Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 2, 2016

Nanook of the North, revisited

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Introducing a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece “Nanook of the North” at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York on March 3rd, 2013 Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq–there to provide musical accompaniment– warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning:

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.

When Flaherty began filming, the word documentary did not exist. If required to depict the Inuit in cinéma vérité fashion, the director would never have bothered since his professed goal was to show the Inuit as they lived before they became corrupted by outside civilization. This meant, for example, directing Nanook to hunt seals with a handcrafted harpoon rather than a rifle that was customary at the time.

In a 1990 documentary titled “Nanook Revisited” that does aspire to historical accuracy and that is unfortunately only available from research libraries today, the production team went to Inukjuak, the village in northern Quebec where Flaherty shot his film, to interview relatives of Nanook’s contemporaries as well as knowledgeable villagers. The manager of the local television station Moses Nowkawalk was both amused and annoyed by inaccuracies. For example, Flaherty had Nanook looking mystified by a phonograph player and taking a bite out of a record but Nowkawalk points out that the villagers had been listening to records for years. A cruder version of this scene took place in the 1980 narrative film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” with Kalahari Bushmen worshiping a Coke bottle tossed out of a airplane.

Much of “Nanook of the North” involves reenactment. For example, one of the most memorable scenes depicts Nanook building an igloo in the way it was done from time immemorial. After the job is completed, the family streams in and waits for night to descend. They tuck themselves into bed (a platform of snow covered by fur) looking as blissed out as models in a Sleepy’s mattress commercial. Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, Flaherty instructed Nanook to create only half of one, leaving the interior exposed to light as well as bitter cold. Despite the “cheerful” look of its inhabitants, they are suffering—all for the cause of cinema.

The greatest fiction of all were the characters themselves, who understood that they were actors in a drama built on the premise that they were living the lives of their ancestors. Nanook, which means hunter in the Inuit language, was actually named Allakariallak. His two wives in the film were not really his. Instead, during the course of filming they became Flaherty’s mistresses, one giving birth to his son Josephie with whom Flaherty never made contact.

Paddy Aqiatusuk, who became a soapstone sculptor of international renown, eventually adopted Josephie Flaherty. In 1953 the Canadian government forced Paddy’s family and two other families to relocate to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay. Although only 87 Inuit were exiled, the cruelty and the racism matched that of the forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma known as the “trail of tears”.

In another documentary committed to the accurate portrayal of Inuit life titled “Martha of the North” (available on streaming from the National Film Board of Canada for $2.95), we learn about the suffering of those Inuit families. The Martha of the title is Josephie’s daughter and the main subject of the film. She is visiting Ellesmere Island for the first time since her childhood exile. After Martha Flaherty reached adulthood, she became one of the Inuit nation’s leading activists for human rights. One can understand the passion of her commitment given the terrible injustices she faced as a child.

The Canadian government, and more particularly the Royal Mounties who supervised the relocation, had a reductionist view of Inuit life. Since the natives were accustomed to frigid conditions and to hunting, why would they object to being moved further north?

For a companion guide to “Martha of the North”, it is difficult to imagine anything more sensitively written and well-researched than Melanie McGrath’s 2006 “The Long Exile”. Here she describes the initial reaction of Paddy and other Inuit to their new surroundings:

And so the days passed and after the second or third week of patchy hunting and endless trips into the mountains for ice and heather, Paddy Aqiatusuk, as camp leader, came to the conclusion that the Lindstrom Peninsula was unsurvivable. He had serious misgivings about the camp’s ability even to survive the winter unless they were moved. The shale beach was too narrow and steep and the sheer cliffs behind made it impossible to watch for caribou or polar bears. There was no proper water source and insufficient heather or plant material for fuel.

Growing more and more miserable with conditions on Ellesmere Island, Paddy convinced his stepson Josephie to join him in the far north. While Josephie was happy to be reunited with Paddy, he was appalled by conditions that forced him and his family to take desperate measures. With food in short supply, the Inuit families began to take long treks on a daily basis to find quarry. On one such trip, the two young sons of Thomasie Amagoalik fell through thin ice and drowned. Meanwhile Josephie brought his young daughter Martha with him on polar bear hunts, as she recounts in the documentary. It was a miracle that she managed to survive such ordeals. When game was not available, the Inuit had no other choice but to dig through the garbage dump of the Royal Mounties looking for scraps just like homeless people. In a very real sense, they were homeless.

If the “trail of tears” was a nation-building exercise on the part of the young and imperial-minded American neighbor to its south, Canada had similar ambitions. In 1953 the Arctic was a contested region with various great powers seeking to control as much territory as possible in the hope that precious resources were in the offing. In the forced settlement of Inuit families to the far north, the Canadian government hoped to establish a legal territorial claim through facts on the ground. This race is ongoing. In September 2012, a Russian submarine lowered a “holy memory capsule” blessed by an Archbishop into the water near the North Pole in a similar bid.

The “scramble for the Arctic” was a typical colonizing project. In “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2000), Shari Huhndorf cites an article by Admiral Peary published in the December 1903 National Geographic:

As a matter of prestige [gaining the Pole] is worth while….

As a matter of patriotism based upon the obligations of our manifest destiny, it is worth while. The North American world segment is our home, our birthright, our destiny. The boundaries of that segment are the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Isthmus and the Pole…. Believe me, the winning of the North Pole will be one of the great milestones of history, like the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the conquest of the Old by Alexander…

Let us attain it, then. It is our privilege and our duty. Let us capture the prize and win the race which the nations of the civilized world have been struggling for for nearly four centuries, the prize which is the last great geographical prize the earth has to offer… What a splendid feat for this great and wealthy country if, having girdled the earth, we might reach the north and south and plant “Old Glory” on each Pole. How the imagination stirs at the thought!

