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“Yes I could live in this town/ Before I head for home”

In a strange and round about way (or, more accurately, a completely normal internet interaction), my very real attempts at avoiding work dropped me right smack in the middle of a dynamic involving the representational structure of climate change that I have been thinking about for some time. This morning while I procrastinated by surfing around the net read the news, I happened across an entertaining moment from Conan O’Brien that featured the comedian as an animated superhero. While watching Coco become “The Flaming C” in all his loafer and fishnet stocking glory, I noticed a little box to the right called “The Latest” that features videos of guest stars and funny moments on Conan’s show. At the exact moment that I was watching the animated Coco feature, the video being promoted was of KT Tunstall singing her song “Uummannaq” from her recent album, “Tiger Suit” (the featured shorts change, but you can still see this episode by clicking “See All Videos”).

This caught my attention at once and fired my curiosity. Uummannaq is obviously a word in Inuktitut, why was Tunstall singing about something Inuit? What exactly was she even singing about? What was Uummannaq? A little research later, I learned that Uummannaq is a town in northwestern Greenland with, I assume but don’t know for sure, a mostly Inuit community. What does Tunstall have to do with northern Greenland? KT’s appearance on PBS gives a slight clue, writing under the video of her performance: “’Uummannaq’” is about the Arctic in a time of global warming ‘as the temperature rises all around/To the sound of a ticking bomb.'” Why does KT care about “the Arctic in a time of global warming’? I found a clue here: “Drastic Fantastic made KT Tunstall a mainstay on adult album alternative radio. Touring established a worldwide fan base. Then she hit the ice ceiling at a gig in Uummannaq, Greenland, participating in the Cape Farewell Project climate-change initiative. The experience of playing one of her worst shows ever and having the rose-coloured glasses view of her career shatter was the inspiration for Uummannaq.”

The Cape Farewell Project climate-change initiative?! Now you have my attention.

According to their website, Cape Farewell

has brought together leading artists, writers, scientists, educators and media for a series of expeditions to hot spots of climate change. Together they have mapped, measured and been inspired by this awesome environment and have endeavoured to bring home stories and artworks that tell how a warming planet is impacting on the wilderness and us.

The scope and reach of this initiative is staggering, as is the impressive list of artists involved. The expedition that KT Tunstall participated in that led to her disastrous (but ultimately career bolstering) performance was a 2008 expedition to Disko Bay:

The ambition of Cape Farewell’s seventh expedition is to inspire the creative team to respond to climate change both in the Arctic and on their return. On 25 September these artists, scientists, architects, comedians, musicians, playwrights, composers, engineers, film-makers and journalists journey aboard the science research vessel – Grigory Mikheev, from Kangerlussuaq to Disko Bay. The boat will then voyage across the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier, one of Greenland’s largest glaciers moving at a faster rate than ever before, losing 20 million tons of ice every day.

As KT sings:

“…Suddenly

[Chorus 1]
I, oh well I could live in this town
Five cold years before I
Yes I could live in this town
Before I head for home

It’s my turn
With the spotlight burning a hole
But my bird-heart’s turning cold
As the temperature rises all around
To the sound of a ticking bomb
And then it’s not just showing off here
You know there’s something going on here
Going on here

Suddenly…”

Leaving KT Tunstall and the Uummannaq song aside for a moment, I want to consider the Cape Farewell project in relation to several other climate change initiatives currently in process to raise awareness and create spaces for dialogue and change all through very humanistic means: theater, poetry, song, film, fine art and storytelling (often alongside more scientific and ethnographic projects as we can see from the Disko Bay research team’s study of receding glaciers). I’ve mentioned the Civilian’s project “The Great Immensity” (to find out more about the play or to buy tickets for the opening next spring, visit their website: http://www.thecivilians.org/current/the_great_immensity.html), but there is also Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky’s new project, The Book of Ice and Subhankar Banerjee’s ClimateStorytellers.org to consider.

