Arctic Roots


The greatest and least known of Arctic journeys was undertaken in 186 by a shaman named Qidtlarssuaq, who in a vision had flown over the ocean to a distant shore, where he found more Inuit; he was accompanied by his extended family of twenty-five or so; they travelled for several years, across Baffin Island and north along the coast of Melville Sound, and then northeast across Baffin again and over the ice to Devon Island and eventually Greenland, where they met the people known as the Polar Eskimos. (On one or two occasions they met British sailors searching for the lost Franklin expedition.) The Polar Eskimos were a vestigial community who had been cut off by weather and ice from the Greenlanders to the south and by this time were reduced to about a hundred persons. They had lost their elders and much of their technology; the Baffin Islanders restored to them the technology of komatik, kayak, the arctic bow and arrow, and techniques of hunting—almost all of which had been lost to the Polar Eskimos. The story of Qidtlarssuaq is told in Vanishing Point, a terrific documentary made by Stephen A. Smith and Julia Szucs, and narrated by Navarana K’avigak’ Sørensen, a Polar Eskimo and a descendant of Qidtlarssuaq, who, according to the tradition that Navarana received as a child, had said to the people of southern Baffin Island: “Have you ever wanted to travel to new lands; have you ever wanted to meet new people?” The Polar Eskimos, the most remote people in the world, have retained the Baffin Islanders’ technology, and still use dogs and komatiks, and hunt the narwhal from kayaks. The documentary follows Navarana on a journey to south Baffin Island, where she meets her Canadian relatives for the first time, and goes onto the land and the sea with them. The Baffin Islanders are a different people, we can see, but they are also the “same” people as the Polar Eskimos. As Navarana observes during the narwhal hunt, “the Canadians shoot first and then throw the harpoon; we do it the other way around.” Land and sea are revealed by masterful and unobtrusive cinematography that serves beautifully to render the story that Navarana and her families share with each other. Navarana is herself a charismatic figure and a compelling narrator. And we see the Arctic facing the twenty-first century: “As the world melts under our feet,” she says, “we must find the best way for our journey.” Produced by the NFB, now available on Netflix.

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