Edmund Searles writes that his conversion experience, from skeptic to faithful Christian, allowed him to appreciate the spirituality of the Baffin Island Inuit. His very personal religious odyssey started while he was doing field work for his dissertation in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
He and his then fiancé, now his wife, Mary Ellen Thomas, were living with an Inuit family. One day, the couple offered to take the three children of their hosts to a community swimming pool, as a way of showing their gratitude for their hospitality. The outing went awry, however. The author discovered that the young son of the family was scared, and was only willing to stand in the shallow end of the pool. He was afraid to get his face in the water. The author suggested that if the boy would cling to his back, he would swim around the pool and the child could ride around, safe from the water.
However, the boy became terrified when his face got dunked in the water, and he dug his fingers into Searles’ neck. The author immediately returned to the shallow water so the child could stand on his own and recover. Months later, after several additional outings to the pool, the author was discussing the boy’s phobia toward water with his mother. She mentioned that it was caused by the fact that he was named after the son of another Inuit who had drowned a year before he was born.
The author didn’t adequately follow up on the observation by the mother. He continued to analyze the boy’s fear in terms of the psychology of emotions and memories, and he mostly dismissed the mother’s ideas as so much folk theory. The notion that name-souls could move from one generation to another and carry their fears with them was alien.
But he describes, in this very personal narrative, how his fiancé, raised in a far more devout family than he was, completely accepted her Roman Catholic heritage. A budding anthropologist with a focus on the varieties of religious experiences, she decided to do her field work studying initiation rites among the Mandinga people of Guinea-Bissau. Searles went with her.
As he and his wife learned the local languages, they were exposed to people who were devoted to their Muslim faith, but who also believed in the presence of evil spirits, in the power of amulets to protect people against others, and in various initiation rites for children. They heard about shape shifters, about witches who ate souls, and about snake children who slithered in the forest. Their intense emotional experiences, and the faith of his wife, began to weaken his conviction that Christian faith is necessarily deviant.
He returned to the Episcopal church of his childhood and became much more open to the possibility that many puzzling aspects of the world cannot necessarily be analyzed solely in the context of materialistic forces or cognitive processes. His experiences in Guinea-Bissau enabled him, he explains, “to step outside my taken-for-granted view of the world and to learn why I refused to explore episodes of sorcery, prophecy, and reincarnation in the Arctic …” (p.171).
While he was in Nunavut, he had rejected the idea that the boy’s fear of water was due to his being reincarnated. The phobia should be explained in more rational terms. Now he was more willing to consider the possibility of such explanations.
Searles continues his essay by exploring the literature of naming practices among the Inuit. They believe that the souls of animals and people have three different parts. The tarniq is the part that gives health and life to the living animal. It can be persuaded to leave individuals by shamans. The loss of the tarniq results in death. When an individual dies, the tarniq leaves the body after a few days and may be reincarnated into another person. That is what may have happened when the other child died—his tarniq, along with the idiosyncrasies and memories of a fear of water, transferred to the newborn.
Another part of the soul is the inuusia, which provides breath and warmth to the person. The third spiritual entity, the inua, is the owner of objects. It is a spirit that controls the object’s destiny. The hunter is only successful if the inua of the prey is complicit in the act of hunting. If a hunter offends the inua of an animal he hunts through his inappropriate or deviant behavior, it will not cooperate and he will be unsuccessful.
These various spiritual entities tie the Inuit mystically to their past, present, and future, and they link them to their ancestors. The Inuit live in accord with the will of any inua that they may encounter, and they are bound by the name-souls that they are incarnated with. Inuit can be baptized into a Christian faith and still accept that they have name-souls. They may be connected with others through their own name-souls, but at the same time they accept the sacraments of their churches and a belief in Christianity.
The Inuit acceptance of name-souls and the reincarnation of deceased family members prompts them to be highly permissive parents. Adults rarely punish or even admonish their children—they believe that children are born with knowledge and characteristics that will gradually be revealed as they grow and develop. It would have been completely wrong for the family of the little boy with the fear of water to try and teach him to overcome his fears. His traits should be tolerated, perhaps valued, but certainly not judged based on psychological criteria developed by outsiders.
Searles closes his personal journey, cum explanation of Inuit name-souls, with the opinion that openness to varieties of religious beliefs and faith experiences can improve and illuminate anthropology.
Searles, Edmund. 2007. “Prophecy, Sorcery, and Reincarnation: Inuit Spirituality in the Age of Skepticism.” In Extraordinary Anthropology: Transformations in the Field, Edited by Jean-Guy A. Goulet and Bruce Granville Miller, p.158-182. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press