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When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 5)

August 19, 2011

(part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood (continued…)

It’s been awhile, but here’s the continuation of my meditations on True Blood with some thoughts about Inuit and Lafayette’s “lesser religions.”

In reference to, and in an effort to understand, Lafayette’s “lesser religions,” I want to take a closer look at The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the film by Zacharias Kunuk that I mentioned in my last post. The film follows the shaman Aua (Westerners will most likely know Aua as a favored traveling companion, friend, and font of information about Inuit spiritual life from the journals written by the explorer Knud Rasmussen) during a time of change in the mid-nineteenth century: the historical, environmental and social knowledge of the world he lives in comes into question as Aua’s powers to live successfully fail him. After a long period of starvation, Aua eventually banishes his familiar spirits so that he may join the increasingly powerful and influential Christian religion. And yet, this film, like the full version of the Kitlinuharmiut song, does not present the struggle between Aua’s traditional (“lesser” in Lafayette’s terms?) religion and Christianity as a battle between forces that will have an ultimate and decisive victory. Instead, the film moves slowly between seemingly opposed forces, letting the tension come from the movement back and forth between forces of nature (snowstorms, lack of caribou and seals) and forces of culture (a leader hording food that is only given to converts, the influence of Christian morality and Western cultural goods) until the banishment is the almost anticlimactic end of the film. In essence, the quote on the cover of the DVD (“Once a shaman abandons his faith, there is no turning back”) is misleading. The film is not about what happens to Aua once he becomes Christian, it is about the moment when “from a shore wind [he] drifted out / In [his] kayak / And [he] thought [he] was in danger.” Christianity becomes just another journey, another mode of attention to the world, a tool for survival. It is not, however, privileged as an all-encompassing conclusion to Inuit history and culture. This theme of displacing the power of “grand narratives” is at the very heart of this film: a written record of Aua and his family persists thanks to Rasmussen and his journals, yet in the film Rasmussen appears for all of 10 seconds. The film is not about Rasmussen’s (or his readers’) relationship with Aua and Inuit spirituality (a position of privilege), but about contemporary Inuit relationships to the stories of their ancestors and how they managed to survive in an alien social and economic position (perceived as a peripheral or “lesser” position).

In the previous True Blood episode, a potential suitor (Jesus Velasquez) visits Lafayette’s home and notices a shrine-like area dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Orishas. Jesus gently chastises Lafayette for not knowing the cultural history of the saints and for neglecting to give them offerings. Lafayette scoffs at the suggestion of two shots of tequila, asking Jesus if the saints ever drink them. Jesus takes the gibe seriously and says no, he does. The act of offering is not indicative of thinking the saints have either material presence or that that presence exists in the same space and timescale as those giving the offerings. Instead, the importance of the act is in the gesture of acknowledging otherness, in creating a space for the mystery of the unknown to reside without expectation of a return. In short, it is allowing difference to reside within the home, the familiar. I would like to read the use of the Inuit poem as something similar–a connection between the foreign and the familiar, a horizontal alliance of the marginal, the excluded, or the lesser that interrupts the deadening homogeneity of the dominant (whether that be of race, class, sexual orientation, or geopolitical importance). And, in fact, when I first heard it, this was my immediate thought. However, when I found the missing phrases to the poem and I had time to think more deeply about how the changes to the poem work within the economy of discourses that the end of the episode was at pains to produce, I have come to radically other conclusions.

Next time, I’ll tell you about them.

From → Literature, Poems

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