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When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 6)

September 7, 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…)

All apologies for taking so long to get through this, but I have not been idle since my last True Blood update. Since writing part 5 I have watched Never Cry Wolf (the film mentioned in the Slate.com article posted in part 3) and found the “My small adventures” poem in Knud Rasmussen’s Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimo, the 9th volume of The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924.

After watching Never Cry Wolf, I believe I have found the origin of the abridged version of the poem and have several informed guesses as to why it was shortened in the first place. The film follows a white Canadian biologist from the south who travels up north to study wolves and caribou to try and figure out if wolves are the cause of the caribou population crash. The biologist forms a bond with his objects of study, the wolves, and an Inuk elder who takes the hapless southerner under his wing, bridging cultural, species, and temporal divides in the process. Along with the elder is his grandson, Mike, an Inuk who straddles modernity with bad teeth, a rifle, and the attitude that if killing wolves brings in cash for new snow machines, then he will kill wolves even though they are his grandfather’s spirit animal. By the end, the film represents Mike as aligned with the white men who come to shoot anything that moves and who see the wilderness only in terms of potential profit. In a creepy scene near the end, Mike flashes a fully toothed smile and departs the tent. This is a significant moment because on first meeting Mike, Mike references his gapped tooth grin, saying: “This is what happens when a meat-eater becomes a sugar-eater.” The film finds Mike’s claim to being Inuit false; he has become a sugar-eater and no longer has rights to wilderness, authenticity or tradition. The biologist refuses to leave the north with winter coming on, repudiating the corrupt civilization of the south to follow the Inuk elder farther into the north. As the two depart across the tundra in blowing snow, the abridged poem scrolls across the screen:

I think over again my small adventures.
My fears, those small ones that seemed so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and reach.
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

This poem is no longer about Inuit, or is even Inuit, with the markers of Inuit community such as “huts” and “kayaks” disappeared. This is now a poem about the white biologist who has just eschewed civilization and its murderous impulses towards nature. Mike is deemed inauthentic because he does not wear a caribou parka and he speaks English; therefore he is not the rightful heir to the (perceived) purity of nature untouched—of a better balance between human and nature (with nature exalted and human degraded). This is an ideologically loaded position that crops up again and again in fights over subsistence hunting rights and indigenous land rights cases. Editing out all markers of culture and community in this Inuit poem and then attaching the new reduced, but still sort of “Inuit”, poem to the white biologist, places the enlightened white person who reveres nature and the natural order of things (which seems to be helping wolves kill caribou while running around buck naked) as having more rights to the land than an Inuk who was probably forced to a southern boarding school and beaten every time he spoke his native language.

And at the other end of the spectrum, I finally got a look the poem in its original (as it gets) written form. Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimo is fascinating and contains dozens of stories and poems with the original Inuktitut and then a translation under it in English. The “My small adventures” poem, however, does not contain the Inuktitut or much of any information at all, other than it originates with the Copper Eskimos. Rasmussen inserts it in his recollection of starting out traveling one day near the beginning of his report, to express his emotions about his upcoming trip. Rasmussen, unlike the biologist in Never Cry Wolf, is adamantly looking forward to meeting new people, learning their stories, and joining in the festivities to which he’s invited. The volume contains so many wonderful pictures of Inuit doing all sorts of activities, descriptions of daily life and affectionate relationships between family members and between Rasmussen and the different people with which he lived and traveled, and is suffused with awe and humility for a people whose ingenuity allows them to live in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Never Cry Wolf was a great film, but in the end I was disappointed with its message regarding contemporary Inuit. Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimo is a book I can’t wait to read again.

And here’s just a few more notes on the poem in the context of True Blood:

The unabridged Inuit poem is about humility in the face of greater forces, in which humble acknowledgement of the smallness of being can lead to greater insight into the world. The song moves from outside, in the ocean in a kayak buffeted by wind, into the home, where security gives a point of reflection upon which to build an engagement with the world not predicated on domination. Although the poem is built around a series of binaries (outside/inside, ocean/land, danger/safety, small/large, light/implied darkness, life/possible death), the conclusion is not one side of the binary favored over the other, but a constant movement back and forth. The poem does not deny that there are oppositional forces in the world. Instead, it uses the movement and the energy from the binary relationships to more firmly situate the singer as intimately bound up in the world. Through the expressing of movement in the world and in the self the speaker builds a relationship with his (most likely the narrator is male because he is in a kayak. The umiak is more associated with women’s travel across water. However, songs can be created and performed by both men and women equally) environment, an ecopoetics that is intimately tied to place and where the difference between oppositional terms is celebrated, not eradicated, just like Jesus with his saints.

The abridged version, however, tells a different story. It moves us away from the specifics of location and worldliness into the epic dialectical battle between good and evil as metonymized in the triumph of the great day dawning, filling the world with light, banishing darkness. It sounds like a Reverend Newlin sermon. What is interesting to note is at this point in the series, what has been a mainly gothic telling of the Bon Temps tale (turning on tropes of excess and sublime reorderings of individual subjectivity through the continued revelations about the existence of other-than-humans), is now being reduced to a millennial tale, a battle between darkness and light, good and evil. The audience is left with Sookie’s out of body experience in the land of fairies with goodness being blackened out by the coming presence of death, in the form of the vampire Bill, as he comes into the hospital room. The Inuit poem as spoken by Lafayette is a bridge between the genres as it ushers in a turn in the storyline, without pushing the story too overtly into Christian allegory. By placing the battle of light vs. dark in the world of the Inuit, this dialectic becomes the universal struggle of existence. It is naturalized as such.

Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of the series! (This written series anyway–True Blood season 4 petered out long ago).

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From → Literature, Poems

7 Comments
  1. lisa permalink

    The biologist in Never Cry Wolf states near the end of the movie (i’m paraphrasing) “In the end there is no right or wrong…” Although he has become attached to the wolves he seems to recognize that he cannot judge. He listens carefully to to the Inuit story of the caribou and wolf, and confirms what he is told when he breaks open the marrow: the wolves due remove the sick thereby strengthening the herd. The movie is based on the true story of Farley Mowat’s experience as a biologist. Read the book and any of his other wonderful stories. There is no other Canadian writer who has so earnestly brought the world of first people in Canada to the public. Also read Snow Walker and People of the Dear.

    • Yes, I have read quite a bit of Farley Mowat’s work, including his book, Never Cry Wolf, from which the film draws its source material. In this series of posts, I am focusing on the film for how it chooses to display relationships between generations of Inuit, Inuit and white people, and amongst white people. The movie very specifically invalidates the young Inuk Mike’s claim to belonging to the land even as it validates the white biologist’s entitlement through his deeper, more authentic, mode of living with the wolves. I would say that Mowat’s writing is more subtle than the Disney-fied version on film, although he does tend to value a nostalgic past for the North’s indigenous people. I would welcome more of your thoughts on this topic.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 1) « arcticisms
  2. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 2) « arcticisms
  3. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 3) « arcticisms
  4. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 5) « arcticisms
  5. When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 7) « arcticisms

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