by Ronald Brower
There are many stories of ‘Qavlunaat,’ white-skinned strangers who were encountered in Inuit-occupied lands in times of old. Stories of contact between these foreign people and Inuit were passed down the generations and used mostly to scare children to behave “or the Qavlunaat will get them.”
This sparked my curiosity to explore both sides of the encounters from written records and Inuit oral legends to see if some of these events can be correlated. One must recall that these legends were passed down orally in the Inupiaq language.
Inuit myths and legends of contact with other people were passed from one generation to the next through story telling traditions. Many people have heard Pete Sovalik, a well-known Inupiaq story-teller tell this shortened version of a story relating to Qavlunaat and other races.
Taimaniqpaa_ruk - In Times of Old – Qavlunaat were one of the children of an Inuk woman who refused to marry; a Ui_uaqtaq. Her name was Sedragina, also known as Sedna in other Inuit regions. In her youth she was just an ordinary person – A young Inuk girl (agnaiyaaq) who grew up disliking men because of abuse committed to her as a child.
Having grown into a beautiful marriageable maiden, niviaq_siaq, men from many lands sought to marry her but she rebuked all men.
One time she was courted by a rich shaman’s son to no avail. Angered by her reluctance, the rich shaman called upon other equally strong shamuses to punish her. Together they cast a great spell upon her father’s lead dog that was transformed into a handsome young man by night but by day, he was just an ordinary lead dog.
Every evening he relentlessly pursued her for sexual favors until she was worn and tired for lack of sleep wherein she, in a weakened state, gave way to his wishes. In due time, she bore a litter of human and dog-like children having a variety of skin colors as many litters often do. These became the other races of man.
As they grew, she decided to send her children away toward the East, for they became a menace to the surrounding communities because of their wild behavior. Her father had also decided to end her miserable existence - to be rid of her and the shame she brought to his house.
In Inupiat legends her story is seen as the beginning of all other human races and of the sea animals. Hence modern Qavlunaat now know her as the Mother of the Sea, a Goddess deity, but in reality Inuit do not have gods. They believe that the visible world is pervaded by Anirniit, the powers, invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living.
The story teller weaves in a passage of time when the children of Sedragina would return to their kin the Inuit. Their return would mark a time of change for the Inuit but the story tellers would not say what kind of change was to follow.
As hundreds of centuries passed, vague stories were heard of the return of these people now known as Qavlunaat but they slowly faded from legends passed down over the generations.
During the time when we lived in our little village of Iviksuk, our great uncle Owen Kiiriq would also tell tales during the dark months of winter in our little dwelling. Recalling a time that Inuit encountered another kind of race who already lived in our lands.
Kiiriq recalled that elders would call them Tunnit or Inukpasuit, the giants. They were treated as fearsome coastal dwellers and were considered enemies of Inuit. They spoke an Inuit language of an archaic type understandable to our ancestors.
Kiiriq would continue his tale and describe how Inupasuit were viewed as unkempt and unclean by Inuit standards. They were considered a danger to Inuit because they at times waylaid and captured unwary hunters.
Being smaller then them, our ancestors were considered a delectable prey. Once captured, they would be cooked and eaten with relish. Thus Inuit feared these giant beings and would attempt to wipe them out if they could. They were considered slow of thought but clever in their means of pursuit of game. Inuit were ever moving eastward and the Inupasuit soon fell into the lot of myths and legends in our great grandparents’ time.
My research led me to Farley Mowat, author of Westviking, who includes descriptive appendices called “The Vanished Dorset”.
Mowat provides a description by the Norse who encountered the Dorset (Tunnit) around A.D.1000 as being swarthy and ill looking with remarkable eyes.
Mowat refers to another encounter of the Tuniit in the Floamanna Saga where the Viking Thorgisl Orrabeinsfostri shipwrecked in Baffin Island around 997. There, he and his men encountered a giant people, describing the Tunnit.
The Tunnit had lived in the Arctic for a long period of time before contact with either Inuit or Vikings. They developed a culture based on seal hunting and wherever their sod houses are found they show a long period of occupancy as noted by their middens of mostly seal remains.
As climate changed, seals moved further north following the sea ice. Mowat suggest that as seals shifted their range, so did the Tunnit following their primary food source. This may be why Erik the Red did not encounter Inuit or Tunnit when he explored the Greenland coast around 981.
Inuit myths and legends have passed through generations of story tellers. Many have changed but a little over time. A number of Inuit legends are being studied by scholars to see if they can be historically correlated to evidence found in archeological sites in several locations.
Ronald Brower is an Inupiaq language professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.