DJ Spooky explains his project:

In light of climate change and tireless human enterprise to be present everywhere on the planet, Miller uses Antarctica as a point on entry for contemplating humanity’s relationship with the natural world…Drawing on the continent’s rich history of inspiring exploration and artistic endeavors, Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky has put together his own multimedia, multidisciplinary study of Antactica. Book of Ice is one aspect of this ongoing project.

Banerjee writes the history of his project:

Last year, I wrote an article, BPing the Arctic? to help stop Shell’s oil–and–gas drilling plan in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Arctic Alaska. Thanks to Tom Engelhard, the piece first appeared in TomDispatch on May 25, and then in numerous other progressive Internet media around the world, reaching millions of people. On May 27, President Obama suspended Shell’s Arctic drilling for 2010.
With that modest victory, I realized it would be nice to have a gathering place on the Internet for in–depth stories on all things global warming.

My interest isn’t whether or not climate change is a measurable fact or to what degree humans are responsible for global warming or even the politics and economics behind denying or proclaiming the reality of a warming world. What interests me is the form that the discussion is taking. What is noticeable here, is that none of these climate change advocates and activists are scientists. These are widely disparate artists: a DJ of electronic music, a photographer, a pop singer, a theater troupe. All use multimedia, the internet, conventional modes of engagement such as conversations or eye-witness accounts as well as more radical forms such as collage, mixed media, and layering the objective (science) with the subjective (representation–art) to try and encompass the ever expanding reality of what change is and what change means.

This reminds me of a paper that Richard Kerridge of Bath Spa University (UK) gave at the 2009 ASLE conference. The panel was simply called “Global Warming” and Kerridge’s paper was titled the slightly enigmatic “Global Warming and Literary Form.” In it, he presented a reading of the English poet Ruth Padel’s “global warming” poem, “Slices of Toast” (unfortunately the entire poem is only available for purchase from the London Review of Books). Kerridge poses the age old problem of form vs. content: the poem is written in the highly conventional, even traditional, poetic form of the “morning poem” or, I believe he termed it, the “matinelle” (I keep meaning to brush up on my critical poetry skills) even while the content, the “plot” of the poem tells the story of an absolute rupture, or disjuncture between the speaker lying in bed, going through her morning routine, with the knowledge given by her radio of calamities across the world in the form of mud-slides in the Philippines and rising waters in Bangladesh. The speaker is unable to process the magnitude and distance that engaging with “the global” entails and reverts back to the domestic, the utterly local, embodied in her address to her daughter and the “small waters/ of our particular rivers”. While ostensibly about global warming, Kerridge argued, the poem does little more than re-present the issues arising from a changing climate in the same pessimistic and paralyzing binaries that characterizes the thinking that led to the political and cultural, not to say economic, modes of production and consumption that got us to this moment in the first place. Kerridge, using Ursula Heise’s criticism in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, calls for new forms of writing that can encompass the temporality of change in such a way that forestalls nostalgia and paralysis while

articulat[ing] a cosmopolitan awareness that links the ecological and the technological across a diversity of cultures, and a utopian kind of human collective that erases neither the individual not the small community but links both to a global ecological self-awareness (Heise 85).

While I don’t think KT Tunstall’s song quite reaches this lofty goal, I do think the project of engaging artists and all sorts of “cultural workers” in the project of re-envisioning climate change, what it means, who it affects, how do we talk about it, is on the right track. Cape Farewell, DJ Spooky, Subhankar Banerjee, The Civilians, Zacharias Kunuk’s film on Inuit and climate change–all enliven the terrain and the conversation as they test new forms, symbols, metaphors, tropes and eventually, hopefully, new modes of inhabitation and engagement with the world, our world.

