The art of eating whale blubber
other tips for writers in the Arctic
For his two recent books on Inuit video-makers, Indiana University professor Michael Robert Evans spent nine months among his subjects above the Arctic Circle. In a conversation at his office at the School of Journalism in Bloomington, he shared the experiences that led to Isuma: Inuit Video Art (McGill-Queen’s University Press) and The Fast Runner: Filming the Legend of Atanarjuat (Bison Books) — from eating live caribou to discovering a new rhythm for his days. He speaks to all of us who hope to spend time as guests in a different culture.—Carol Polsgrove, Spring 2010
Carol Polsgrove: You spent nine months living in the Arctic for these books –what were the hardest things about being there? Were you gone from your family nine months?
Michael Evans: That was extremely hard. I came home a couple of times for just a few days. The boys were six, so I just wanted to remind them who I was because at that age, if Daddy’s gone for three months, that’s not so good, so I came home a couple of times and spent some time with my family. That was hard. Going up was hard. I went up around the end of June, and it was extremely difficult at that point because the sun didn’t set. It’s far enough north of the Arctic Circle that the sun doesn’t set for seven weeks, and so I fly up there and the sun is just doing an oval in the sky, and that’s all. At 3 o’clock in the morning, it was like that outside. And kids are playing in the street, they’re riding bicycles around, and I look at my watch and it’s 3 in the morning. And it started getting difficult to tell, I’d look at my watch – is it 3 in the morning or is it 3 in the afternoon? I’m not sure any more, I’ve lost track of this. It was very hard to sleep. It was very disorienting for two or three weeks.
Polsgrove: Is that true of the people who live there? What do they do about sleep?
Evans: They’re there all the time so it’s a gradual thing. It was the suddenness of flying up there that made it so hard. In the winter the sun doesn’t rise for seven weeks at all. It’s dark for seven weeks, but I had no problem with that at all because I’d been there gradually as it got darker and darker and darker and you adjust pretty well. In the traditional way of living up there, you also sleep when you’re tired and you eat when you’re hungry, and there’s no mealtime, people don’t all gather to eat except for special occasions. When you’re hungry you eat something. When you’re tired you say, “I’m going to bed.” Maybe it’s 2 in the afternoon, maybe it’s midnight, it literally doesn’t matter, just whenever. The sun’s not going to set at all or the sun’s not going to rise in winter and you just follow your own clock.
Polsgrove: Did you get sick at all?
Evans: I got sick a few times – not badly – but a lot of the adjustments and of course the differences in the food took some adaptation.
Polsgrove: I could tell from what you wrote that you tried out these different foods. You didn’t think too much of caribou when it was cooked but it was better if it was raw –
Evans: That’s right.
Polsgrove: You didn’t like whale meat –
Evans: People don’t eat whale meat. I ate the blubber. I liked the taste of the blubber but it’s hard to chew. It’s like chewing a pencil eraser and so you just can’t get your teeth into it. It took me a while to figure out the art of eating whale blubber. You put a piece in your mouth and cut it off, and the trick is to cut off a just a small enough piece that you basically swallow it whole, and you don’t chew it, but it took me a while to figure that one out.
Polsgrove: What else did you eat?
Evans: Seal, raw and cooked. Raw seal’s awful, in my opinion, it’s foul, foul stuff. Cooked is not so bad. Polar bear you have to cook all day, at least eight hours, because it has trichinosis. I had – they’re kind of like pork chops and they were polar bear, and they’d been broiled for eight hours so they were hard as rocks. And I also had stuff that looked exactly like chocolate pudding. I thought it was chocolate pudding, and I stuck it in my mouth and it was not chocolate pudding. It was a pureed polar bear meat sauce or stew. It was a way of dealing with the fact that you have to cook it so long. I also at one point – this is sort of a cultural test – ate live caribou.
Polsgrove: How could you eat a caribou when it’s still alive?
