heard by Inuit as many travelled far in order to participate in the Paris conference.

Three approaches to Inuit orality


Eskaleut linguistics have made significant contributions to our understanding of linguistic developments from the very first international Inuit Studies conference. As organizers of the 15th Conference, we wanted linguists to share their work, especially their findings concerning typology and diachronics. Our intention by focusing on orality was also to shift attention to the role of discourse and oral communication in different contexts (use of the spoken word, story-telling, dialogue), all rather under-researched in the various forms of the Inuit language.

At a time when the spoken word in its various guises and its replacement by the written word dominate linguistics research more generally, the Conference enabled participants to reflect on the evolution of oral communication more broadly - its structure and syntax, word order, register according to context, use of repetition - and this through the specific lens of the Inuit experience. The findings appeared in 2009, edited by Mahieu and Tersis (John Benjamins, publisher).


In the early days when linguists, anthropologists and archaeologists dominated the field, space and landscape received far less attention than language and social structure in Inuit Studies. Initially, the land was merely considered as a resource for hunting and fishing. Nuna, as a concept, was ignored. Then in the wake of toponymy projects carried out during the 1980s, as researchers then feared that this ancestral knowledge could disappear without trace, studies of land and space became more sophisticated. Researchers soon recognized the complexity of Inuit toponymy and how they truly form "geographic systems" (Müller-Wille 1987:1-5). This made researchers aware of just how vital space and landscape were for the Inuit, a repository of toponymical and geographical knowledge rather than a simple infrastructure or game reserve. However, these studies bypassed the role of the spoken word even though it lay at the heart of this body of language. The theme of orality sought to make us dwell on both form and content in Inuit speech as well as on the social context in which it is heard to make us more attentive to constructions of space and landscape.

French-style cultural geography (see among others Bonnemaison 1986-87; Bonnemaison and Cambrésy 1999) illustrates how representations of space and place shape constructions of identity. This process for the Inuit is primarily about naming and labelling through words. This rich seam of meanings, mainly its emotional and poetic resonance, remains largely untapped.

Also, from the 1970s, Inuit discourse on identity insisted on the link between their land and its landscapes and their identity as a specific human group; no doubt in relation to the historical land claim settlements reached in the last thirty years all over the Inuit Arctic. In recent years however, new discourses that tend to disconnect Inuit identity from the land have emerged. They draw on traditional forms of orality games, songs, drum dances, life stories, tales of serendipity and dream weaving - as well as on new ones political speeches, radio programmes, movies and TV series - and develop in new types of spaces and places. To be fully understood, their spatial context needs to be thoroughly analysed.

The most widespread type of research on Inuit geography is the study of toponomy. This approach flowered during the 1990s in response to an Inuit call for place name surveys and greatly benefited from the development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. In the 2000s, research has shifted to writing GIS programs adapted to Inuit geographic knowledge and means of knowing. How can place names handed down through oral tradition be adequately captured and transposed onto maps? This is the kind of challenge raised by geographers working with cartographers to try and combine visual and textual information.
Some have concentrated on refining GIS, linking classical topographical representations with landscape views (Aporta 2005; Henshaw and Ashoona in this volume). They aim at integrating as seamlessly as possible into GIS a knowledge of the land that is always situated and contextualized, and dependant on the specific experience of each individual who holds it. In practice, this means incorporating several distinctive narratives rather than a unique and generalized one. Also, where GIS programs usually tend to formalize terms, some researchers have taken a more qualitative approach regarding expressing Inuit landscapes through GIS programs (Keith 2005).

Just how vital such projects are can be appreciated when we consider how much use the Inuit make of topographical maps: they see them as handy tools with which to jog their memories, and invaluable for preserving and handing down their geographic knowledge, a knowledge anchored in their own lived experiences of a particular landscape (Collignon 2004). Building on these field studies we now need to shift to more theoretical work on cartographic representations and how they are challenged by orality as a knowledge system.


The aim of this conference, then, was to contribute to our understanding of orality in the 21st century, by making the most of new developments in Inuit research and the resurgence of the spoken word. While never going as far as rejecting the status of the written text, many Inuit feel that writing cannot compete with the spoken word when it comes to transmitting oral history, shaping a living archive, and thus passing on their cultural heritage. Several sessions were devoted to exploring the notion of the subject, or person, of the " I " who conveys meaning through voice and body, through speaking and swaying, through utterance and rhythm compared with the textual, written " I " that merely suggests a shadow, an absence, a missing person (Meschonnic 1993; Mather 1995;15).

Just as they voiced their pleas during their victorious struggles for land claims and environmental rights, the Inuit emerge on the local and global stages as stakeholders to be reckoned with. Recently, and in this very same spirit, they initiated a discussion with social science researchers, especially anthropologists, in order to counter established methods that privilege a scientific approach. These partnerships between researchers and indigenous communities foster new kinds of collaborative projects on topics that lay dormant or neglected such as collective memory, common law, shamanism and Christianity, physical and mental health, dreams, etc. The Inuit as independent investigators have launched new exploratory projects without any external input2.

These collaborative efforts formed part of this Conference agenda for they compel us to engage with many salient issues for researchers: how can we better involve indigenous communities and how can we encourage the younger generation of Inuit to take part? Let us not forget the great resources these partnerships offer: renewed energy for ethnography, reasserting the value of Inuit voices, an emerging discourse of the invisible and the marginal (whether spirits and ghosts, land appropriation, dreams, the spoken word). At the same time let us not under-estimate how worthwhile and indispensable traditional fieldwork and theoretical analysis of collected data remain.

At the end of the 20th century, most researchers in Inuit Studies, faced with the absence of visible rites and rituals, wondered why pre-Christian representations held such sway both at the individual and collective levels. Yet collaborative research studies show how traditions of oral history, cultural heritage and the spoken word have lain dormant at least in the Canadian Arctic and in Alaska rather than disappeared (Trudel 2002; Interviewing Inuit Elders series 1999 sq. and Inuit Perspectives on the 20th Century, 2000 sq; Crowell 2004). Contrary to expectations, contemporary Inuit discourse does not radically contradict earlier findings from the pre-Christian era. During the 1980s and the 1990s one may recall how the research community greatly benefited from Ann Fienup-Riordan's work, especially her insights into the role of the natural world for the Yupit of Alaska. She highlighted how much nature figured in their consciousness, how much they foregrounded it in their understanding of their world, one organized in cycles where socio-cosmic exchanges include the living, the dead, spirits and wildlife3. This approach, in keeping with the work of Nurit Bird-David (1999), Tim Ingold (1996) and Philippe Descola (1996), relied on the pre-eminence attributed to the notion of personhood.

This conference has opened new perspectives on how we can connect this key idea of personhood with that of the subject. As we have seen, recent collaborative studies indicate just how embedded the Inuit sense of knowledge as individual practice remains, rooted in a rich unique lived experience. This Inuit knowledge in all its particularity gives us pause to think about how much it is shaped by random and contingent elements as much as by tensions between meanings of "I" and "us".

Béatrice Collignon and Michèle Therrien, 2009
Translated by Melanie Mauthner, PhD, London (UK).

1 Translation suggested by Michèle Therrien (2004:249; 2006:297).

2 For accounts of some of these tensions between local pressures and the demands of theory see Laugrand and Oosten 2002.

3 For more on this topic see the works of Xavier Blaisel, Frédéric Laugrand, Jarich Oosten, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Bernard Saladin d'Anglure.


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