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 4)

(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…)

Knud Rasmussen, working with a better grasp of the language than Jenness, also worked harder to acknowledge the individuality of singers that sung a particular song during the moment in which he recorded them as well as the specific context of the performance. He notes exchanges of songs such as when he is asked to perform and in Across Arctic America even photographically memorializes Qingaruvdliaq, “the woman who knew all the men’s songs and prompted them when they forgot the words” (96). These authorial notations reveal the songs to be mutable, changeable, transferable, and highly innovative. Sophie McCall claims in her analysis of what she terms “partial translation” in the acclaimed film by Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat (which contains all dialogue in Inuktitut with subtitles in English), that the opening sequence of the soon-to-be-deposed chief Kumaglak singing his song to a stranger is “a kind of manifesto that shapes the politics and poetics of the film: to respond to and contest the history of appropriation in recording Inuit songs…The incident [the meeting with the stranger who then kills him] suggests that the song’s power lies in its performance, and the relations of address cannot be separated from the song itself. Taking the song out of one context and recontextualizing it in another profoundly affects the range of meanings that it can generate” (19). Songs are given to people in the form of gifts, as items of exchange, and as peace offerings, but as this film demonstrates they can also be used as weapons and indicators of political allegiance or change. Some songs are used by relatives and changed to fit the individual, while other songs cannot be changed even as they are handed down in family groups, such as Kumaglak’s song which never changes through three generations of its singing.

Kumaglak’s song is sung three times in the film for very specific political purposes, but in each singing, the song is never changed by either his son or his grandson (the usurpers) after his death. In Kunuk’s sequel to Atanarjuat, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the politics of partial translation are highlighted once again: very few of the songs that the Inuit sing are translated into the English subtitles, perhaps highlighting the predicament of what happens to Inuit songs when given into English—the poem becomes not just open for change (which is acceptable under certain proscriptions), it becomes open for change in ways that both de-place the specificity of location and audience and de-politicize the content of the song (which could be argued is the case for “my small adventure”). McCall argues persuasively that “[t]he presentation of…songs as isolated fragments ignores the storytelling interactions and the social contexts of the exchanges” (21). Nicole Nolette has argued equally persuasively about the politics behind the act of naming a speech act “partial translation”: “the attribution of a positive aspect to ‘incomplete’ or ‘partial’ translation by McCall clearly tips in favor of the Inuit audience. Herein lies the problematic, and yet extremely relevant, nature of naming this kind of translation ‘partial’. While very vividly pointing to incompleteness, this naming practice also emphasizes partiality as a way of favouring one side of an issue.” Nolette then proceeds to complicate McCall’s assertions with a pertinent discussion of the historically colonial relationship between orality (dialogue in Inuktitut) and literacy (subtitles in English or French). Of course, those proficient in all three languages (most young movie-watching Inuit), are the viewers this set-up is partial to!

Next post will get into that little issue about the “lesser religions” and how formulating the poetics/politics of the “my small adventures” song in this way goes hand in glove with the rather conservative act of its editing.

My heart goes out to Norway and Norwegians around the world.

 

World Eskimo-Indian Olympics

…is happening right now in Fairbanks, Alaska. Unfortunately, last night was the baby regalia contest, but if you stop by tonight or watch the show on local TV channels, you’ll catch the crowning of the new Miss WEIO. Last year’s Miss WEIO went on to win Miss Indian World, I believe.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the games, and as the News-Miner puts it:

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is almost as old as the state of Alaska, but the games it features are far older. They test strength, agility, endurance and mental tenacity with unique contests developed by the Native people who have inhabited this end of the North American continent since before recorded history.

I tuned in on the TV and caught some acrobatic blanket tossing and some dances by an Anchorage troupe (the Klinikmiut Dancers) showcasing dances and songs from the Diomedes Islands. I’m hoping to see some high kicking, ear-pulling, muktuk eating and more dancing tonight! To learn more about WEIO–its history, games, and schedule of events–visit the website www.weio.org.