Evans: I went out with a family on a caribou hunting trip, and their youngest son was about seventeen and was the ace hunter, and I was just along to experience it, so I was carrying some of the gear and stuff. I followed them across the tundra for maybe a few miles and then he signaled that I should wait, and he went over a rise. I heard the gun off – blam, and then he said come on, so I came on over, and there was a big male caribou, big antlers, the whole bit, and it had fallen over – he had shot it. There were several of us there, and we were all talking, and then the caribou tried to stand up. It wasn’t dead yet. It was trying to get back to its feet – it was very sad actually – and he shot it again and it fell down, and it still tried to get to its feet. It couldn’t move its back legs but it was trying to get up to its front legs. So they stabbed it in the back of the neck with a knife, and it shuddered horribly and kept on trying to get up. It wasn’t just a reflex. It was breathing and it was looking at us and it was trying to stand up. Finally the guys just figured it was going to die eventually, it would die fairly soon, and they were hungry. So they started at the back end that couldn’t move. They started processing the flank, the thigh, and eating it, and they said, “Come on,” and it was very much a test – let’s see if you’re willing to turn up your nose at what we’re willing to eat, as a way of finding out how much with them I was. So of course, there was nothing I could do with them watching except to say, “Thanks,” and help myself to the caribou even while the front end was still trying to stand up and go away.
Polsgrove: This brings up an interesting question. When you’re doing this kind of research that requires that people accept you as being basically on their side, and then you sit down to write about them, do you feel like you’re still on their side when you do the writing or do you become somebody else at that point?
Evans: What I’ve tried to do is write it as honestly as I can, but I’m fully aware of the fact that these people were very good to me for a long period of time, and I like them, and I’m still in touch with them. So I have to acknowledge that that’s coloring the way I perceive things. I’m trying to write it the way I see things, but I’m sure that the way I see things has been shifted by the fact that these people have helped me, they’ve taken care of me, they’ve fed me at times, so I know that’s affecting my mind, though I’m not consciously trying to just say nice things about them nor am I consciously trying to say unnice things about them – unkind things – nevertheless I’m sure my whole frame reference is shifting because of how kind they were to me.
Polsgrove: Of course the reader would know that, if you talked at some length in your books about your experience with them. I notice that you do more of that in the newer book, which is on The Fast Runner, than you do in the first book, Isuma. We get more of your experiences. Did you think about that when you were writing both books? About the need to fill the readers in on your relationship with the people you were writing about?
Evans: My natural tendency is to leave myself out of it as much as possible. I don’t like the kind of writing where the writer turns the spotlight on himself and says, “Here I am, in the Arctic!” So my inclination is to leave myself out, and that’s why the first book came across that way. The second book has more of me in it at the vigorous urging of the editors. On the first draft, they said, “We need more of you,” and so it was in subsequent drafts that I forced that material in at their request, because they wanted some of that tone and texture in the book.
Polsgrove: It does make it very readable, but it does also have the virtue of alerting the reader to the relationship out of which the book came – and it seems to me that that’s an important thing to do.
Evans: That’s a big theme in the discussions about ethnography these days – being transparent and reflexive and acknowledging why you’re there, how you got there, your relationship with these people. I’m glad to have done more of that in the second book.
Polsgrove: I wonder if there are other ways you changed the way you thought about ethnography or academic research in situations like this, having gone through this experience – how it changed your sense of the discipline.
Evans: My naïve assumption going into my nine-month project up there was that the fact that somebody was coming up from the States, interested in writing a book about these people, would be kind of a neat thing on their part, and they would participate and help out and so on because they were going to get a book written about them. What I discovered immediately upon getting there was that I’m the ten thousandth person coming through there writing books about them, and they’re tired of researchers and they’ve been been burned by researchers and treated badly by researchers, and they were quite aware that they owed me nothing at all. So any cooperation I got had to be earned through helping out, participating, contributing. At the Isuma office, the coffee pot was always full. Coffee is very expensive up there. A jar of it is $25, and if the coffee was running out – I was drinking it – I always made sure that they had a stash of coffee there because I needed to give as much as I could to them.
