Places of Power


Once all the men at Kamigluk went hunting for caribou and only the women were left. The men urged them not to fish from the edge of the ice, but the women did so just the same. Suddenly the ice went adrift and they dared not jump ashore; there was only one who took the risk, and she was saved. All the others went out to sea and were lost. So pitiful were their cries and screams out on the drifting ice that from a distance it sounded like the howls of terrified foxes.

But when the men came home they sorrowed so deeply over the loss of their women that they built cairns up on the shore, just as many cairns as there were women lost. They did this because they wanted the souls of the drowned women to be on dry land not out in the wet sea.

From Knud Rasmussen, The Netsilik Eskimos, quoted in David A. Morrison and Georges-Hébert Germain, Inuit: Glimpses of an Arctic Past (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995).

  One third of Canada's landmass is in the Arctic, a vast region that continues to be shaped by natural forces into seemingly endless tundra, magnificent mountains and countless islands. Annual temperatures in the Arctic can range from +30°C to -60°C. This incredible fluctuation creates an environment that forces all living things to either adapt, flee or perish. The Inuit were able to adapt. They have lived in Nunatsiaq (the beautiful land) for over 4000 years -- indeed a great human achievement.

The land and the sea provided everything the Inuit needed. With the exception of blocks of snow, used for winter shelters and certain traps, almost everything placed on the landscape was made with movable, unworked stone. Some objects were built to endure forever; others were fashioned with great skill but meant to vanish without a trace. An example of the latter is the qaggiq, the great ceremonial igloo built each year to celebrate Siiliitut, the festival of the mid-winter moon.

Inuit throughout the Arctic knew of the existence of places of power. The real, yet sometimes ghostly, geography of these places appeared in language, song, and remarkable drawings. Some were easily recognized because they were so striking. Others were distinguished by the objects found there. Still others were unrecognizable unless revealed by someone who knew of their importance; they had to be believed to be seen.

These places are numerous and varied, and include inuksuit, the stone structures of varied shape and size erected by Inuit for many purposes. The term inuksuk (the singular of inuksuit) means "to act in the capacity of a human." It is an extension of inuk, human being. In addition to their earthly functions, certain inuksuk-like figures had spiritual connotations, and were objects of veneration, often marking the threshold of the spiritual landscape of the Inummariit, which means "the people who knew how to survive on the land living in a traditional way."

Built from whatever unworked stone is at hand, by people of varying talents, each inuksuk is as unique as a fingerprint, yet inuksuit are little understood. Some inuksuit were never meant to reveal their meaning; the meanings of others have been lost over time. Often the placement and arrangement of inuksuit were as carefully thought out as their construction. Some were placed to be visible from a great distance, others to be hidden from casual view. Some were to be seen against a snowy backdrop, others situated on shore to be viewed from the sea or the ice. There are inuksuit that are arranged carefully in sequences spanning great distances, and others that are grouped formally to define a specific place or to form a circle.

Inuksuit vary not only in size and shape but also in their functions. One was to drive herds of game to where they would be killed in numbers. Another was to guide the hunter travelling on land, or on the sea or ice within sight of land. There are places in the Arctic where networks of inuksuit reach from the interior to the sea, and along the coast in both directions. Some inuksuit were built to serve as message centres. They could indicate, for example, dangerous places, the depth of snow, the direction of the mainland from an island where seals or fish could be taken. These inuksuit were designed to be messages fixed in time and space. Others were personal notes left on the landscape -- perhaps for a wife to follow her husband at a later date, or as an expression of grief marking the place where a loved one perished.

Some inuksuit, however, served other than a practical purpose. They were once revered as materialized forms of power. They weren't symbols of power, they were loci of power. Some were never to be approached, and to this day are carefully avoided. Others were regarded as sources of good fortune, cures, and protection, and so were venerated, touched, and given offerings.

Most Inuit now live in settlements, go to church, and have children in school and access to medical services. Yet their great admiration for their ancestors, respect for traditions and powerful attachment to the land remain. The images you are about to see celebrate these values and this love of the land.