David F. Pelly

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Review of Sacred Hunt , David F. Pelly

By C.E.S. (Ned) Franks
American Review of Canadian Studies, July, 2002
This book explores the relationship between the Inuit of the North,
primarily Canada, and the seals they hunt and that were essential
to their existence until well into this century.  Although, as the
author notes on the title page, no Inuk ever said to him that the
hunt for seals is a sacred act, he affirms that a spiritual relationship
exists between the Inuit and the seals which is not based on the hunt
alone, but on the whole relationship between Inuit and seal, to
which the seal is central, and this relationship might justly be
called sacred.

With its central focus on the hunt, both the text, and to an even
greater extent the pictures, contain large amounts of blood and
gore.  Hunting seals with harpoons or rifles, skinning and butchering
them, eating their livers and blubber immediately after they are
killed, take the reader far beyond the anodyne animal world of
National Geographic and Walt Disney.  But blood and gore are
central to any hunt or hunting society, which includes the pre-contact
cultures of all Canada’s aboriginal peoples, along with those of
the rest of the world.

The reader gets the feeling that to arrive at so eloquent a defence
of this hunting relationship David Pelly had to go through a spiritual
journey of his own which took many years.  At first he thought of
mankind, even the Inuit hunters, as outsiders to the relationship
between the principal players in the natural world: predator (polar
bear) and prey (seal).  But after the years of travel and living in
the arctic, of sharing in the lives and hunts of the Inuit, he has
come to the view that there are three principal players in the drama,
the third being the indigenous people who have developed a profound
understanding of, and respect for, the seals.  As Pelly says, his
newly acquired perspective reflects the Inuit world-view, wherein man
and animals are equal partners in the ecosystem, neither one having
any rights over the other(p xv).

To explain and defend this view, Pelly draws on many sources.  He
quotes from his own discussions with Inuit.  He draws on, and quotes
extensively from several archival sources, including records of
interviews with Inuit from past times, not more than a century ago,
when the seal hunt was primarily conducted on foot over the ice, or
from kayaks, the killing instrument being a harpoon.  He relates his
own experiences of hunting with Inuit.  He illustrates the hunt
pictures from archives, some from expeditions in the nineteenth
century, some later.  The pictures themselves tell a powerful story,
though being in black and white, they inevitably romanticize and
soften what is at its core - a harsh story for modern western
sensibilities.  Harsh not only because of the hunt, but also because
the life of the Inuit, in the most severe environment that human beings
have chosen to live in, was difficult almost beyond modern comprehension.

For example, several pictures show hunters jumping on the snow
to break through to the lair of a mother seal.  There the hunter grabs
the surprised pup.  If the mother is in the lair, she is usually
quick enough to escape down the hole.  To lure the mother back, the
hunter then dangles the pup on the end of a sealskin rope in the water
of the seal’s breathing hole.  Seeing her pup in the water, the
mother grasps it with her flippers and swims up to the surface to
return it to the ice.  At that moment the hunter strikes with his
harpoon (p 79).  That seems cruel and heartless, but it was no
more so than the arctic itself, as George Kappianiq, born in 1917,
relates in a story of his father finally catching a seal after most
of the family’s dogs had died, and the family was weak from
starvation.  We now had food to eat after two months without
ever seeing food to eat (p 105).

What I kept thinking about as I read this book was an issue that
Pelly discusses in only one place: the contrast between the life
of the seal hunter that he describes, and the modern environmental
ethic.  He looks at this in a chapter which discusses the impact of
the protest in the south about the seal hunt for baby pups off
Newfoundland, which Brigitte Bardot dramatized in stellar fashion
though the famous photos of her cuddling a cute, furry, white, baby
seal (as one of my students commented at the time: would Brigitte
Bardot cuddle an armadillo?).  The European ban on sealskin imports
had a disastrous and largely unnoticed side effect on the economy of the
Inuit of the north, who, with the ban, lost one of their main sources of
cash income.

But there are much broader questions for modern environmentalists
in Pelly’s book.  For example: is hunting, whether of this or other
sorts wrong, and should the Inuit be encouraged to find other means of
livelihood?  Pelly does not believe so.  He concludes that the
importance of the seal to Inuit extends far beyond its economic value. 
The seal lies at the foundation of traditional Inuit society, the complex
of material, social, spiritual, and cultural values that define for many
Inuit who they are (p 114).  And what should modern mankind’s
relationship be to the natural environment?  Should mankind leave largely
untouched environments like most of the Canadian arctic alone, and have a
hands-off relationship with the animals and plants of the wild, or should
it include culling and use?  If the second, then where, when, and how
should culling begin and end? 

Pelly portrays the hunting society of the Inuit as a central and
legitimate part of the natural world.  The modern amateur ecologist's
image of the wilderness is of nature without humans, except for such
sympathetic persons as eco-tourists and wilderness canoeists.  With
the onslaught of Euro-western civilization, hunting and gathering
societies like that of the Inuit seem to be disappearing.  But they
have something to offer the west.  Perhaps the Inuit seal hunting
culture reflects a more sophisticated understanding of the symbiotic
relationship between man and nature than does the forced and false
dichotomy of the modern image of a constant adversarial combat between
man and nature. 

In the west we have gone, in the past few centuries, from
fearing and wanting to tame the wild, to loving it, to loving it to
death.  Regardless of how sound their environmental practices, modern
wilderness travel, including canoeing, has a profound and deleterious
effect on many natural and supposedly wild environments.  The Inuit
impact on the environment is minuscule compared with that of modern
wilderness travel, when the impacts of making and disposing of artificial
fabrics and high-tech equipment, consumption of fossil fuels in travel by
car and air, insecticides, etc. are taken into account.  Who is right,
who is wrong?  Pelly does not discuss these questions, but they lurk as
a sub-text to his book.  In all, a well-done, fascinating, and somewhat
disturbing presentation, and potentially a valuable and thought-provoking
teaching and classroom tool.

C.E.S. Franks
Department of Political Studies
Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario

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