Living with the Inugguit



A rare glimpse of daily life among the remnants of the last hunter-gatherer communities of the Polar North, where traditional culture is rapidly being eroded by consumerism and climate change, can be seen online from today.

Shot during a year-long stay with the Inugguit, who live in north-west Greenland, Dr Stephen Leonard’s footage documents the lives of the last Inuit people still hunting seals and narwhals with harpoons, and records some of the songs and stories of a community whose vulnerable language, Inuktun, has never been written down in full.

Yet it also captures the fragile nature of a traditional way of life which is perhaps reaching its end. Hunting is becoming increasingly dangerous on the disappearing sea ice of north-west Greenland, but there is little alternative employment. Leonard found a world that has had to come face to face with the effects of climate change and the immediate threat it poses to their culture.

The Inugguit lived as hunter-gatherers in Greenland’s remote Thule region for centuries. Some say that until they were encountered by Sir John Ross in 1818, they believed that they were the only inhabitants of the world. Today, they live in the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement on Earth. But the region’s glaciers are melting fast, the movement of sea mammals upon which they traditionally relied for their livelihoods is becoming less predictable, and the expense of supporting their communities through the provision of supply ships means that there is some pressure from their own Government, 1,000 miles away, for them to move.

Leonard, an anthropological linguist at the University of Cambridge, travelled to the region in August 2010 and stayed for 12 months, living as they do. His aim was to study and record as much as he could of their oral culture – stories, myths, songs and folklore which have only ever existed in Inuktun. 770 people speak this impenetrable language of sighs and groans, in which words can be up to 50 letters long. The fear is that if the Inugguit leave their homeland in search of better employment prospects in south-west Greenland, both the language and the cultural heritage it preserves will, within a few generations, potentially disappear. Their language is not widely understood in other parts of Greenland.

Filming as he went, Leonard soon found that there was far more to record than the language and stories. He took more than 15 hours of footage in all and extracts from this have been edited into a short, filmed report, “Living with the Inugguit”.

In part, the film documents the area’s linguistic culture. In one sequence, a 67-year-old former hunter performs one of the Inugguit’s traditional drum-songs, or piheq. In another, a young girl demonstrates how raising one’s eyebrows means “yes”, while pinching one’s nose means “no”. At the same time, however, we see the realities of a lifestyle that is still often caricatured in the west. Dog sledge races take place across the sea ice, a starving polar bear is butchered after being shot at 3 ‘o’ clock in the morning outside Leonard’s door, and violent storms relentlessly batter fragile-looking huts in tiny settlements.

The most remote of these are barely clinging on. Leonard lived for a while in Savissivik, on Melville Bay; a cluster of buildings mainly occupied by male hunters, whose wives have, in many cases, long-since left. The effects of climate change mean that it is now almost impossible to reach Savissivik by dog-sledge. Its eldest citizen believed the settlement would be closed down within a decade. Another community, Qeqertat, comprises a population of just 22 narwhal-hunters still cheerfully and stubbornly eking out an existence together at the end of a fjord.

Global warming is not the only reason that life is changing, however. In the main settlement, Qaanaaq, Leonard found a community struggling with its own sense of identity as the old way of life disappears. Even here, Amazon delivers, and the material culture and produce of the west has become alluring for a generation who feel increasingly directionless. In this very remote corner of the world, there is only one visiting doctor, one policeman, and little by way of career or employment prospects.

Despite the tremendous changes in their society which have taken place in a very short period of time, the bond of family ties is as strong as ever, with some family members visiting one another four or five times a day. Some young people are caught, however, in a dilemna: “They feel a very special bond to the land and their families,” Leonard says. “On the other hand, staying might mean an uncertain future.”

Leonard himself prepared for the trip by taking a crash-course in West Greenlandic. His knowledge of Danish, which is also spoken by some in the region, combined with this to give him an initial basis for communicating with the locals. Overall he found that people were friendly, welcoming and armed with a tremendous sense of humour. Nevertheless, a traditional suspicion of white Europeans prevails amongst some – the legacy of years of exploitation by assorted visitors. Much of the language he learned was taught to him by children, who were frequently curious to meet him and find out about what he was doing there.

The dogs which the Inugguit keep for hunting purposes and appear several times in his film became a focal point for the sense of cultural distance he felt at times. Dogs are critical to the Inugguit way of life – they can survive in temperatures as low as -50C degrees, smell seals at distant breathing holes, and save hunters’ lives by finding their way home. Yet the Inugguit have no concept of pets and treat them only as tools. “When I stroked a dog, they asked me why I was doing it,” Leonard says. “Although I went out of my way to live like them in virtually every other respect, it was because of my relationship to the dogs that I realised I could never be like them.”

The local storms – so violent that in some cases the force moved items of furniture across the floor of his hut – were, he claims, “fun” to witness. But he struggled with the three and a half months of total darkness that ensue after the sun goes down on 24 October.

“I found myself entering a very negative cycle, questioning what I was doing there, whether I was making any progress, trying to analyse what was going on,” he reflects. “For the first time in my life I felt a sense of depression.” The solution? Leonard ordered some of his favourite films from Amazon, which were duly delivered; a private example of how irresistible forces are killing off the old ways in the Polar North.