There was one particular person who works for the IBC, the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation – many of these people are brilliant carvers – and he asked to borrow money because he needed it quickly. So he came to me and said, “Can I borrow a hundred dollars?” I had to think about that, the position that puts me in. If I say yes and let him borrow the money, am I now announcing myself as the town bank? There is no bank in town, and so now suddenly, “This white guy in that shack over there will let you have money if you ask him.” I didn’t want to be in that position. On the other hand, these people are giving me their time, they’re giving me their thoughts, and their effort, so I didn’t want to be obnoxious about it. So I let him borrow the hundred dollars, and he did say, I’m going to repay you when I get a check. And then time went by and time went by and he didn’t repay it and he didn’t repay it, and I was starting think, well, I’ll just to have to let that go. Then he came to me and said, “Can I borrow a hundred dollars?” And I said, “Well, you haven’t paid me back the hundred I gave you before,” and he said, “Oh, I thought I had!” I said. “No, you really haven’t.” So he now needed another hundred dollars, and so I said, “I’ll give you another hundred, the second hundred that you’re asking for, and, in fact, I’ll give you a third hundred if you will carve a specific sculpture for me,” because I wanted to commission a carving for my wife. “I want to describe what I want. If you’ll carve that, I’ll give you the money right now.” So I paid him up front, right when he needed the money, and then he came through and carved far beyond what I could imagine.
Polsgrove: It’s a very creative solution.
Evans: He got what he wanted, my wife got a treasure that we’ll love forever. The women have big hoods that they put their babies in, and we have twin boys, so I asked him to carve a woman with the amauti – the big hood – with two boys in her hood, because I’d never seen one like that. He pointed out that culturally the Inuit wouldn’t do that. If you have twins, you would most likely give one to somebody who didn’t have any kids, so you would just have one baby at a time. I said, “Okay, that’s cool, but I really want this for my wife.” So he carved this really nice carving of a woman tending a stone lamp, and she’s got the amauti, and there are clearly two boys peeking out of there – it’s just adorable – and I gave it to my wife when I got back, and it was just perfect. We love it dearly, and we’ve also decided that the name of that sculpture is Boys in the Hood.
Polsgrove: I want to digress here just a moment. You did a young adult book that was set in this area, was it?
Evans: No, it’s set off the coast of Maine (68 Knots), so it’s northern, but not that northern. I have actually written a juvenile book that is set up there but it hasn’t been published yet.
Polsgrove: That’s an interesting thing, that you’re both an academic who writes scholarly books – very readable ones – on scholarly topics, but you also do juvenile adventure books.
Evans: The juvenile book that is based up there is called Snow Blocks, and all I did for most of that book was take the things that I had done and have the 15-year-old protagonist do them. So eating the polar bear soup and stuff like that – all that stuff happens to him as he’s adjusting to this new climate.
Polsgrove: I’m trying to reconcile these two aspects of your personality, but they both unite in an adventurous spirit.
Evans: I like good stories so I like doing things that result in good stories. I’m taking my family to Iceland in early June for some rafting and kayaking just because it will be fun.
Polsgrove: And what other folklore research have you done? You did some in Australia –
Evans: I did some in the Australian Outback. I wrote about that in pieces of other things. I don’t have a book that’s just on that, but I was there for three months and did work with aboriginal video and radio professionals. They’re doing some extraordinary work in the Outback. Now I’m working with Native American groups, specifically the Ojibwe, and one of the newspapers that’s published in one of the Ojibwe reservations. I’m looking on the scholarly side at issues of identity with regard to what it means to be a native journalist.
Polsgrove: On that topic of identity, I wanted to know how you felt you yourself were changed by your experience with the Inuit.
Evans: A lot. It was the first time I’d ever really gone off pretty much by myself to do something like that. I’ve had trips with my parents and my siblings. I’ve gone on trips with my wife, but this is the first time that I had just planted myself in this tiny town, very, very different from anything I’d ever experienced, and just learned how to live. So I gained a lot of confidence in my ability to roll with any punch that comes along. Whatever happens, one way or another, I can get through it. I didn’t die. There are ways you can die up there but I managed to avoid them. And so it gave me a great deal of confidence about just what I can get through.
