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People of the Feather

The Inuit in a Melting World

by LOUIS PROYECT

Last April I wrote an article about “Nanook of the North” for CounterPunch magazine that looked at Robert Flaherty’s documentary from different angles, faulting it mostly for its attempts at making the Inuit look more primitive than they actually were. For example, that scene of Nanook taking a bite out of a phonograph record was staged. In reality, the Inuit were quite familiar with the technology when Flaherty arrived with his film crew in 1921.

But more problematic, and less well known, was Flaherty’s relationship to the son he fathered with one of the two women who played Nanook’s wife. He left him behind to fend for himself once the film was completed. Fortunately, Paddy Aqiatusuk, who would become a soapstone sculptor of international renown, adopted Josephie Flaherty and taught him the survival skills so necessary for life in northern Quebec.

In a misguided if not racist social engineering scheme, the Canadian government relocated the Aqiatusuk family and several dozen others to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay in 1953 where game was scarce and conditions far more brutal. Eventually their protests forced the government to return them to their homeland where they could lead a more normal Inuit life that by any standards is a monument to the ingenuity and courage of a people dear to Robert Flaherty’s heart, whatever his drawbacks as an artist and a human being.

At a showing of Nanook at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian that inspired my article, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who was there to provide musical accompaniment for a silent film, warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning of Flaherty’s documentary:

The sterility of the soil and the rigor of the climate no other race could survive; yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world–the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.

While nothing could surpass “Nanook of the North” in its place in film history, Joel Heath’s “People of a Feather” that opens at the Quad Theater in New York on Friday, November 8th is certainly more accurate on the realities of Inuit life. This is a film that eschews the exoticism of Flaherty’s film and many like it in the early days of cinema that amounted to National Geographic on celluloid. You will see Inuit on snowmobiles and using rifles, if not watching television and performing their own hip-hop music. But throughout it all, they are the Inuit who know how to not only survive but also flourish in conditions that most of humanity would find intolerable.

However, like the exiled Inuit of 1953, the Inuit of Heath’s film are threatened by severe challenges to their survival. But these are not imposed by geography but forced on them by “civilization”, namely the changes to local waters wrought by energy companies to the south bent on making profit. As a trained scientist (he spent 5 years in the Inuit village featured in the film collecting data for a PhD), Joel Heath understands that those changes ripple out not only to the rest of Canada but also to the rest of the world. Like the canary in the coalmine, the Inuit are early warnings of an ecological collapse that threatens not only their own extinction but that of all of humanity.

The film’s title is a reference to the Eider, a duck whose feathers are the most resistant to cold of any bird. The film opens with Joel Heath sitting in what amounts to a shack on the ice studying the Eider through a telephoto lens. When my wife was working on her PhD, I felt sorry for her much of the time for working in such intellectually taxing isolation. Heath’s dedication to his dissertation topic was on another plane entirely.

At some point an Inuit elder named Simonie Kavik, a rotund and charismatic figure who is the star of the film and whose father was a renowned soapstone sculptor like Paddy Aqiatusuk, drops in on Heath to chat with him about his findings. The Inuit and the scientist who lives in their midst are very concerned about the declining numbers of Eider. Since the Inuit harvest their down for clothing both for themselves and for retailers, the disappearance of the ducks would spell doom.

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Scene from People of the Feather.

Heath and other scientists have been able to identify the source of the decline. There are fewer and fewer open pools that allow the ducks to swim into the water in pursuit of clams and other fauna lower in the food chain. Ironically, the ever-expanding ice is not a function of increasing cold air but that of warmer fresh water flowing into Hudson Bay. Since fresh water freezes more rapidly than seawater, there is a preponderance of ice that does not correspond to seasonal changes. The net effect is disruption of all local wildlife, from the Eider to the polar bear.

The press notes for “People of a Feather” summarize the science and the politics of these sea changes (pun intended):

Hydroelectric mega-projects near Hudson Bay send power to many cities in North America. Spring runoff from wild rivers is held behind dams and released into the bays in the winter months when energy demand is highest.

This reversal of spring runoff disrupts ocean currents and influences the dynamics of sea ice ecosystems in the bay, reversing the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. Belcher Islands residents have noticed the effects for many years, but many concerns continue to go unaddressed.

Due to winter input of freshwater from reservoirs, sea ice freezes and breaks up differently. The dynamics of these critical sea ice habitats for eiders and other wildlife, such as polar bears, are now less predictable. A number of winter die-offs of eiders have been documented, while the larger scale effects are poorly understood.

Disruptions to water flows will not be limited to the Inuit. It ultimately will have an impact on Europe as well, causing temperatures to rise and exacerbating the effects of greenhouse gases.

For resources on the struggle that unites the Inuit, progressive-minded scientists, and environmentalists, I recommend a visit to http://www.arcticeider.com/. There you will find information on how to get involved in what promises to be one of Canada’s great social movements alongside the struggle against the Tar Sands that has also united native peoples and the environmental movement.

If all this sounds a bit didactic, let me reassure you that “People of a Feather” is not a boring sermon. It is a thrilling visual display of the frigid north that includes amazing footage taken beneath the water thanks to camera techniques Heath perfected in the course of his research. The scenes of Inuit playing poker, building sleds, and out hunting is as fascinating as anything seen in Flaherty’s classic, and more accurate to boot. His bio notes that he has always been interested in art, and in film particularly. His accomplishments in both arenas is evidence that for some people C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures could be bridged.

Let me conclude with a word or two about a matter that this film has helped me to understand better. In 2001, Brown University professor Shepard Krech III wrote a book titled “The Ecological Indian” that was perversely mistitled since its goal was to prove that native peoples were just as destructive of the environment if not more so than the European settlers. When I first began writing about ecology and native peoples on Internet mailing lists back in the mid 1990s, I heard many of the same arguments that would later be found in Krech’s book.

They boiled down to two charges: one was that native peoples hunted beasts like the sabre-tooth tiger and the woolly mammoth into extinction in the Pleistocene era; the other was that when a market developed for beaver hides in the 1700s, the Indians trapped them without concern for sustainability. It has always struck me that the first charge rested a lot on speculation since there is no firsthand evidence of what happened obviously. As was the case with the decline of the Mayans, climate change might have been more to blame than unwise ecological practices. The matter will never be resolved.

Even more problematic is the charge of overhunting beaver or bison. When capitalism penetrated indigenous societies through the agencies of the Hudson Bay Trading Company and other mercantile institutions, it was inevitable that they would be susceptible to material incentives. The Indian is neither a saint nor a sinner, only a human being lashed by market forces just like everybody else.

But when you look at today’s Indian, there is no need to hypothesize. You can see them in action all across North and South America in defense of the planet earth giving the lie to Krech’s book and no more so than in the Belcher Islands where the Inuit fight to keep nature in balance.

In a Skype interview with Joel Heath, I learned that Daniel Kavik, a member of the Kavik family that are seen throughout the film and who is first seen out hunting early in the film, has graduated with honors from Nunavut Arctic College, a new institution in the newly created Inuit territory. He has become inspired to work for the conservation of the Eider and now serves as the Wildlife Officer there. He is a symbol of the hope for a better world both for the Inuit and humanity as a whole. He is the true ecological Indian.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.