by Rachel Qitsualik
How shall I go to compose this important song?
How shall I invent it to help me?
I am wholly ignorant.
Those who dance with elegance,
I will get inspiration from them.
- Ogpingalik, a Netsilingmiut songstress, 1960
Inuit have always believed that physicality is a sort of intelligence unto itself — and a vital one at that. Southerners who have travelled with Inuit have remarked that Inuit show an amazing ability to fix nearly anything, constantly finding new uses for old parts and tools. An Inuk can take one object, made for a single purpose, and find a dozen new uses for it.
Similarly, explorers have expressed a great deal of amazement at Inuit endurance and pain tolerance: a hunter’s ability to run full-tilt for several hours; the ability to stand utterly immobile over an aglu (seal breathing-hole) for an interminable amount of time; the ability to haul a heavy kill, perhaps more than the hunter’s own body weight, over vast distances. These are all good examples of the kind of physical prowess Inuit have needed simply to exist at all.
And it doesn’t end there. When a tool or toggle or part of a qamotik (sled) breaks on a hunt, a substitute must be made fast. Lashings and traces must be fixed, detached, or untangled with utter urgency. Shelters must be erected or taken down as quickly as possible, depending on sudden shifts in the weather.
Human existence itself can hinge upon improvisation. Improvisation with speed. With these kinds of needs, it is no wonder, then, that Inuit have come to depend not only upon the intelligence characteristic of the conscious mind, but that of the unconsciousness as well. Their survival has come to depend upon a physical intelligence, that which exhibits itself when there is no time for thought.
While this kind of physical intelligence is to some degree genetic, a result of Inuit having been engineered by the extreme environmental conditions, it is also a result of culture. Inuit culture has almost obsessively emphasized the importance of spatial coordination and athleticism. Whether the ajajaaq (string games) taught to children as soon as they were able to learn them, or the amazing traditional athletics still exhibited at the Arctic Winter Games, these were all training methods of one kind or another.
As a girl, I was privileged, in that my father allowed me to assist in his hunting. I became used to running for lengthy periods of time alongside a qamotik, and I became able to untangle multiple dog-traces in record time.
But it did not come easily. I had to be conditioned first. So, one day, near Prince of Wales Island, my father decided to train me. His demeanor suddenly changed from gentle, indulgent parent, to barking hellion. Nothing I did was quick enough, good enough. Lift this, toss that, coil that rope, set this up, make this, go here, faster, faster, not fast enough. I wept. I was sore day after day. Comfort became a stranger.
Yet I cannot dispute the fact that it improved me. I learned to act from reflex rather than thought, and I loved it. I was proud like never before.
I later learned that this was one traditional way of introducing Inuit youth to the adult world. But since Inuit don’t practice this kind of thing anymore, it has left us with a sticky problem: How can future generations still gain the personal benefits of traditional conditioning? How can the natural physical intelligence be used to improve modern existence?
Sports are a good way. Whether through southern sports, or the more traditional nature of the Arctic Winter Games, such athleticism is indisputably valuable. Nevertheless, the one flaw of a sport is its competitive nature, a nature that tends to repel those with no interest in testing themselves against others. Conversely, the traditional Inuktitut way of developing physical intellect is characterized more by its tendency to test the self.
Yet there is one activity that accomplishes such self-testing quite adequately, a physical intelligence with roots in Asia.
China, being very old, enjoys as much mythic past as verifiable history. One of its myths tells of an Indian monk, known as Bodhidharma, who visited China’s Shaolin Temple.
There, he supposedly found the Chinese monks in poor health, and consequently taught them various breathing techniques and physical exercises. It is said that the Shaolin monks eventually used such techniques as the basis for hand-to-hand fighting styles. Over the centuries, such styles gained renown and were eventually taught to non-monks, spreading over China, then all of Asia. Thus do the Asian martial arts exist today.
He who knows others is wise;
Yet he who knows himself is enlightened.
He who conquers others is strong;
Yet he who conquers himself is mighty.
He who is sated is rich;
Yet he who directs himself has power.
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
The truth of the matter is similar, but much more complex, and I’ll only write of it briefly. As with the rest of the world, Asia has been pumping out martial arts systems, in various areas, at various times, since the advent of bronze weaponry (in China) around 1500 BC.
Even the Mongol wrestling style called “cilnum” (interestingly utilizing the same edge-of-the-fist blows Inuit traditionally used in unarmed fighting) is incredibly ancient.
Yet none of these fighting systems has persisted like the sort of martial arts that began to trickle out of China since 500 AD — roughly two thousand years later. Why?
The most likely reason is that, while Bodhidharma’s visit is largely mythical, the Shaolin tradition nevertheless did influence many of the martial arts in Asia, however indirectly.
And its influence left such martial arts with a semi-religious, ascetic flavour. In this way, the people who today practice the descendant systems of such martial arts might not be monks or Buddhists or even Asian, but they are still peppered by such ethics as:
1. Violence is a last recourse.
2. Respect family and culture.
3. Master the self.
4. Exercise restraint and discipline.
5. Struggle to improve society.
The example above is not a military code, but a civilian, even semi-monastic, one. It is the difference between the martial art studied for war and that studied for the sake of self-discipline. In this way, such martial arts merely offer, as a bonus, the fact that they are useful for self-defence, while their real goal is perfection of the self.
I described my experience of undergoing a form of traditional Inuit training under my father. He was harsh — even what people today might call cruel — but once I overcame my self-pity, I came out of it with new skills, a new sense of pride in what I could endure.
There was only one other thing that made me feel the same way: karate, a discipline that has its roots in civilian — not military — tradition. In the late 1400s, the Okinawan king
Sho Shin banned all weapons. Okinawa, at that time, was an international Asian trade centre.
The response to the weapons ban was that the Okinawans borrowed Chinese martial arts, fusing them with local “te” (“hand”) boxing traditions for self-defence. By the early 1900s, the art was generally known as “karate-do,” or, “empty hand way.” Like my experience with my father, I initially thought it would kill me. As with my father, it was instead an awakening, the sense of being reconditioned into someone better. Like my father, martial arts was a call to my natural physical intelligence.
I wasn’t able to continue with karate because of relocation, but I have sampled other martial arts, and I’ve talked to other Inuit who have done so. Inuit seem to take to martial arts like birds to air, and I’ve decided that this only makes sense.
For there is something strangely Inuktitut about the martial arts. Their philosophies share the same kind of holistic, or “circular,” thinking intrinsic to Inuit culture. Their movements are suited to the Inuit Mongol body-type. But, most importantly, they are about harmonizing conscious mind with unconscious potential, what Bruce Lee called “neuromuscular conditioning.”
In other words, they are about awakening that physical intelligence ancient Inuit used to find so valuable — the ability to act toward survival instinctively, leaving the conscious mind free.
Often, I think about the needs of the younger generations — the need for pride, for focus, for something to do — and I wonder: How would Inuit react if there were more martial arts schools in the North?
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle and has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years. This article was originally published by the Nunatsiaq News.