Polsgrove: It sounds like a rite of passage. How old were you at that point?
Evans: I turned forty while I was up there. On my fortieth birthday, I walked out across the ocean until I couldn’t see the lights of the town any more, and the air is very, very dry up there, it’s a polar desert, and it’s dead flat. And so I just walked out across the ice and then just lay down on the ice, and you can see stars from horizon to horizon. You can see stars for 360 degrees all the way down to the horizon in all directions. I just lay there till I froze – just absorbing the universe. Then I got back up and walked back into town. So I turned forty on the ice in the Arctic.
Polsgrove: It seems like everything after that would be anti-climactic.
Evans: I turned fifty in the company of Henry Glassie in the folklore program [at IU] – he’s my mentor over there – and some very good friends at his house, and that was magical also.
Polsgrove: I wanted you to talk a little bit about him. You mention him several times in Isuma, you quote from him – did he help turn you toward the Inuit in the first place? How did you get to that topic?
Evans: I got to wanting to go to the Arctic and spend time with the Inuit – that came about because I was doing writing. I’m a writer, and I was doing an article for Yankee magazine about a guy off Cape Cod who rescued a humpback whale from a fisherman’s net. He heard a call on the radio that this whale was stranded in this net, gathered some people together, went out in a little inflatable Zodiac boat, and with a pocket knife cut this 30-ton whale free from the net. I went out and talked to him about that, and he actually had some video footage of it, and I wrote the article for Yankee magazine. Then he said, “I just did this one whale. There’s a guy up in Newfoundland who does this all summer long.” So I said, well, okay, I’ve got to go check this out. My wife and I went up to Newfoundland for about two weeks and went out with this guy who goes out every morning at the crack of dawn, and there were so many whales getting fouled in the fishermen’s nets that he always had something to do. We went with him, morning after morning after morning, cutting these whales free. Newfoundland is stunningly gorgeous, so I said to his assistant, actually, “This place is really beautiful.” And his assistant said, “If you like this, you’ll love Baffin Island.” So I kept getting recommended farther and farther north. I started reading about Baffin Island and the Arctic. Joanna was pregnant with the boys at the time and doing her prenatal exercise class, and the exercise instructor was going to go up there for a hiking trip, and she had a book about it. She let Joanna borrow that, and Joanna let me borrow it, so I was reading it and was just loving everything I read. That just made me decide, I’ve just got to get up there. So when I came to IU, my sights were set on the Arctic.
Polsgrove: How did you decide to come here?
Evans: I decided to get a Ph.D. in folklore because I was doing some work with an organization called the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society [in Massachusetts]. I was president of it for a while, and while I was president, we hired a fulltime folklorist, a guy with a Ph.D. in folklore. I’d never heard of Ph.D.s in folklore but he had one, and he was doing really neat work. I got to talking with him and saying, “I kind of like what you do,” and he said, “Well, you need a Ph.D. in folklore.” I said, “Where shall I get it?” His was not from IU, but he said, “You’ve got to get it from IU. That’s the only place to go. There are other programs, but IU’s the place.”
Polsgrove: You were how old when you started your Ph.D.?
Evans: I was 34.
Polsgrove: You reinvented your life?
Evans: Quit my job as an editor, Joanna and the boys – who were one at the time – we drove out here to Indiana and I went from being an employed editor to an unemployed graduate student with twin boys, and Joanna was working as a freelancer, so she was home with the boys a lot, and we had no money at all, and limped along for five years, and I got the Ph.D. and got this job right away, which was a blessing.
Polsgrove: Can you imagine reinventing your life again?
Evans: It would be in some ways harder and in some ways easier. With the boys in high school now, we would have greater freedom to follow whatever we felt like following. On the other hand, we do have this vision of what we keep calling “the house” – it’s the house that we’re going to sock into and they’re going to carry us out of. We’re not just going to move again. So maybe one more, and that’s going to be “the house”–
Polsgrove: That’s going to be “the life”.
Evans: That’s it.
