Updated: Aug 20, 2021
“Culture is the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the behaviour of the individuals composing a social group collectively and individually in relation to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the group itself, and of each individual to himself.” Franz Boas
Natural environment including all living and non-living things occurring naturally.
The darkness and bitter cold have arrived. It’s Dec 15, 62 degrees latitude, - 48 degrees celsius. The sunlight visits us for short periods of time each day, the cold air pains my lungs; I feel a shortness of breath. I am wearing so many pairs of pants, I cannot bend over and so many socks, my feet barely fit in my boots. I am headed out to the sea of snow next to the cabin to chip the ice so I can get water for washing. The five gallon pails I use to haul water to the house are now half full of ice chunks. The sea of snow, alive and flowing in the summer as the Great Slave Lake, is beautiful, fascinating; even in it’s frozen state, full of life. It is a part of my every day experience as I gather water, head out for a ski, watch the dog sleds pass by; it’s my television, my hydration system, my source of hygiene, my connection to the environment here and a life source. Water is one of the most important substances on earth that is the key to survival for all plants and animals. If there was no water, there would be no life on earth. And here it is beside me, the deepest lake in North America, the tenth largest in the world. I feel and see it’s greatness, bathe in it and drink it. There’s not a moment that I don’t feel its energy and significance.
I watch Max prep the dogs every day on the sea of snow for their run across the lake. They are so eager and happy at the idea of pulling the sled and impatiently wait to be harnessed, howling with excitement. The dignified leaders prove their leadership qualities through patience, understanding and cooperation. They allow themselves to be harnessed and lie down on the line in the ice while the others can’t hold back their excitement as they jump around. The art and skill of working with Inuit sled dogs (Qimmiq) and developing this relationship between man and animal is truly incredible- much like the Great Slave Lake they run on. I can’t help but think of how this relationship came to be, who designed the first sleds, why, how, with what materials? I have learnt a bit about genetic selection, the history of this relationship, sled design and raising sled dogs. I cannot fathom why colonizers would have killed the majority of Qimmiq to push a sedentary way of life. How could they have missed the significance of this amazing relationship between man and nature? How could they not understand that a dog sled team would not run out of gas or break down like a snowmobile, stranding people away from shelter in this extreme environment? Snowmobiles don’t track prey or understand where the ice is thin and potentially dangerous. Snowmobiles don’t offer hugs, slobbery kisses, songs at midnight, dusk or dawn to remind us we are not the only life forms on this planet.
I am wondering how anthropologist Franz Boas and his theory of cultural relativism related to his experiences on Baffin Island in 1883. I wonder how this theory of culture applies to Western society today as most individuals are so far-removed from the natural environment.
The wood pile we have stocked for heat for the winter is dwindling outside. This cabin was built with simple supplies. The floor is not insulated, mice visit us from time to time. My toes have been frozen for days, yet I embrace every feeling because at least there is something to feel: my body, the climate, the seasons changing- in comparison to a cushioned sofa in a modern home. There’s a pot of icicle water melting on the stove in preparation for bathing. My shampoo is frozen in the make-shift bucket shower and icicles formed along the bottom of the Tupperware tub we stand in where the great Great Slave Lake water pours over us from the hoisted bucket- non-chlorinated water might I add. I hear a thunderous crack across the ice. It is so bitter cold yet the sound echoes between the rocky islands and shore. I believe it stops at the edge of town where the sounds of televisions and vehicles overpower the “periphery”. Did you hear it?