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Bēhance

A 'casual' Inuit story

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  • A 'casual' Inuit story Tasermiut fjord, South Greenland 2010
  • If you take a look at the upper corner of the Earth’s map, faraway up north, you might notice an incredibly small and insignificant size wise, called Tasiusaq. The reckless industrial fishing and the global warming had forced the natives to abandon their fishing boats on the shore and start to make living from farming.

    And maybe this new occupation wouldn’t be that strange, if these people had any recollection of growing trees.
  • In case you have never heard of Tasiusaq, do not feel uncomfortable. The village hasn’t even existed on the map for 70 years. In the winter of 1856, hunting was extremely poor. The desperate trials of the inhabitants to go along the 35 kilometers cracked ice in order to get to the closest village ended up unsuccessfully. All the villagers died of hunger and bitter cold, one by one before the ice was even able to melt. 

    Today the cemetery is situated in the centre of the village. After the harsh lesson of the deadly winter, people have now left more than the necessary space in the cemetery, just in case…
  • Isaaq (8) could observe its birthplace, which is home of 83 people today, only by staring from the edge of this helicopter landing pad. This is a construction of great importance as there isn’t any other way to get to another populated area.
  • In the beginning of every week when the Tasermiut fjord is not ice-bound or windblown from the frequently appearing Arctic storms, students are travelling by boat for an hour and a half to get to their high school in Nanortalik.
  • In Tasiusaq every boat is used to its last ‘breath’. This one was the vehicle thanks to which I was given a ‘lift’ through the deep fjord to start my 2 months’ expedition. In the end of my project, it turned out that after our last meeting, the boat had sunk on its way back in the freezing water close to the shore. However, this wasn’t bothering any Inuit family. After a brief reconstruction, this old shabby boat would conquer the waves again.
  • The village had a Danish factory for sea foods 10 years ago, hence the population was double and everybody had jobs. However, year by year, as a result of the relentless industrial fishing, the seals and the salmon in the region are almost under distinction. The cod has halved.
  • Today in Tasiusaq there isn’t a single professional fisherman left. Hardly are 10 people in full-time employment in the local shop, the school or the church. The rest of the people, if still in condition to work, try their best in breeding sheep and growing potatoes. But bearing in mind the cold Greenland climate, this is not a piece of cake.
  • Their tundra heaped on with stones would be considered by every European or American farmer as not fit for cultivation. But Tasiusaq people have no other choice. If they were to restore the resources for their traditional means of living – fishing and hunting, hundreds of years would have been needed. The village does not count anymore on dried fish as a basic supply for the long winters. Even after the closure of the factory the catch of fish decreases year by year.
  • The plantations here are most often grass for the sheep. The very same negligible to us grass, which we mow in our yards, has such an outstanding value here because it is utterly difficult to be cultivated. Yet 70% of the hay needed for the winter is transported from Europe by ships, which costs the Tasiusaq people a fortune.
  • Regardless of whether people here live as fishermen, hunters of polar bears and seals or ‘simply’ farmers, their every day life is full of extreme challenges. The village is often wind swamped from the hurricane Arctic storms. It also seems natural when enormous icebergs block the tiny harbour or when entire herds of sheep disappear in the mountains.
  • Every Tasiusaq family owns a small house, usually made of low quality materials (leftovers from Europe) and with no water supply. During the storms, the wind’s velocity reach to 300 km/h and that can get you deep in thoughts about the way in which they sustain that attack.
  • There is nothing unusual for Tasiusaq people to have loaded guns in just a hand’s distance. Be it in their toilet or in the closet. How else can you imagine living in the territory of the polar bears? Every spring the polar predators pay a visit to the farms and attack cows and horses, yet rarely people.
  • Nevertheless, you would never hear anybody to complain in Tasiusaq. Living in harsh conditions has always been the case; hence it is regarded as normal. Silas Bernhardsten (63) shared with me the following during one afternoon: ‘You know, it is a little cold in winter time here, but we love our village and we wouldn’t like to live anywhere else under any circumstances’. 

    Back in time, Silas had been working in the North American military base as a runway cleaner. From his point of view -15 is an absolutely decent temperature to work outside.
  • In front of Silas’ house I spotted his granddaughter Josephine (1) absorbed in thought: How much bigger the whale, whose fin was brought by her grandfather, was than her?
  • When I asked him where he found the fin, Silas seemed perplexed from the seemingly stupid to him question: ‘Well, I sailed to the town today and just got this fin from a shelf at the local supermarket’ .
    Being a stranger here, I found that piece of revelation a ‘little’ surprising. I just pictured Silas’ wife dictating the weekly buying list to him: ‘So, flour, sugar… and oh well, one whale’s fin, please!’ 

    As we talk with Silas, he cuts generous slices of skin with blubber and treats us. I could only compare the taste to what the taste of salted tyre may be. It seems close to impossible to chew or even bite any slice without to break my teeth. Ironically, looking at the faces around, all I can see is enviable pleasure in eating whale’s skin, it clearly shows this is a delicacy here.
  • Yes, in this Inuit village one can get very weird answers and can surely become a witness of interesting situations. But the anchoring of that ex-military ship turned out to be of surprise to the locals as well. The shock was even stronger when the ship happened to be ‘a sailing church’ from the Faroe Islands.
    During summer when the ports are ice-free, they navigate along the Greenland’s shore and stop at every village to preach Christianity. That is quite a challenging task perhaps, as the villagers’ perceptions of punishment are entirely connected to the nature’s wrath and its consequences.
  • It is so crystal clear in Tasiusaq, that even the rubbish heap is not smelly at all. Everything that is usable is to be left on a visible spot, so that other in need can use it. The rest of the trash is burned once per week.