Polsgrove: Would you talk a little bit about the theme that so many of the videos have, which is traditional knowledge that is no longer much used, and the videomakers would revive it for the films – the old people would say how you hunt for a bowhead and then it would be reenacted. I was wondering, in your own culture, if there is a counterpoint to that, if there are examples within our culture of knowledge that is being lost.
Evans: I think there absolutely is. I grew up on a farm in Indiana, and family farms are going very rapidly, and with the loss of those farms goes the loss of a massive amount of knowledge about how to maintain a small, diverse farm – you’ve got a couple of cows, and you’ve got chickens, and you’ve got corn – and as that all gets displaced by agribusiness, where it’s a huge set of knowledge but a very different set of knowledge, the old time ways of how you manage a farm are disappearing very rapidly. How do you use oxen to plough a field? There are people in India who are doing that all the time, they’ve got that knowledge, but here the only people who are really doing that sort of thing are doing it for show – for living museums – but not so much out there day in and day out getting it done.
Polsgrove: I was also wondering about some of the Inuit values that come through in the movies, and whether you think some of those values would enrich our culture.
Evans: Absolutely. One of the great ones, especially at Isuma more so than Inuit Broadcasting Corporation – Isuma embraces an Inuit rhythm. IBC works like an office. You show up at 8:30, you go home at 5, you’ve got work to do, take an hour off for lunch. At Isuma, you show up when you’re ready to show up, and you stay as long as you want, and you leave when you want. People don’t show up for ten minutes and then leave and expect a paycheck, because they don’t get a paycheck that way. They get a paycheck by completing grant applications and getting assignments to make videos, then making the video so as to get the next grant assignment. So you can work as much as you want and you can not work as much as you want, and you can live however that balance works out for you. You sleep when you’re tired, and you eat when you’re hungry. As Zak Kunuk – he’s the main producer – was saying, “If we suddenly heard about a whale in the bay, I’m going to run down and get the boat and go get the whale.” But the people over at IBC or any of the other administrative offices for the government, they can’t do that.
Polsgrove: You can’t do that as an associate dean in the School of Journalism.
Evans: Right. I could maybe. But in most jobs you can’t just say, “Hey, it’s the World Series – I’m going to go watch the World Series,” even though it’s midday. You can’t do it. You’ve got to put in your hours. I think it would help us enormously if we relaxed, got ourselves out of the tyranny of the time clock more, and just worked. And people work – at Isuma people work – they work three days solid. They work at midnight, they’re working their tails off, so it’s not that they’re backing off on the effort. It’s just that they’ll work for three days, and then they’ll go hunting and not be around for a week, and they’ll go back to their work, and it all balances out as needed.
Polsgrove: I thought Appalshop [in Whitesburg, Kentucky] was a lot like that when I first went there, which was back in the early ‘70s. I’d never seen people work in that way. You get up at 5, you go out and shoot some film, you come back, you have breakfast, you take a nap, you get up, you do some editing, you have a beer. I don’t know if they’re still like that but it was very relaxed. Are there other things about the way the Inuit live? I thought that some of the things that you describe in the most recent book [The Fast Runner] – practices, games – we could use. For instance, there was the “lip pull.” I thought academics could use the “lip pull.” Could you describe the “lip pull”?
Evans: It sounds great for faculty meetings. Basically it’s men doing this, and they stand side by side facing the same direction. You hook your arm around the back of the head of your opponent and he does the same around the back of your head and you hook one or two fingers in the corner of your mouths – you’re doing the same to the other guy. When the signal’s given, you pull back just as hard as you can, so you’re getting pulled on and it hurts. You’re turning your head trying to ease the pressure. The guy’s just pulling as hard as he can. You’re meanwhile pulling just as hard as you can. And because you’re both trying to turn away from the pressure you end up leaning backwards and typically you fall over backwards. So these two big beefy guys end up on the floor in each other’s arms, howling with laughter. Their mouths hurt and nobody really wins, maybe somebody wins, but mainly it’s for venting and letting off steam. It’s designed to be a way of resolving conflict without murder because you’re in these close little bands, you’re in an igloo with people, they get on your nerves, so you can do these sorts of things and vent that. It’s hard to be mad at somebody that you’re laughing with half naked in each other’s arms and so that kind of diffuses things instead of letting it build up to the point where somebody kills somebody else.