If you are in the area, of course, head on down to watch the action live at the Carlson Center and check out the arts and crafts fair for beaded earrings, porcupine quill boxes, summer kuspuks, prints and paintings by local artists and don’t forget to try some salmon jerky!

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 3)

(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…)

For the introduction to this post, I just want to direct your attention to two excellent articles and one smart blog post related to my topic. The first is an essay by Megan McArdle, “Anatomy of a Fake Quote” (published May 3rd, 2011 in The Atlantic); the second is Jason Zinoman’s “Style, Soap, Sex–and Splat!” (Slate, Aug. 2, 2010); the third is a post on Racialicious called “Frenemies, Magical Negroes & Biscuits: True Blood S03E07” (Aug. 4, 2010), hosted by Thea Lim and featuring Joseph Lamour, Tami Winfrey Harris, Latoya Peterson and Andrea Plaid (none of the authors could tell what Lafayette was saying about the lesser religions either!). While McArdle’s article is about the apocryphal attribution to Martin Luther King Jr. of a quote that went around the internet in the days after bin Laden was killed, the analysis of why and how the quotation mutated while still being linked to King is important for thinking about the same process that happened to the Copper Eskimo song. McArdle suggests why people became so defensive about the apocryphal King quote as they went to great lengths to try to prove its truth:

“We become invested in these quotes because they say something important about us–and they let us feel that those emotions were shared by great figures in history.  We naturally search for reasons that they could have said it–that they could have felt like us–rather than looking for reasons to disbelieve.”

In my generous moments I want to believe that a similar operation is at work with the Inuit song. However, as Thea points out in “Frenemies”: the Inuit prayer…

“did feel a little appropriative, despite last week’s conversation about the proper way to honour the Orishas. I mean, this is the same show that had three of its characters brutally murder an “ethnic” sex worker a few weeks ago: it has the tendency to make use of people of colour.”

Slate’s writer, in contrast, takes an altogether different approach to the Inuit prayer in his article about the mash of genres that makes True Blood so irresistible. He writes:

“Finally, let’s peel the onion of this week’s conspicuous literary reference. At the hospital bed, Lafayette’s recitation of Inuit poetry that rethinks the importance of my “small adventures, my fears, those small ones that seemed so big,” fits nicely with the current vampire plot to eradicate the human race. Its spiritual imagery also frames the mystical elements of Sookie’s dream. But the writers of this show are tricky and I would bet that one of them spotted this quote from the end of the 1983 adventure film Never Cry Wolf.”

While I have yet to see the film, I did read the original book version by Farley Mowat. Zinoman continues with a brief but pertinent plot summary:

“The plot of that movie follows a biologist assigned to northern Canada [in the book, this is Mowat] to figure out whether wolves are responsible for destroying the caribou population, only to find that humans are more at fault [actually it is the white trapper and mining population destroying the caribou herds and also driving the indigenous people to starvation]. Is this a hint at the role the werewolves will play in the vampire conspiracy? Or might this be a lighter joke? Wikipedia reports that Never Cry Wolf was the first Disney movie to show a naked adult derriere. As die-hard fans know all too well, Alcide, the werewolf hunk standing around the bed, showed up in the nude for the first time [the week before]. Only an obsessive fan would connect these dots, and it might be the case that someone just liked the sound of this quote. But True Blood loves its hints and teases as much as it does its skin and scares.”

And I’ll leave it at that and abruptly shift gears to talk a little bit about my interest in this Inuit song, namely the edited version’s relation to the full poem and how it fits in a wider context of the tradition of Inuit song. Please feel free to comment about these other takes on the use of the quote in the comments section or add your own interpretation.