Robert J. Flaherty, an Irishman, came to Canada in the same spirit. Before he became a filmmaker, he worked for a mining company surveying the land for marketable resources. In the course of his travels, he became infatuated with the Inuit and then decided to make a film about them. Combining art and commerce, he received funding from the Revillon Frères fur company in the same way that a documentary about the Olympics might get financial backing from Nike today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was fascination with the Inuit who were considered unspoiled by an industrial society that was becoming less free even as it was capable of producing consumer goods by the truckload. The Inuit were seen as “noble savages” who were not only capable of living off the grid but being “cheerful” all the while. But in reality they were integrated into capitalist property relations just as most native peoples of Canada were. Companies like Revillon Frères relied heavily on the Inuit or the Blackfoot Indians to hunt and trap beaver and fox for the European luxury market. During the Great Depression, the price of fox pelts declined drastically, throwing the Inuit into economic ruin.

For people like Robert Flaherty, there was a tendency to view the Inuit as they used to be rather than as they were. While he was much more respectful toward them than Admiral Peary who regarded them as childish and backward (even as he relied on them to survive in the far north), he could not accept them on their own terms.

If Flaherty was a product of his age, the same can be said of the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom a more enlightened attitude might be expected. Despite his professed objection to racism, Boas paid Admiral Peary to bring some “specimens” back to New York where they could be studied at the Museum of Natural History. Like Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomami, the Inuit were supposedly a people who were a throwback to the stone ages even though they were accustomed to trading furs in exchange for steel knives and rifles. When the Inuit began dying from diseases for which they had no resistance, a survivor demanded that his father’s bones be returned to their homeland. Boas could not be bothered, telling a reporter “the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.”

Is it any wonder why Tanya Tagaq did not feel cheerful?

As part of a worldwide resistance to white domination, native peoples have been fighting for their rights everywhere in the world, including the Inuit. Among their greatest grievances was the exile to Ellesmere Island. In 1987 the Inuit filed a claim against the Canadian government seeking $10 million in damages and an apology. After stonewalling for over a decade, the government acceded to all the Inuit demands. On August 18, 2010 the Minister of Indian Affairs wrote:

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the extreme hardship and suffering caused by the relocation.  The families were separated from their home communities and extended families by more than a thousand kilometres.  They were not provided with adequate shelter and supplies.  They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be, and they were not aware that they would be separated into two communities once they arrived in the High Arctic.  Moreover, the Government failed to act on its promise to return anyone that did not wish to stay in the High Arctic to their old homes.

Of even greater significance was the creation of the province of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This new Canadian province that included Ellesmere Island was to be the homeland of the Inuit people with their language enjoying the same status as English. Not long after Nunavut came into existence, a staff member of Nunavut Arctic College showed up on the Marxism mailing list I moderate. As someone sympathetic to indigenous struggles, I welcomed him eagerly. He identified the issues that confronted the Inuit historically in a post to the list:

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridgehead. There have been many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own languages and mistreated in different ways.

As a symbol of Inuit self-determination, Nunavut is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of a nation seeking to define its own culture and economic destiny. Although it was not intended to be a corrective to “Nanook of the North”, the 2001 narrative film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (available from Amazon for a used DVD at around $6) was the first ever to be made by the Inuit. It is based on a tale handed down through generations via oral traditions. The screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998 before the film was completed, gave an interview to Nancy Wachowich, a Scottish professor. In response to her question about whether the film will be different from others made about the Inuit, he replied:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

It will be done the Inuit way. That would be the best way to bring the Nanook saga to a just conclusion.

4 Comments »

  1. The idea that only inuit can play inuit is just more racist identity politics and won’t help destroy the racist foundations of North American capitalism.

    Actors are actors because they can portray people different from themselves. Men can play women, gays can play straights, Chinese can play Koreans. This is acting. If you can only be what you are born and categorized into by society it’s not acting.

    Comment by Paul from PA — April 2, 2016 @ 6:53 pm

  2. I doubt that non-Inuit actors would work very well in films that have Inuit dialog.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 2, 2016 @ 7:07 pm

  3. Paul,

    It’s more like:
    a) Representing themselves rather than being (mis)represented by Hollywood.
    b) Protecting a fledgling film industry from having to compete with much bigger and much more established ones (US, Japan, etc).

    If you don’t see why that would be necessary, consider the 1993 film ‘Shadow of the Wolf’: set and filmed in the Arctic and portraying Inuit characters, but neither of the directors, none of the writers, none of actors in major roles were themselves Inuits. You don’t think that’s racist, in effect if not in intent?

    Comment by John — April 5, 2016 @ 12:55 am

  4. It’s not dead on subject but worth noting that there’s something called Wapikoni Mobile filming up north in the cold. Founded in 2004 by the brilliant Québécois documentarist and writer Manon Barbeau, these are mobile film and recording studios that travel to remote First Nation communities and give Aboriginal youth a chance to make short films in which they represent themselves. There are now 850 of these films and 500 musical recordings. The project is something to lift up your heart in our squalid times. See, http://www.wapikoni.ca/about/who-are-we/mission-values-and-objectives.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 5, 2016 @ 4:32 pm


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