Polsgrove: I do think that that’s one of the virtues of reading about other people’s cultural practices. It’s not just that you’re honoring their way of life, but you are also seeing ways that you might want to change your way of life.
Evans: There are definitely practices out there that are intelligent and useful and we don’t know about them, and it’s great to run across them and read about them and incorporate them as we can.
Polsgrove: There was a part where you talked about getting your very own power word. An informant gave you your own power word, which would have power for you when you used it. I wonder if you would tell us that word and if you have used it.
Evans: I would be happy to because it’s not like in some belief systems if you say the word it loses its power or something like that. I can say it. The word is “ilanilu,” which means “I will see you again.” There’s an emphasis there. “I will see you.” It’s almost a directive. It’s not just a hope or a wish, it’s “I am going to see you again.” The guy who gave it to me was David Ruben Piqtoukun, who is arguably the most famous Inuit sculptor up there, does brilliant, brilliant work. I was interviewing him in Toronto, and I was planning to go up there, and I was saying, I’m going to go up and I’m going to be gone for a long time. I’m going to be away from my wife, and that’s going to be really hard. And it’s all very subtle–it’s not this “Let me give you a word, my son.” He was just talking to me – and nobody ever admits to being a shaman – it’s all indicated very subtly – and so we were talking, and he mentioned that word several times in the course of the conversation, just obliquely. Just “There’s a word I know, and it’s a good word, it’s an interesting word, it’s ‘ilanilu’ and it’s a good word.” And I’m thinking, why in the heck are you telling me this? We’re talking about sculpture, and he just kept bringing it back in, and finally he just looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s a really good word.” And that’s when I realized: he’s giving me this word. I was being dense and he had to kind of force it on me. And the word is intended for me to say to my wife so that even though we’re separating, we will get back together.
Polsgrove: You actually live in different places now?
Evans: We do now.
Polsgrove: She’s living and working in–
Evans: New York. I definitely used that when I left for the Arctic. I said, “Ilanilu.” Then we lived together in the same house for ten years or so before employment things and the boys took her off to New England. She’s now trying to get a job at IU and come back together but for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary I had a gold bracelet made for her with that word on it.
Polsgrove: There is a sadness about these stories that you tell about the Inuit. Toward the end of the book, Isuma, you say that during the winter of 1997-98, “only two families spent the dark months out on the land. But in the winter of 1998-99’”– that was when you were there – “the last of the families moved into town. It is perhaps the first winter in 4,000 years that no one called an outpost camp around Igloolik home.” So that fact and my awareness as I read the books, that Inuit are not living as they are shown living in their videos, as they lived in the past, cast a shadow of sadness across the book – accentuated by your mention of teen suicide, which suggests a culture that’s in trouble. I wonder how you personally feel about Inuit lives as they are now.
Evans: I had and still have to some extent a kind of nostalgia. It’s a shame to lose the old ways, and they’re definitely fading fast, but I also had to learn and retool my mind to understand the way they see it. There were some elders that were invited by teachers – the teachers in the school are all white and they’re imported from Alberta – and so the teachers invited some elders in the classroom to teach the students how to do the old sewing techniques and some of the old-time ways so that knowledge wouldn’t be lost. The elders said, “Okay, how much will you pay us?” The teachers said, “We can’t really pay you anything, but you’ll have this chance to pass the knowledge along.” And the elders said, “Why would we want to fill up your teaching time imparting our knowledge? If you’re getting paid to teach, how come we’re not going to get paid to teach?” Their attitude is, we’re going to hang on to the stuff that makes sense to us and we’re going to let go of the stuff that doesn’t.
