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Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo

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Stephen Leonard

This book serves as an insightful ethnographic introduction to the language and oral traditions of the Inugguit, a sub-group of the Inuit who live in north-west Greenland. A unique work, it encompasses an overview of the grammar of Polar Eskimo – a language spoken by about 770 people – as well as a description of their oral traditions (drum-dancing and story-telling) and the most extensive glossary of the language compiled to date. The book presents the Polar Eskimo language in the orthography established by the author in conjunction with the local community in Greenland, an extremely difficult task for a language made up of such an aberrant phonology and with no written tradition. By exploring their ways of speaking and ways of belonging, Leonard provides an original ethnographic interpretation of the nature of Inugguit social organization and their world-view. Some Ethnolinguistic Notes on Polar Eskimo will serve as an invaluable resource for linguists who specialise in the Eskimo-Aleut group and will be of much interest to anthropologists working in the Arctic region.
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Chapter 11: Oral Traditions of the Inugguit

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CHAPTER 11

Oral Traditions of the Inugguit

With the absence of a written culture, Polar Eskimo has historically been the vehicle for a rich tradition of storytelling. Historically, there were two different categories of stories: oqaluktuat which were the old tales, legends and myths and unikkaat which were factual accounts. Today, the former have all been forgotten, but many of the legends and myths were recorded by Knud Rasmussen, Erik Holtved and others in the first half of the twentieth century. All the stories that I recorded fell into the category of unikkaat.

Among the Inugguit, Amaunalik Qavigaq is often considered the best storyteller of the twentieth century. She was Erik Holtved’s lead informant. Erik, a Danish anthropologist, worked in the region in 1937. Amaunalik had learnt her stories from her grandmother, Itugssarssuak. Itugssarssuak was one of those that came in the last wave of migration from Baffin Island in the 1860s. By tracing the families of the last storytellers, it is clear that there must have been a very strong tradition of storytelling in that part of the Canadian Arctic and that this last wave of immigration from Baffin Island enriched the Polar Eskimo culture considerably. From the 1970s onwards, it seems that the tradition of grandmothers telling their grandchildren the old tales and myths broke down quite suddenly and then the old stories, lullabies and creation myths more or less disappeared in a generation: a sinister foreboding for small oral cultures where...

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