A land where the sun rises when it sets

Published September 1, 1998

WHEN WE LOOK to the northwest sky the sun has dyed the ash-grey clouds a muted pink. They resemble a gigantic, suspended, amorphous bubblewrap just about to envelop the brown silhouette of mountains below

The water between our boat and the far shore reveals nothing of this. Instead, the sea’s surface shows a million tiny fluid lines of terra-cotta and burnt gold. My watch reads 30 minutes past midnight.

Our gaze shifts 25 degrees north. Clouds are absent in that part of the quadrant. One of the children wakes inside the wooden cabin forward. She cries for a few minutes, but lapses into muffled contentment when she suckles on her mother’s amama. We lift our eyes up again, but I can’t decide whether the sunrise (for that is what it is ) is cream or bluish white. I blink vigorously to clear my vision, but the desire for sleep betrays my sense. Now the dawn is the colour of seashells, now of coral, of brassy yellow, now of … I give up, and surrender myself to this arctic phenomenon – the setting and the rising of the sun simultaneously.

I am a part of the annual human migration “to the land.” This particular movement is from Pangnirtung to the region of Cumberland Sound, but across the Arctic similar voyages are being undertaken by the Inuit of every community. In the six or seven weeks of spring and summer during July and August, as many as 70 per cent of the people of the hamlet will have some time “on the land.”

While this human rhythm is taking place, tundra and waters are the womb for a brief though fecund birthing of species as dissimilar as the diminutive lichen and the gargantuan but graceful bowhead whale.

There is no time to linger. Animal and vegetable must use the few short days of summer to propagate the species.

But how to account for this Inuit characteristic? I do not think it an exaggeration to label the migratory habit as instinctive. Here is more than the need to do some camping, more than the desire to keep in touch with nature. To suggest that it’s done to find relief from the tensions of community life is to trivialize it.

This behaviour is simply not transformational. Dare I say that there is a spiritual quality present in the action of returning “to the land?” Certainly, it is a defining act, an act of being and not only of doing.

The Inuit have a word to express this seasonal need. In Inuktitut it is nunanaraja – that place which resides in my heart.

My pulse quickens as our boat glides over the clear, watery rocks below. The hull scrunches against the sand as we come to rest on a shore of the Sound. I am in new territory – my companions are home.

Rev. Roy Bowkett is principal of the Arthur Turner Training School, Pangnirtung, NWT.


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