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Peter Kulchyski argues that Inuit culture in the village of Pangnirtung can profitably be described as a set of practices rather than as a collection of material things. The point of studying culture is to understand the ways differing values are perpetuated, not to view cultural diversity for its own sake, he says in a recent article.

Inuit communitiesKey elements of cultures are gestures, which the author describes as “writing with the body,” (p.158), writing which is made by bodily movements and the face. Even though gestures are ephemeral, they can be socially quite significant. The author argues eloquently that the “gesture is the latest page in a book of values. it embodies, reinscribes, recirculates the values that give rise to it. those values are its trace.” (Fortunately the author includes standard English language punctuation marks in his article, so it is easy to overlook the eccentricity of his lack of capitalization.) The point of his piece is to review what he feels are the six most important gestures in Pangnirtung.

He focuses first on gestures that signify yes and no to the people of the community. The word for yes, ii (pronounced “ee”), is accompanied by raised eyebrows, eyes opened wide, and sometimes a smile. The word for no, ahka, is accompanied by a furrowed brow, a wrinkle of the nose, a squint, and sometimes a frown. The people often substitute gestures for the verbal expressions.

Facial gestures often convey much more information—a characteristic of “face-to-face” cultures—than verbal communications do. The differences between mildly affirmative and highly affirmative responses—or mildly and highly negative ones—can be better seen than heard. The ambiguity of a yes response that really means no is often lost when words are used alone.

Kulchyski describes a second important gesture. When the Inuit of Pangnirtung meet, they greet one another with the traditional handshake: they reach out and briefly touch hands, just once. There is no emphatic or repeated shaking of hands of another person. They will greet newcomers with the same handshake—with no emphasis, no flourish, no nuance. No attempt is made to convey relative degrees of social closeness to one another. All the gesture signifies is that both parties are members of the community. Clues to real social relationships have to be gleaned from whatever follows.

Another important gesture is the unannounced entrance. Except for social workers, the police, or outsiders, people don’t knock when they enter a home. They simply walk in and wait until the occupants of the house make their appearance. This practice is a holdover from their former life on the land, where it would have been impossible to knock at the entrance to a tent or an igloo. And after all, people might ask, why should the visitor presume that the occupant of the house should stop everything to immediately open the door, something that anyone can do?

The author argues that the practice signifies the absence of a clear marker, a threshold, between private space and public space. Except when people are away for several days, homes are open to all members of the community. Displacing the threshold as a barrier to others emphasizes the value the community places on trust.

After visitors enter and find seats for themselves, they don’t wait for their hosts to serve them tea or food. If they did, they might wait a long time. People help themselves—the fourth gesture. “when visiting in Pangnirtung, it is polite to find a cup, pour some tea, cut or break off some pulauga, try some of the seal or char or muktuk on the floor, and perhaps smile a thank-you as one enjoys it” (p.163).

The author argues that helping oneself to tea and bannock is a timeless ritual that depends on the basic need to share foods. Furthermore, the sense of justice in the community, like the sharing ethos, depends on the perception that generation after generation will be living together, and people need to continue to interact harmoniously.

The fifth gesture in Pangnirtung that captures the attention of the author is the nose to nose, or nose to cheek, form of the kiss. He distinguishes the gentle kuni (kiss) of adults with one another and the snuffling that accompanies the same gesture of an adult to a child. He speculates that the kuni between adults focuses attention away from the organs of speech and hearing toward the organ of smell. Does scent signify a more deeply significant measure of trust, he wonders?

The final gesture Kulchyski discusses is the smile, which in Pangnirtung is very broad and deep—not the tight, half smile of the Wal-Mart greeter. The Inuit smile communicates an openness and pleasure at seeing the other person, even if both are strangers passing on the street. Their smiles indicate that each person appreciates the other, that there is a feeling of mutual generosity and a lack of suspicion. They demonstrate that both individuals can carry their own loads but may be willing to help one another if needed.

But the smile does not necessarily show happiness. An acquaintance told the author, smilingly, of a tragedy that had recently happened in another village, where an eight-year old boy wandered away and froze to death out on the land. Then she smiled again.

The author conceives of a community such as Pangnirtung in terms of a culture of trust, where gestures reinforce and reinvent the values and meanings that people share. In the post 9/11 world, where trust has been replaced by suspicion and totalitarianism, the work of the dominant culture seems to be to reduce communities to agglomerations of individuals. In a community like Pangnirtung, the culture appears to have opposite intentions. The gestures of Pangnirtung help hold the community together, rebuild it daily, and give it meaning.

kulchyski, peter. 2006. “six gestures.” In Critical Inuit Studies: An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography, edited by Pamela Stern and Lisa Stevenson, p.155-167. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press