The song in question, or pisiit (pisiit, or traditional songs, sometimes called ajaajaa, are usually owned by a specific person. Sung by someone else, verbal credit was given to the owner. The term is now also used for hymns. A pisiq which has had changes made to it is called an ikiaqtagaq [“Perspectives on Traditional Law”)]), could be a personal song of either a shaman or a powerful individual or just as easily an ordinary man or woman (although Rasmussen had a habit of seeking out the shamans of each group he visited). This particular song (and quite a few others that I have read) situates the singer in space as it also orients the singer out towards a world in which natural forces such as wind can destroy life quite easily. The singer, through the act of song, engages and renegotiates certainties like knowledge about the world and the self as outside forces require. What is interesting to note is that the version ascribed to the Thule Expedition has a line that specifically assigns the fear felt by the narrator to “When from a shore wind I drifted out / In my kayak / And I thought I was in danger.” And the “great day that dawns, / And the light that fills the world” comes from the ability “To live and see in huts and on journeys…” The other long version (Tegoodligak’s) is similar in its inclusion of from where the fear arises (being on the windy ocean in a kayak), but does not include the parallel calm that comes from being located once more in a known realm of hearth and home, a repositioning that allows the speaker to once more journey out and (hopefully) return.

With regard to the matter of an “original” it seems to trouble those in the habit of collecting the song rather than the maker. Diamond Jenness it has been noted in his attempts to record “Eskimo Songs” in his ethnographic studies in the early to mid 1900s, was often frustrated by his lack of being able to attribute poems and songs to a single author and by his singers apparent lack of interest in the matter of origins. At one point he states disagreeably about the material he has to work with (although he does not speak the language, he is still able to shift the blame to others): “All the individual words…may be capable or translation, yet taken together they will yield no meaning…There are cases probably where the obscurity lies in the translation rather than in the original, owing to my imperfect knowledge of the language and the inadequacy of my interpreters” (13, qtd in McCall, 21-22). And in the end, he finds the poems or songs themselves at fault for they will not conform to his aesthetic understanding of the lyric poem. And it is really not until modernism and the rise in popularity of the language poem that an aesthetics could be attributed to Inuit “poetry” by a western Euro-American audience as they became consumable through translation to a wide readership (note all the different editions of “Eskimo poetry” published in English). Of course, the politics of difference is edited out, as is the unease that comes with partial translation as subsequent generations of editions edited out difficult or nontranslatable terms and ideas (cf. McCall, Groening).

And next time, I will explain and expand on that last summary sentence. Stay tuned!

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 2)

(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…)

The point is not that there is an original or definitive version of this song that we can invest with the authority from which all others are judged. Rather, my interest stems from what is edited out of the versions most closely aligned with the Inuit speakers who either first composed them or exchanged the songs for whatever reason (friendship, trade, memorials, etc) and how they then circulates in a variety of texts and spaces. Without even considering the effect of the internet on the transmission and editing of these poems, we can look at the phenomena of the so-called edited volumes of “Eskimo poetry.” Including Carpenter’s Anerca (1959), I have five “books of Eskimo poetry” in my possession and that’s just a poor sampling from a library in California: Beyond the High Hills: A Book of Eskimo Poems (1961); Richard Lewis’ I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo (1971); Tom Lowenstein’s Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland (1973); and John Robert Colombo’s Poems of the Inuit (1981).

Almost all of the poems in these collections come from Rasmussen’s or Diamond Jenness’ collections and the same few “favorites” are repeated throughout. All of these volumes begin with an elegiac introduction lamenting the loss or soon to be lost “traditional” or “authentic” or “pure” Eskimo and Eskimo song. Or, if not quite stated in these terms, the penchant for “disappearance” is certainly what the editors find most alluring about their subject matter. Carpenter asserts: “In neither [the new or old poems] do [the] poets take care to be remembered as individuals; but simply disappear, as it were, behind their works; the poems, therefore, have been assigned to neither singers nor makers.” Lewis writes: “This book grew out of my interest in the literature of indigenous peoples…My hope is that this collection will help preserve a culture that began to disappear in 1955, when encounters with modern technology, information, and life patterns began to destroy Eskimo life as it had been lived for over 1300 years.” And Colombo: “I appreciate these texts as I do Canadian poems…[unfortunately there] may come a time when the poems included in this collection will no longer be known in Inuktitut. The language itself may soon disappear.” Lowenstein also speaks of loss and “lastness” although he and Colombo both take pains to give individuality to the speakers of the poems, recognizing, like Rasmussen, what is gained by preserving “a picture of Eskimo song that does not just add up to a generalized aspect of a homogeneous folk-culture, where the singer subordinated his style and subject-matter to the norms of the group.”

