When a young Inuit man commented, “time is nine to five,” he was showing that he accepted the rigid, Western concept of time only when he had to. His remark also illustrates the ways the Inuit negotiate with Western cultural values.
A recent journal article by Yvon Csonka explores the very different conceptions of time and history between the Inuit of West Greenland and those living in the Nunavut Territory of Canada. It also shows how those concepts are changing. The author argues that the different historical experiences of the people of the two regions have produced distinct cultural patterns and disparate popular understanding of their own histories.
He begins by mentioning the culturally arrogant views of traditional Western historians—that tribal peoples without writing have no histories. From that perspective, indigenous peoples’ views of their own histories need to be subordinate to the analyses of skilled, real historians. Csonka goes beyond that issue to discuss how the Inuit vary from one group to another in their views of their own histories. One group may be relatively indifferent to their past while another is fascinated by it.
According to the author, the Inuit, who did not traditionally have written languages, distinguish between stories and myths. Stories are narrations of events that happened personally, or happened to known people whose testimony is trusted. They represent recent events. On the other hand, myths or legends happened in the distant past. The distinction is not one of the credibility of the source or of reality, but rather one of proximity to the events and the teller. The Inuit prefer autobiographical narrations over generalizations.
The strength of the article is its effective description of the distinctiveness between the recent several hundred years of history in West Greenland and that of Nunavut. These divergent histories make a great deal of difference in the ways the Inuit of both areas view themselves and their cultures.
Greenlandic, the Inuit spoken in West Greenland, became a written language shortly after Danish conquest in the 1720s. Over 150 years ago most of the people had learned to read the language, and a written corpus of literature was growing. The West Greenlanders who were involved in the literary culture were people who worked for the church or who were part of the administrative structure.
The oral tradition of the West Greenlanders persisted, however, among the hunters—people who continued telling legends and tales which they did not write down. Perceptions in Greenland of the written culture is that it is considered to be something that sets the agenda, while the oral culture is “primitive” or “noble,” depending on the viewpoint. As a result of these cultural developments, a Greenlandic sense of identity already existed 150 years ago.
In the Nunavut Territory, where missionaries introduced a writing scheme about 100 years ago and some books have been written in the language, a literary tradition comparable to the one in Greenland does not yet exist. Various observers have commented on the reservation of the Nunavut people to written works. Instead, the people prefer to view their history more through newer technologies such as CD-ROMs or on websites.
The Inuit in Nunavut have only recently begun to accept a regional history and identity. Memories of elders—the autobiographical fragments and non-linear experiences of the people—still form the basis of their experience. They have a hard time accepting the dictates of Western time—as the comment about time being nine to five indicates. They focus instead on the concepts of “traditional knowledge,” “indigenous knowledge,” and “traditional ecological knowledge.”
Scholars and Inuit in Nunavut are establishing programs for recording indigenous knowledge through oral history projects. People realize that the elders who still remember their lives in the traditional camps should be recognized and recorded. Oral history has far less importance in West Greenland. In fact, the very concept of “elder” is hardly recognized on the island, where younger and middle-aged people were advancing to leadership positions in their society by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Csonka concludes that the differences he notes between the West Greenland and Nunavut Inuit are probably attributable not so much to dichotomies between the two different cultures as to differences between their relative positions on a colonial—post-colonial trajectory.
Csonka, Yvon. 2005. “Changing Inuit Historicities in West Greenland and Nunavut.” History and Anthropology 16(3): 321-334