cheek pull

-art by Jeanie Tigullaraq, Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada

I had been outside less than two minutes and now my naked-ape fingers were numb. Okay so at -10°F and a stout north wind,  I should know better than to go out and dump ashes from the kitchen wood burning stove without wearing any gloves or mittens. Admittedly I did pause to take in rising sunshine and draw in a “good morning” deep breath of air. That inhalation was also a wake-up call that the day was nippy and not suited for an ill-clad encounter.

I hurried back to the house from the frozen compost pile, stopping to clutch a couple pieces of firewood from the wood shed. My hands that were quickly becoming rigid claws rather than flexible and tactile digits.

Back indoors, I hovered over the stove. I clutched a couple water-polished pieces of Lake Superior basalt that I keep on top of the kitchen woodburning stove. They are ideal hand and foot warmers. As warmth seeps back into my pain-riddled fingers, I grimaced as I grunted lyrics from John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts so Good.

Rolling the black silky smooth stone over in my hand I couldn’t help but marvel at how traditional Inuit hunters could tolerate existing and even thriving in Arctic conditions without a stick of wood to throw on a warming fire.

Three weeks ago I frostbit three of my fingertips while out cutting and splitting firewood. The tips on three fingers of my right glove had worn through and exposed the flesh on my fingertips. Over the past few days that damaged skin peeled away and I am equipped with new epidermal coverings on the tips.

Such a mistake in Arctic conditions could be fatal. I stand in awe of the Inuk hunter who would stand on his small swatch of polar bear fur to add both warmth to his feet and make it quieter for him to shuffle. Cold air and snow crystals combined can make for a loud squeaky ruckus. And if you are trying to remain silent above a ring seal’s breathing hole in the frozen sea ice you must remain as quiet as a falling snowflake. You need to hear the muted exhale of a seal as it pauses in its underwater excursions to catch a breath at one of its breathing holes. Shaped like upside down ice cream cones, the breathing hole on the frozen sea allowed the seal to catch a breath. With the primitive harpoon poised at the tip of the inverted cone, the patient and quiet hunter will hear the seal’s appearance in the inverted ice funnel and drive the harpoon towards the seal.

Bending over at the waist, the hunter, resembled a frozen underling bowing to the vast, desolate and frozen landscape. . . sometimes for hours. There are stories where hunters would diligently wait at the hole for the quiet exhale of a seal for over two days. No screen of trees or walls to divert windchilling winds that can easily steal your life. This was not recreational seal hunting, this was grocery shopping. Their family’s survival depended on their hunting skills and their perseverance.

Hunters were covered in layers of caribou hide, one layer, fur to the inside against the skin, and a second outer layer, the parka, with the fur exposed to the weather. The most successful hunters could deal with adversity, suffering and pain.

.How could they do it?

Developing a high tolerance of pain was a valued and necessary attribute. So it is not unusual that as children many of the games they played helped them develop skills and a mindset to hunt and deal with pain.

Sometimes, I wish we would inject only a modicum of suffering into children’s activitys. With electrical games the only suffering comes with strained thumbs as they type and peck across the keyboard. Sad.

Consider the traditional Inuk child. They learned physical games that would help them endure pain and suffering. A marshmallow might best describe modern games of our more urban society. On the other hand the piece of smooth basalt is a better symbol of the games of nomadic hunter-gatherer children. They had to be strong and tough while understanding the polished survival benefits of working together.

One Inuk game emulated two musk oxen bulls. Each child got on all fours and faced each other. Rather than ram into each other they carefully placed their foreheads together and on the signal, they simply pushed until one pushed the other away or one would give up.

Another game, called the mouth pull, would have two youngsters stand side by side. Before the game would officially commence, both participants would reach their arm around the others shoulders and then reach up to their opponent’s mouth. Each player would hook one or two of their fingers into the corner of the other player’s mouth and hook the cheek. At the signal players pulled their opponent’s cheek until one person surrendered.

To learn seal anatomy and how to do with less, children were given a leather pouch filled with the bones of a seal’s flipper. They were instructed to reach into the bag and pull out as many bones as they could grab. Once they had their hand full, the drawstring of the pouch was tightened around the child’s wrist making it impossible to pull out all the bones they wanted to pull out. With only a few bones, they had to lay their retrieved bones in the configurment of the seal’s flipper.

Nothing soothes pain like laughter. Consequently the laughing contest was an important balm. This game, my favorite, was best played during social gatherings. Participants pair up and face each other, usually holding each other’s hands. At a signal everyone begins to laugh. The person who laughs most robustly and longest is the winner. It is not unusual that soon everyone is out of control in a continual flow of laughter.

This simple game could very well be the anecdote for politicians. Imagine these hucksters paired up with a member of the opposite political party, holding hands and then laughing. Who knows where it would lead.