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David F. Pelly Writer, Researcher, Historian, Photographer

Review of Sacred Hunt
By C.E.S. (Ned) Franks
American Review of Canadian Studies
Published July, 2002
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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 subtext 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