Unlike the previous claims of a radical lack of subjectivity that denies a singer desire, motivation, or even complex thought processes (Carpenter) or somewhat presumptively sounds the death knell of Inuit culture and language (Lewis, Colombo), the last statement by Lowenstein regarding Rasmussen’s contribution to the study of Inuit songs and the singers of them is important for considering what happens when the Inuit song in question loses some of the most evocative lines and then ends up on a hit TV show.

As a somewhat pertinent aside, I have never actually read the “my small adventures” poem in Rasmussen. I had almost the entire collection of the Report in my possession a while back, missing only…volume 9. I hope to rectify this oversight soon. And hopefully next week I will get around to talking about poetry in an Inuit context!

Art about town

Yesterday was First Friday in Fairbanks, Alaska (and in many other communities too). For those of you like my friend Phil who have never been to an FF event and need an introduction, this is what I told him: FF is a once a month opening to the public of galleries and studios usually combined with the showing of new work or work in a new context by local artists. The public then drives around and judges the various openings by the quality of snacks provided.

We visited Well Street Art Co., Well and Good Studios, the Alaska House Art Gallery, and the Fairbanks Art Association’s Bear Gallery. We saw delicate large scale “Bayou Chevreuil” in metal, beautifully detailed nature themed wood cuts, watercolors of scenes from around Alaska, and avant garde sculptures inspired by local natural phenomena. The show that I’m most interested in thinking about here is the one hosted by Well Street: “Eskimo Drawings and Prints” (with art by Kivetoruk Moses, Bernard Kataxac, Wilbur Walluck, Florence Malewotkuk, George Ahgupuk, Robert Mayakok, Milo Minock, and Ken Lisbourne and others not listed on the website).

Although I found the drawings to be absolutely stunning–powerful, evocative, understated, heavily indebted to both realism and the magical–the presentation left me completely dissatisfied. Hidden away on a shelf was a book entitled Eskimo Drawings, which when I looked it up online, I found was originally the catalog to an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of Art in 2003. The book, and I assume the exhibit in 2003, is filled with art history relevant to the drawings displayed, other historical and political contexts, ethnographic information, interviews with friends, relatives, community members of the artist as well as with the artists themselves, and other pertinent and interesting influences and details. The relationship between the book and the present show was never clear, but perhaps (and I am totally guessing), some of the prints on display were connected with the previous exhibit. However, all of the context from the Anchorage exhibit was missing from the show I went to. To illustrate: there were several Cape Dorset prints from the ’70s alongside drawings from western Alaska from the ’50s and very recent prints from northern Alaska. Rarely was a date or location given for the pieces on display. The various artists had radically different styles, mediums, and content. Really, the only unifying factor was that at some point in history each of the artists’ ethnicity had been deemed “Eskimo”: a term, we should all know by now, that is in disfavor as there are certainly other designations that are much more accurate: Inuit, Inupiat, Yup’ik (and perhaps the artist would even request another more specific group identification). I realize that a gallery is not a museum and that art is given a status in opposition to ethnographic object. However, I think the gallery did a disservice to the artists and the visitors by not only neglecting to point out what any observant person could see–namely that the art on display was widely disparate (a former art teacher taught me: either celebrate or eradicate!)–but that there was also a moment for connectivity and enlightenment for all involved that was lost. And if indeed the reason for not giving more information about the artists and their pieces was to more concretely endow the prints and drawings as “art” above and beyond their exotic content, the show failed in that as well when it homogenized all the pieces into one erroneous and temporally inaccurate category called “Eskimo.”