    And shall you ask yourselves why these people have located their rubbish in such a beautiful place – the answer is simple, they wouldn’t find any plain or less unattractive place around.
  • Day after day a feeling of ‘timelessness’ conquers me inevitably. The night comes so slow and in the beginning of September the twilight is not setting in till midnight.
  • After several months the first truly dark night appears at last. The Northern lights is dancing graciously on the ‘sky-stage’, as if to remind for the upcoming months of continuous darkness and freezing cold.
  • Every morning Bena (6) was looking at me sleepy-eyed and astonished by the simple toys like pencils. Tasiusaq children don’t have homework so they spend all their time playing, apart from the 3 hours in school.
  • Her friend Luuvu (5) would most definitely be taught to shoot with a gun before he would learn to read. In Tasiusaq the defence from polar bear would be a priority for a long time.
  • You wouldn’t find many toys on the only street here. However, Tasiusaq children grow up as happy adventurers. There are no restrictions for them not to leave the village. You could see them climbing high dangerous rocks or just chasing the sheets.
  • The trampoline in the centre of Tasiusaq is a substitute for kids’ party club and is also the arena for various competitions. Due to ‘heavy’ training, most children can do backwards salto without any effort.
  • The other playground is the helicopter landing pad – the only one almost flat location for race. The children seem to have mastered the small spot, as they know the danger – on the very edge there is a steep slope with 3 meters drop on sharp stones. The Inuit children are often playing with short sleeves, even when the temperatures in night reach close to 0 degrees Celsius.
  • The contemporary Greenland kids are the first generation, for whom education is obligatory. For the 15 Tasiusaq children that is clearly an occasion for excitement. Their faces are shining when they shoulder their school bags full of books. The younger ones are anticipating to have school bags and notebooks one day.
  • Tasiusaq does not have an official mayor. However, if there was one, that would have undoubtedly been the teacher. Karta Koravtuussen (55) had been a teacher farther north for 11 years before he came back to his birthplace. If anyone needs advice on whatever matter, they would surely ask him.
  • Thanks to his efforts, the school is now the most modern building in Tasiusaq, equipped with satellite internet. Children aged 2-14 are divided into 3 groups – kindergarten, primary school class and secondary school class. When they complete year 7, they are off to live in the high school’s campus in the town of Nanortalik for the next 5 years.
  • For Luuvu and his friends, changes had taken place. Apart from education becoming obligatory, they are the first Greenlandic children eating imported food. They discover new temptations such as ice-cream and sweets and consume them with insatiable appetite. For that very reason, they are the first ones to ‘discover’ the toothbrush.
  • Nothing else is placed at such a central place as the toothbrushes and the toothpaste in the narrow corridor of the school. The teacher is carefully watching if everyone is brushing their teeth properly, even if the kids are doing this while playing tag.
  • The night of 1 September is special for the inhabitants of Tasiusaq. It is the feast of the village noting the 77 years since their settlement after the deadly winter. The oldest ones recalled how their parents had taken them here with kayaks and had set up tents made of seal skin. However, there was never a promise that the ‘starving’ winter would never get again on this beautiful shores.
  • Having looked at the fireworks and the celebration mood around, Tasiusaq people are no longer afraid from the lack of winter provisions. Their life seems far more secure than it used to be. 

    However, there is another peril coming, formidably, of entirely different character. The Greenlandic government is planning to abolish the small villages with population below 100 people. Due to budget cuts, the helicopter flights to the villages would be cut and the school and hospitals – closed down.
  • The ‘birthday’ (as they refer to it here) of the village is much more important that New Year’s Eve, for example. Natives celebrate together for 3 days, during which different games and events take place. A self-organised soccer tournament and a mountain half marathon are prominent. The first night is noted by gathering in the school, where cake and tea are offered. It might appear amazing to some, that there isn’t even a drop of alcohol served here.

    But it seems there is no need for that today – Tasiusaq people’s laugh is so loud, sincere and infectious. Actually, that is the most frequent sound here – the laughter of these happy people, as if carried away from the wind. To me that sound cannot be mistaken.
  • Ullonsnguag Frederiksen (27) works half day in the supermarket and is expecting the birth of his first child very soon. He shared: 

    ‘I want my kids to grow up here for sure! After that, when they get mature, they would have to leave Tasiusaq, in order to study. Who knows whether they would come back… And if the village wouldn’t be abolishedby that time… There is also an upcoming mining company invasion. The wind would be substituted for the sound of explosions and working machines. That would ruin our happiness and our land! But I have the hope that I could establish my own farm, and I would struggle to live in Tasiusaq! We have so much personal space here, we have such a beautiful home and we are happy when breathing on our land.’ 

    Several months later I contacted Ullonsnguag’s family. They had moved to another/a small town in search of better paid job. They wrote me they really miss Tasiusaq and that they dream of the day they could afford to go back and settle down again.
  • When I lived some time with all these smiled people, surrounded with the astonishing sceneries and experiencing day by day one totally different life, I understood their categorical statements that they wouldn’t change that for anything else. Who would replace all that charm for a grey Greenlandic town full of factories and petrol platforms?
  • Maybe globalisation would put an end to this harmony, as hunger in 1865 once did. Would Tasiusaq become again a village of icy silence? The fairytales in Tasiusaq are often about ghosts and ice. The story about the deadly winter is also frequently retold.
  • I wonder whether these stories wouldn’t be much different for the next generations. I wonder whether the ghost tales wouldn’t be forgotten and replaced by other stories for governments, petrol spills and mining companies. 

    At least hunger kills way faster and a less painful manner than the new menace for the happiness of Tasiusaq people.
  • In the end, I sailed away from the village somehow pleased and calm. This is the golden lesson I got from the Tasiusaq people: no matter how harsh the circumstances are, you have to fight for your happiness and laughter every single day…


    END
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