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Ontology on Ice: The Inuit of the central Canadian Arctic and their animals

Frédéric Laugrand
p. 74-75
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’ontologie sur la glace

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Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

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1The two lectures at the Collège de France were delivered on 30 April and 7 May 2014, as part of a research project on Inuit cosmology and on these Northern Canadian populations’ relationships with the animals around them.

© Robert Fréchette/Avataq 2008

2The research is conducted from a perspective that is both comparative and ethno-historical – respectively taking into account socio-cultural variations on an intra-regional scale, and the multiple transformations that have marked these societies since the end of the nineteenth century, particularly sedentarization, Christianization, and the advent of modernity and the State. It is based not only on written sources but also, and especially, on oral sources that have been collected during numerous knowledge transmission workshops with elders and youth from different Nunavut villages. These activities have been carried out for the last twenty years in collaboration with Jarich Oosten, emeritus professor at the University of Leiden.

Predators and preys, or how the Inuit and their animals challenge our ontological approaches

3Over the last three decades, the anthropology of nature and that of ontologies and cosmologies have undergone considerable developments, providing new perspectives on many phenomena, beliefs and experiences throughout the world. Based on diverse ethnographic material drawn from our research with the Inuit, the first presentation put into perspective and tested several of these theoretical approaches – those of Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola, Roberte Hamayon, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Bruno Latour, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – against contemporary conceptions of the Nunavut and Nunavik Inuit.

4In these regions of the Canadian Arctic, many conflicts still regularly occur between hunters, environmentalists, biologists, and politicians. These profound divergences show the Inuit’s attachment to hunting, as well as the resilience of Nordic traditions within modernity. The same divergences also force anthropologists to clarify some apparent paradoxes, such as these hunters’ current preference for the “Biblical environmentalism” of evangelical groups, as opposed to environmentalists’ environmentalism. On a theoretical level, while contemporary ontological anthropology certainly sheds light on several fundamental aspects of these hunters’ thinking, traditions and customs, it does not always do justice to the complexity of Inuit perspectives, according to which humans and animals are vital to each other – but stand in relation to one another in an irreversible position, with the former remaining predators and the latter anonymous preys. From a naturalist perspective, the question arises as to whether Inuit animism is not distorted by the excessive humanization of animals, whereas these hunters actually stress another hierarchy, in which animals are considered as prey, even if the myths show that they interact and share many commonalities with humans.

5The revival of whale hunting and the fear of small beings in the central Canadian Arctic

6In the second lecture, we described and analysed the revival of whale hunting since the mid-1990s, and the fear that the central Arctic Inuit still harbour of qupirruit (small beings), which abound in these regions. Regarding whale hunting, we proceeded to a detailed examination of the animal imitation phenomenon, and posited that it offered a way into the complexity of hunting, providing a different perspective on the relationship between a predator and its prey, and facilitating the link between ontology and shamanism.

7In an Inuit context, this shaman’s imitation of an animal can be reversed, as is seen in certain hunting practices which are explained by the communication that is always established between the hunter and his prey. We here argue that most gestures associated with this logic of imitation actually stem more from one of prefiguration, as the gesture of pointing a finger towards the whale illustrates so well. From this perspective, humans’ actions, particularly those of women, are designed to seduce the whale. When the women lie down while their husbands go hunting, they invite the whale to become passive and to stay still so that the hunters can harpoon them. The hunters and their wives thus endeavour to deceive, or better, manipulate their prey by encouraging it to imitate humans, and not the other way around. These gestures therefore relate to a sort of prefiguration, defined as a form of non-verbal communication. This is seen as the ideal option for the hunters, who then no longer feel as though they are forcing their prey to give itself up, but on the contrary as if it happily offers itself to them. In other words, they obtain their prey’s consent through manipulation. It will consequently have to be a cause for collective rejoicing. This aspect is still crucial to whale hunting. The hunter finally assumes his position as “constrained” predator, as Shaman Ava once stated.

8“Small beings”, which abound in the Arctic regions and have yet to receive the attention they deserve, play a fundamental role in the initiation, construction and transformation of the shamanic body. Like many other peoples, the Inuit seek to capture a part of the vital force of the qupirruit by using them in amulets, for example, or allowing lice to regenerate their blood. They however avoid prolonged and uncontrolled contact with these bugs, at the risk of being themselves transformed and of moving to a world outside of time and the rules it imposes on humans. We thus saw that these small beings are especially known and dreaded for their capacity to devour and transform humans. The Inuit, including artists, remain fascinated with their power of constant rebirth, and their capacity to move from life to death, in other words to link the world of the living with that of the dead.

9In short, for the Inuit, both the biggest prey and the tiniest bugs are perceived on different scales, in such a way that the smallest can become the most threatening for humans. While animism and perspectivism afford an adequate grasp of these phenomena, they also remain closely linked with shamanic conceptions and practices. Far from having disappeared, these conceptions and understandings are now intertwined with Christianity. This begs the question of how to grasp these hybrid cosmologies. How do the cultural logics involved differ from one another and how are they combined?

• This research gave rise to a publication: Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten, Hunters, Predators and Prey. Inuit Perceptions of Animals (Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, 2014).

• Prof. Frédéric Laugrand was invited by the Faculty, on Prof. Philippe Descola’s suggestion.

• Videos of these lectures are available at, on Prof. Philippe Descola’s page.

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Crédits © Robert Fréchette/Avataq 2008
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Référence électronique

Frédéric Laugrand, « Ontology on Ice: The Inuit of the central Canadian Arctic and their animals », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2015, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL :

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Frédéric Laugrand

Professor, Department of Anthropology, Laval University, Québec (Canada)

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© Collège de France

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