Phil and I both agreed that the Alaska House set the best spread of snacks.

Owl Ambassadors

In a recent course I assisted, several of my students chose to write on this article in the New York Times:  “Getting Wise to the Owl, a Charismatic Sentry in Climate Change” by Jim Robbins (May 23, 2011). Below is a student paper that I was given permission to publish that deals thoughtfully with the aims of the course (to think critically about the nature of humanism when confronted with “the animal”) as well as considering climate, humans and nonhuman animals in the Arctic.

 “Owl Ambassadors”

The argument of “Getting Wise to the Owl, a Charismatic Sentry in Climate Change”, by Jim Robbins, is that there is a relation between the snowy owl’s general well-being and the owl’s ecosystem and that relation can be exploited by humans. By studying the snowy owl and its well being, researchers are able to discern also the well being of lemmings, who encompass 90% of the owl’s diet. Because of the role they can play in helping detect changes in ecosystems, owls have been called “ecological ambassadors” in this article and represent hope in the adversity represented by extreme changes in climate. While this is the main point of the article, it continues by stressing the (non-scientific) importance that owls play in human society. The author mentions their prominence in literature and folklore, and the similarity between the human face and an owl’s. The communication skills of owls are also mentioned and, although crudely referenced, their sounds are described through onomatopoeia as “hooting” and “tooting” along with other the variability in their sounds and clicks.

The article devolves into a description of owl characteristics, like their “natural night-vision-goggles”, body structure, and aerial ability. Interestingly enough, there is a mention of short-eared and long-eared owls; however, their names do not describe actual anatomical parts, rather they describe their appearance in its similarity to human and other animal ears.

Finally, the author notes the importance of studying owls for the detection of changes in the ecosystems they inhabit, although the time it takes for these studies to develop a context (the system part of ecosystem that the owl inhabits) and a viable established pattern (that can be correlated through time) is long and the work tedious.

The title of the article immediately reminds me of the problem with anthropomorphizing animals and valuing their beings only in relation to human life or as a symbol of an aspect of human character. According to the animal ethicist James Serpell in his essay “Anthropomorphism and Anthropomorphic Selection—Beyond the ‘Cute response’” (Society & Animals 11: 83-100, 2003), anthropomorphism is defined as “the attributions of human mental states (thoughts, feelings, motivations and beliefs) to nonhuman animals,” and although his article is specifically rendered to the domestic animal realm, his assertion that anthropomorphism functions to benefit humans and human ideals is applicable to this article and its usage of owls as practical markers of ecology (Serpell 85). In Robbin’s article, using animals as practical devices or instruments is clear when describing owls as a “key” through the study of their dietary well being, and rendering the observed owl life as simply data that would help “flag changes in the global arctic system region—even without other indicators”. In this last instance, owls have been entirely replaced by the word “indicator”, this move implies the rendering of the animal as a tool for reading the environment, but not necessarily as a living animal. The practicality of the owl for human understanding (as “tool”) is further noted by their study being considered financially cheap as well as the quick nature of gathering data or information of the ecosystem through owls. The following is used to describe the unscientific reasons behind studying owls that underpin the scientific necessity of studying owls: “People pay attention to owls more than other birds because they look like us,” said researcher Denver Holt. “They have a symmetrical face, eyes facing forward, a round, flat face and a round head with feathers that look like hair.”

This potentially explains why some kinds of owls are named by their similarity to human traits, such as the before mentioned short and long-eared owls. It also assimilates the owl into a hierarchy of proximity to human likeliness or relationship, much like dogs and cats, or even apes. In a reversal of roles Mr. Holt, the director of the nonprofit Owl Research Group, is referred to as “Mr. Owl”. It seems that he has been given owl attributes based on his knowledge and perceived understanding of owl behavior.

