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Lion's Roar : Published Writing

Cultural Survival Quarterly Issue #25

The Priced Vs. Priceless

Dow & Napalm

Globe & Mail; Remebering when East Timor wasn't news

This poem is not about Timor

Three Myths About the Arms Race 

Our LIfe Out of Balance: The Rise of Literacy and the Demise of Pattern Languages

The Priced versus the Priceless

A November 9, 2007 talk given at Yale University by Derek Rasmussen


I was listening to CBC, the national Canadian radio service, a couple of years ago and the interviewer, Michael Enright, was chatting with a fellow named Alouitious in Newfoundland. It seems Alouitious had a farm which was within the city limits of the capital, St John's. The first question that Enright asked him was, "How does it feel to be living such an old-fashioned way of life in the middle of a bustling city?" Alouitious answered politely. But I was not so polite as I found myself hollering back at the radio: "What's so old-fashioned about food? Don't you still eat food? Or do you live on techno-nutrients from outer-space or something?" Later on I tried to discuss the program with a usually sympathetic colleague, but he snorted in disagreement: "So you're one of those back-to-the-landers eh, Derek? Don't be so naive."

Today's city folk seem to talk and behave as though they've transcended the need for land, crops, animals, weather-as if these things are old fashioned. But the fact is, no one can be a 'back-to-the-lander.' We never left the land. None of us. Even those super-SUV-driving types who deny it are still 'on the land'. After all, what do they eat-space juice from Mars? They still eat food grown on planet earth (somewhere)-be it bananas from Columbia or rice from Cambodia. It's still dirt, sky, water, photosynthesis. Beetles, bugs, water buffalo, bacteria and birds. And people and songs, and apprenticeships and advice (somewhere). Even their super-SUVs are propelled by animals. Shellfish and other sea creatures, dead and crushed millions of years ago and fossilized into a fuel that they pump from the depths into their gas tanks. They haven't left the land-none of us has. We've just put layers of concrete between it and us. Layers of concrete and concepts-but we cling even more to concepts than we do to concrete. We still need the land, for as much as we deny it or distract ourselves from it, we live off the land, and we die on the land.

2000 kilometres north, Tommy Akulukjuk, part-time hunter and journalist, has noticed this odd preoccupation of Euro-Canadians to deny that they are part of nature:

The Qallunaat (European-Canadians) have a strange concept of their environment. For instance, the term "wildlife" is used to separate themselves from their home and separate their community from the natural environment. They do not realize that they're part of the wildlife; they were wild once and will be part of the wild forever, but they like to exclude themselves from anything the natural world provides. Inuit do not have such a word in their language, we are part of nature and cannot to be excluded from it. (The word 'Inuit' itself means: Living beings, it doesn't connote any superiority). Inuktitut captures what the nature has said to Inuit. Even what seems to be a simple word in Inuktitut is so difficult to translate into English. A word like "kajjarniq". Kajjarniq means "to reflect positively about our surroundings". We usually say it when we like the weather, and people like all sorts of weather, so we say it in any weather. Even indoors when people experience what they remember and have that positive outlook on it.

Sometimes you can read southerners describe the Arctic regions as "daunting" and they write about how Inuit survived in the "inhospitable" Canadian north. I don't think there is anything daunting about where I'm from. I think this paints a bleak picture of Inuit, as if we are always struggling to survive.