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Ataata ((The Grandson)(A Short Story in the Canadian Arctic))
I never got to know him real well, my grandfather, after father bought me into a small Eskimo village it was in 1905, and I was ten-years old. I would be adopted, adopted into a system, somewhat, we came into a circle of relatives a family circle, not allied by blood, and the reasoning behind this was to strengthen our family bonds. My father would exchange wives now, my mother for another’s wife, our village was a hundred miles away and there was only twenty of us in the community, I was adopted by my grandfather for a year, and my real father now called him by his name Sorqaq-I now was called Ataata, the grandson. Now my mother and father exchanged partners as I said, in the village, wives willing for the exchange, and after a year I had a brother, I don’t know who his father was but it didn’t matter to us, for mother traded husbands three times during this period, and he was given to a certain family, one we shared with. We had new blood in our family, and that was important. In addition to a new brother, we as a family had an alliance. My mother was called Qaassaaluk, and my father, Itukusuk, and my name was Natuk, and the child born to my father’s exchanged wife was called Natuk, this is how we identified family related kin. Natuk the younger’s mother was called, Qaammaliaq (the month of the Moon, which is January). We lived a hundred miles away, in what was called a peat house.
Sorqaq, was a very mysterious grandfather, he had squinty eyes, and a thin looking beard, and a mustache, and long hair, and was said to have Whiteman’s gold, and he drank their whisky, and he had a rifle, things we only saw once, and heard about thereafter.
My sister, was not worthy of much, but she was my sister, Uummannaq, and she was four years younger than I, when I was fourteen, she was ten, she was born in 1899; my new brother 1906. Mother was going to kill her, leave her out in the cold to die, a custom of ours for it is hard to feed everyone, and we needed hunters not young girls to feed, but she begged father and so we kept her, but the other two, father insisted, and thus, the great bears or walrus, or dogs one or a few of those creatures, had a meal that evening, and in turn father would kill the great bear sooner or later, and we’d eat him-so it all came back to us one way or another, so father would say.
This is what I remember when I was growing up. We had a sledge and kayak, and several dogs, and mother had a beautiful necklace, she would give to me someday, she said, I say it, it had ivory trinkets, on it, such as the igloo, a Eskimo woman, and a salmon fish, a female narwhal, a seal made of ivory. Mother was a small woman, but stern, strong and enduring.
We had strict group laws and values and they were preeminent. I must tell you what happened to my brother, or perhaps I should say, half brother, with the same name, his father and mother were killed by a great white bear, now he was a orphan, and it is not good to be such, he was ten-years old when this became his fate, and I twenty. He had no rights in the village, and was sent to ours, but he had no rights there either, but he was given a chance, and orphans are relegated to the lowest level, and he was given a small igloo to live in (Natuk the lesser).
I told him, he had to make extraordinary efforts to improve one’s status, lest he be left out far on the ice by himself, with the bears, for in truth he was a burden on everyone.
In time I had built him up to high spirits, and well I did, for he proved to all those around him, he could bring himself up alone (nobody knew of course I assisted him now and then, taught him a few tricks my father and grandfather had taught me).
I had found a harpoon out by the little island off in the water-the river to be more exact, and left it so Natuk the lesser could find it. I told him where I put it, and where the arctic Canadian walrus basted in the sun, which was on the island, and when it was disturbed by hunters, they would swim to the shoreline, and on the bank is where he was to hide when this happened, and then he needed to spear one of the smaller seals that followed its parents, or a baby walrus. And he did this, and learned how to get food for himself, thereafter.
Many times I’d come out of our home, and visit him in the night in his igloo, he would be shivering, if not there, he’d be huddled in the katak outside with a blanket, he was not allowed inside our family unit where we had a fire. After I had finished my meal, I visited him often, and baring some scraps, if he did not have any, and wood for a small fire.
When he was twelve, and I twenty-two, my father would address him as inulupaluk (poor little man), and one day my father surprisingly gave him an oil lamp, but he’d have to find his oil. He was not allowed to join the hunt with us, or others, so he took his harpoon, and would go to where the island was, and wait on the bank, when it was solid ice, he would creep over to the island, and try to find meat. During these trying days, it was hard for my father to even feed the dogs, let along an orphan.
It would be in time though, Natuk the lesser, would become a legend. Here is what took place:
For he was without father or mother, nor was he adopted, nor would he ask for food from igloo to igloo like so may orphans did, for he told me once, if I depend on them now, I will forever, and thus, die in the process, and die a miserable life, hoping I’d get fed; thus, he refused to beg. Although he was somewhat blood, one must remember, this only makes him kinship bilateral, and was not binding for other families to feed the orphans in such cases. For all were related somehow to one anther.
At the age of fourteen, Natuk, was making harpoon heads used in Kayaks, which is called unaaq. A simple thing for many but also an artful thing; he learned how to make a bow drill, which enables the Eskimo to cut through a piece of bone. It also serves to light a fire in the central Arctic, thus by necessity, he learned many things in this area: Hew could put on a demonstration, buy putting a piece of dry wood covered with cottony plants, and light it. In return many folks came to him, offered him fish, or its equivalent, and thus he became a wealthy trader. He lived to the ripe old age of 104, born 1895, died 1999.
Written 4-26-2008 (The author spent time in the Arctic, 1996)
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