That owls are associated with wisdom, a positive and highly valued human attribute, and charisma places the owl in a category not unlike werewolves, who are able to almost seamlessly breach human and non-human animal levels of being and simultaneously inhabit both and neither. The owl is then not only an animal who is similar to humans, it is an animal that approaches a human ideal of knowledge superior to that of most humans. In the New York Times article, the owl not only represents human wisdom, but also knowledge not easily attainable through human inference in its ability as a natural marker and indicator of ecology. Its proximity to nature, that humans are perceived to lack or have lost along the evolutionary path, combined with its wisdom make the owl into an idealized creature; as a caption under a photograph suggests, it makes the owl an “ecological ambassador”, something that Mr. Holt can only approximate.

Finally, that in investigating owls, scientists hope to detect, prevent, and explain climate phenomena or global warming, not only speaks to looking toward non-human nature for knowledge, but that the knowledge sought is to counteract a climate concern believed to have been created by humans themselves. In other words, humans created an ecological disaster through their furthering away from nature-being but our neighboring owls can provide the solution we as humans are unable to approach due to our separation and lack of sensitivity.

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 1)

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

In honor of the new and fourth season of True Blood (HBO), I am going to publish, in at least six parts, an essay I was spurred to write near the end of last season.

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood

In the seventh episode of the third season of True Blood, Lafayette Reynolds says a small prayer over the bedside of his friend and the main character of the series, Sookie Stackhouse, as she lies dying in a hospital from a vicious attack by the vampire Bill (her former boyfriend—it was non-premeditated, Bill was not “in his right mind”). Upon finishing the poem, Lafayette replies to Sookie’s brother Jason’s murmured “that’s beautiful,” with the colorful rejoinder “that shit is Inuit.” He then invokes the use of lesser religions, although I couldn’t quite understand what he said about them. I am interested in this “Inuit poem” of Lafayette’s, how it has traveled from the Arctic to Louisiana, and what exactly the politics of its representation are and how they function within an economy of difference in the space of True Blood.

Let’s look at the poem for a moment. With only a few minutes of online research, I have come to the conclusion that this is not the original poem. The original (as controversial as that term is and one we will look at soon) poem seems to have come from the “Copper Eskimos” (or more accurately, the Kitlinuharmiut) and was first written down by Knud Rasmussen on his Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921-1924. It would have been spoken in Inuktitut, written in Danish and then later translated into English. There are two versions of the poem online, not counting the one spoken on True Blood, and both of these other versions attribute a location or a people to the poem a little more specifically than does Lafayette.

Three different versions of the poem:

The poem as spoken by Lafayette in Season 3, Episode 7. The words and the clip in question can be seen here:

Prayer At Time Of Adversity

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.

Some probable source songs for the True Blood version (or, really, I should say as used on True Blood; this version has a longer internet life than the TV series):

1. Song from the Kitlinuharmiut (Copper Eskimo), attributed to The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924. Found here.

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.

My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing.
To live and see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

2. And another from Nature and Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, p. 196-197:

And I think over again my small adventures
When with the wind I drifted in my kayak
And thought I was in danger

My fears,
Those small ones that seemed so big
For all the vital things
I had to get and to 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.

(The notes read “Anon. Eskimo Song as Translated by Tegoodligak, South Baffin Island cited in Canadian Eskimo Art, The Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources”).

The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter includes the poem in his collection of diverse Inuit songs, Anerca (1959). He attributes its origin to Rasmussen’s Report, vol. 9. In Carpenter, the words are almost identical to the one on the website that also attributes it to Rasmussen, except for a difference in formatting and some punctuation. You may have also noted that only the True Blood internet version has been given a title.

The next segment will consider “song” or “poetry” in an Inuit context while I consider the processes by which this specific song becomes edited into a reduced form.

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