There’s a sadness more on the part of outsiders than the people involved. The people involved are making rational, practical decisions. Nobody wants to give up hot water, but these modern things require plumbing, require a truck to deliver all the water, require diesel engines to heat it all, and all that stuff that comes with it. Nobody’s willing to go back because it would be insane to say, “Oh, I’m want to give that up and go live in a sod hut sometime.” So they’re more matter of fact about “We’re keeping what matters, we’re getting rid of the stuff that we want to get rid of.” I think to outsiders like myself and others it’s more poignant in that we find some simplicity and joys in those older ways that are being lost.
Polsgrove: If they’re not living in that traditional way, I wonder how long they’re going to stay in the Arctic, which is a very difficult environment. Why not just move where it’s warmer?
Evans: I do too. I worry about that. Almost everybody up there is getting what amounts in the American system to welfare checks. There’s almost no employment up there. It’s very expensive to maintain this population up there, just keep sending them money and nothing ever happens. I’ve wondered at times whether the Canadian government will say, “Look, you all have just got to come south.” But they’ve tried that in the past with disastrous results.
Evans: The relocation was deadly. They tried to group them into settlements and so on. There was disease, and people ran out of food. It was a huge, huge problem, so I think they’re reluctant to try to force them to come south. The other thing’s that’s happening, ironically, is that with global warming the northern coast of our continent is becoming hot real estate. There’s now the very serious likelihood of shipping through the Northwest Passage, and there are business interests buying up entire communities along there, because they anticipate being able to build docks and ports and resupply the ships or whatever it might be. So suddenly there’s the prospect of an active economy up there, a cash economy that they could live on in the future.
Polsgrove: The videos are beautiful videos – the photography casts a really lovely glow over the scene – but they do leave a romantic feeling about it that you might not have if you actually lived there because they’re visually so striking. There’s kind of a romanticism about the scene.
Evans: I think that’s deliberate on the part of the producers because they’re trying to honor the ancestors and honor the old ways. They’re trying to make that look very, very nice, but of course we get the sights and we get the sounds, we don’t get the other sensations.
Polsgrove: The cold–
Evans: Forty-five degrees below zero, and that’s bloody cold. So we see them playing in the snow but we’re sitting in our comfortable rooms watching that. We don’t feel the hunger. Starvation was a constant problem up there. If the game ran out and your hunters were unlucky, you would be very, very hungry and huddled in your igloo and it’s freezing cold and things are pretty bleak.
Polsgrove: It’s still hard to get things from outside, isn’t it – you wouldn’t have lettuce every day for dinner?
Evans: It’s up there but it’s very expensive and it’s really pretty bad. There’s a plane service that comes up that brings passengers and then brings freight. There are two stores in town, or were when I was there, and they would have tomatoes and lettuce and things, but your typical Inuit family wouldn’t buy it because it was too expensive. Also, because it was traveling in the cargo hold of the airplane, which was not heated, the tomatoes and the lettuce and whatever would freeze, so then when they get it in the store it’s pretty bad.
Polsgrove: Did most people speak English? You learned Inuktitut?
Evans: I learned some. Everybody but the elders spoke English. There were a couple of interviews I did with some elder people where I needed to get one of their kids to translate for me.
Polsgrove: If people want to look at these videos, how hard are they to get? Netflix, of course, has The Fast Runner.
Evans: Amazon does. Isuma has a website [http://www.isuma.tv/isuma-productions], a very sophisticated website, in fact they’re now doing television on the web showing not only their work but the work of other northern aboriginal people – and they have places there where people can order these. But they’re fairly expensive, most of them are, because they’re intended for a library to buy them and distribute them. The big movies like The Fast Runner and the next one after that was The Journals of Knud Rasmussen – those are on Amazon and not hard to get. But some of the others are expensive or you need to go to a fairly major library.
Polsgrove: The video artists are working within with cultural systems when they are working with video which have certain rules and demands and expectations of what a video should be. When their productions come out reviewers say, “Well this is very slow, it’s not focused, they should have edited more.” Other people enjoy the videos and honor them for the pace. You’re writing within a cultural system, which is academic ethnography, and I wondered if there were times when you experienced that as limiting?
Evans: Very. I fought it. It was my dissertation, I had to do it a certain way, but I really wanted to just tell people the cool story of these fascinating people that I was learning about and not have to anchor it into theory and the lit review and all those sorts of things.
