Latter-day Saint Book Review: Saqiyuq, Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women

Saqiyuq is an oral history of three generations of Inuit women who lived on Baffin Island near Greenland. Of particular interest to me was the grandmother matriarch’s history, since, born in 1931, she provided a first-hand account of the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle where people starved or not depending on the ebb and flow of the caribou herds, all the way to snowmobiles and state schools. A few observations/excerpts apropos to this blog:

1) Apphia, the grandmother matriarch, provided an account of the competition between the Anglican and Catholic missionaries for Inuit converts, with nearly all the non-Inuit in their lives being missionaries. 

One side effect of Latter-day Saint missionary work tending to go through the front door legally, and of always having so many more accessible people than we have missionaries for, is that for the most we haven’t been part of the race to find, contact, and convert indigenous peoples with no previous knowledge of Christianity. There’s a whole culture that grew up around missionary bushwacking with a machete in one hand and a bible in the other that we just haven’t been a part of. For the most part we haven’t been the first ones to introduce Christianity to a people, and there wasn’t much of a chance of a missionary companionship being assigned to Sentinel Island  or to The Man in the Hole.

2) How to be respectful of indigenous traditions while proselytizing is a highly charged, sensitive subject, especially since the indigenous religion itself can be so intertwined with the traditional culture of a people. (Quick, tangentially related self-promotional sidebar: when I was at the Census Bureau I wrote a paper using a bunch of fancy demographic math on the future of endangered Native American languages. It isn’t a pretty picture, but the one Native US language that does appear to have a long-term future, with young native speakers, is Yupik, the language of another Arctic people).

Of course, some may say that all indigenous people should be off-limits to proselytizing, but as long as there is no coercion I think the marketplace of ideas is a good thing, and that no religion deserves a natural monopoly just because it was there first. I love Elder Uchtdorf’s talk on a broader version of this issue.

Apphia discusses three main changes that Christianity brought about: 1) the Christian ideas about the afterlife changed mourning patterns, and made death a less dreary affair, 2) not hunting on Sunday was a huge adjustment to Inuit culture, and sometimes put families at risk because in the High Arctic every spare minute had to be used to find food in order to survive, and and 3) it reduced the prominence of the shamans, who traditionally acted as the sort of spiritual judges to make sure that the people didn’t offend the spirits and cause the game animals to stay away. While we might think # 3 is a bad thing, it seemed to be a relief to her since people would feel Jonah-like guilt that their failure to, for example, report their pregnancy to the community was what caused the dearth in food, and it was clear that Apphia wasn’t any less Inuit after her conversion to Christianity, but rather Christianity became part of her Inuit-ism. 

3) Apphia had a rough life. I think it was Jared Diamond who made the point that for Arctic peoples their great cathedrals were the fact that they survived. Danish settlers of Greenland died off, and early European Arctic explorers perished at latitudes with viable human populations. It wasn’t easy. She accidentally killed her brother while they were playing with a gun, her mother died early, she suffered marital rape, her father killed a man in a blood feud and had to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life, she had a great-aunt (later known for her generosity in sharing food) who survived by eating her dead children’s corpses, her family was almost buried alive in a snow drift before her husband was able to dig them out at the last minute, and the cord attached to the placenta froze after one of her eleven births. Still, she wasn’t resentful, and at times spoke with fondness about her hunter-gatherer youth.

We have a lot of things in our house now. We have a lot of things. Looking back, when you look at how things were back then, it seemed as if we were really poor. But living in it, it was all right, it was fine. All those things that you see today, we never had. Just a needle, thread, ulu, scraping board, cup, and teapot in our qulliq, that is what we had. If we had those things, we would feel like we had lots of things. If we had those things we would be happy. We would be rich. 

I wrote earlier on how early Utah was relatively egalitarian. While I think it’s great that her grand-daughter has gas heating and my pioneer ancestor’s descendants have as much bread as they want, I suspect that if the misery is equally shared it is much more bearable. 

4) To finish, two touching religious scenes in her oral account: 

[My mother] was slowly dying. At that time I was eight years old, and all my relatives were mourning for her. My father didn’t want her to die, so he went outside to pray so he could be heard more easily by God. I went with him. It was the middle of the night, and some people from the camp were crying inside of the qarmaq. We went outside to the side of the house, and my father started to pray. We closed our eyes as we were praying, and through my eyelids I saw a bright light. I opened my eyes and looked up, and there was a light so bright I couldn’t look at it. The bright light went into the qarmaq, and my father said to me, “Utagannaakulu, it has come for your mother.” Then he started to cry, and he went inside. I followed him and listened to everyone crying very hard. Then somebody pulled him over to the bed, and he went to his wife to try and bring her back to life. He couldn’t bring her back to life. That light came at the right time. The reason that it came was because my mother used to pray a lot. She used to pray that she would be saved by the faith she had in God. She used to pray to God that she wanted to go to heaven and follow her son. 

As noted above, her father had killed a man when he was younger, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. 

My father always prayed, every day. He used to have nightmares. When he had nightmares he would start to moan, then he would sit up and scream, “Satan, keep away from me!” He would grab his knife and start stabbing at nowhere, trying to get rid of Satan. I used to call my stepsister when he did that at night. She told me that our father had been really scared after he killed that man. He was afraid that people would go after him for revenge…After I learned that about him I didn’t mind so much when he did things like scream at Satan. When he had nightmares I would wake up and pray right beside him. Then, as we were praying, he would fall asleep again. 

2 comments for “Latter-day Saint Book Review: Saqiyuq, Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women

  1. “One side effect of Latter-day Saint missionary work tending to go through the front door legally, and of always having so many more accessible people than we have missionaries for, is that for the most we haven’t been part of the race to find, contact, and convert indigenous peoples with no previous knowledge of Christianity.”

    Huh? Jacob Hamblin. Hopis. Pacific islands. Anything ringing a bell?

  2. Sure, but occasionally sending out missionaries to non-Christians (e.g. the early Japanese and Indian missions) in the natural course of broad proselytizing efforts has a different feel than the Scramble for Africa races to find the most isolated tribe possible for God and empire. Plus introducing people to the restored gospel is much easier because our footprint has been so small, to really introduce people to Christianity for the first time you efforts have to focus on increasingly isolated groups, and it’s those efforts that have led to a subculture of bushwhacking missionaries. There’s a reason the Inuits didn’t report the presence of Latter-day Saint missionaries—there were enough large, easily accessible cities without a Latter-day Saint presence to get to first.

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