Polsgrove: What about in the books themselves – you were still working within that frame –
Evans: I could liberate myself more, shifting from a dissertation proper to a book. I could free myself more. The first book came out when I’d just gotten tenure, but all the time I was working on it, I was working on it as an academic book to establish my academic credentials, so I felt I couldn’t veer too far into story telling, which is where I wanted to go. I had to adhere to the requirements of the academic culture.
Polsgrove: Now that you’re tenured do you feel free to do more journalistic projects?
Evans: The second book is a little more journalistic, with less of the apparatus of academic publishing. The book I’m working on now, I had worked through a whole lit review about identity, and I’ll include some of that – this is the book with the Ojibwe – but I was talking to Tom French a few weeks ago –
Polsgrove: Who’s a literary journalist –
Evans: Yes, and I was describing the story to him. And he said, “Oh, you’ve got a great story here. Just tell the story.”
Polsgrove: The parts I like best are those parts in your books where you are describing scenes that you very obviously have seen, for instance – let’s share one of these: “In the steamy, smoky, dark atmosphere of the igloo, where people are pressed tightly together and smells of tobacco, sweat, and blood commingle into oppressive density, the effect of a well-told tale could be profound.” And there’s a moment where you describe what a very large ice igloo looks like from outside in the night, when it’s glowing from the light inside. I vote with Tom French. Make this strong narrative. You can write journal articles about the theory.
Evans: I think I’m going to do that. That’s where my heart wants to go.
Polsgrove: Do you have suggestions for writers who want to live in a community for a while and then write about it – whether they’re journalists or anthropologists?
Evans: Several people came through Igloolik while I was there. No one ever stayed more than a couple of weeks. I was the only crazy person staying nine months. And I got to see how lots of people interacted with the community. The big number one piece of advice I would have for people is to shut up. People have a tendency to want to go up to a place like Igloolik or wherever and tell them what their life is like. They’re willing to teach you if you’re willing to be quiet and listen and be respectful and let them lead, and you follow. It takes a lot of putting on the brakes, especially for people who have very outgoing personalities, to just realize that you’re a student, you’re a kindergartner, and these people are going to teach you, and you’ve got to maintain that role and not try to be two buddies swapping stories. They don’t necessarily want to hear your stories. You want to hear their stories. So you need to ask – very obliquely, often – invite them to tell their stories, and then just be very quiet, listen very carefully, learn as much as you can, and be extraordinarily humble and respectful. The people who come in and are not, I would hear stories –“Oh, that guy who came up here two years ago and was arrogant and obnoxious.” It causes a lot of damage, it causes a lot of harm. They get angry and they feel trod upon, and it makes it difficult for people coming along later.
Polsgrove: How did they feel about your books after they came out?
Evans: I just got the second one so I haven’t sent that one up yet, but the first one has been up there for a long time. They of course got my dissertation.
Polsgrove: So they had a chance to respond to the dissertation. Did they have quibbles with it?
Evans: They have said virtually nothing whatsoever. I sent copies to everybody involved and I followed up on email and said, “I’d love to hear what you think.” And Zak has written me a couple of times. The last one I got was, “Yeah, I have the book, and I’ve read most of it, and I’m going to take it with me on a hunting trip I’m on and maybe I’ll read the rest of it. Zak. “No arguments, no quibbles, no “attaboy,” which I think is a good thing. The way the Inuit teach is by allowing their kids to fall on their faces. I was on a whale hunt and the teenage boy in the bow with the harpoon – the whale was right there and he threw the harpoon and just missed it. Nobody said a word, nobody made fun of him, nobody said, “Oh, you should have done this or you should have done that,” we just reeled in the harpoon, circled back around and went off looking for another whale. It’s just, “Okay, you screwed that up, but you’ll do better next time.” And then when you do do it, it’s not, “Oh, yea, attaboy!” It’s just like “Yep, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” It’s a very even-keeled form of instruction. It’s just “Yep, you wrote your book. You said you were going to write a book and there it is.”