Mapping Our Way Through History: Reflections on Knud Rasmussen's Journals - by Lee Maracle
Maps are orders marching men to old places already seen
Maps conjure memories of spoil, of plunder and innocence
Maps are journeys to illusions no one has learned from
Maps are critical revisits with visions, vistas and never before seen repeats
Maps direct intentions, call attention and direct us to previous being
Maps scatter reflection leading us to delude our well-being
Maps flatten surfaces, pictograph time, distance, even height reducing critical illusions to trails of ink and colour.
Maps are pretentious
arrogantly purporting to know where everything is.
Pretending power where none is.
Maps are finite.
Maps are always old.
Maps never lead to uncharted places.
Maps flip our attention from being to place,
from metaphysical time, to streets, roads and clocks
and cheat our prospective response to depth.
I know so little about Inuit and know so few of Nunavut's citizens that I felt somewhat pretentious about commenting on The Journals of Knud Rasmussen until I watched the film. Years ago at a history/ anthropology conference at Laval, Quebec, hosted by historian Dr. Laurier Tourgeon, I met a professor who had studied early cartography in North America. He told me that the earliest maps were drawn by Indigenous people for the explorers. This made sense. I could not imagine the explorers landing on a continent the size of North America and just wandering aimlessly discovering this or that. They travelled from one Indigenous village to the next at the directions of Indigenous traders. He mentioned that the best cartographers were Inuit, while the worst were my father's people (Salish). This made some kind of crazy sense to me too. There are huge mountains, long rapid rivers and few glacial lakes in Salish territory; we did not fancy traversing the mountains, but rather chose to scoot by water from coastal village to coastal village. Villages are clearings on large flat plains between the mountains. By canoe you simply keep going until you hit the clearing, not much map-making skill to that. But Inuit live in the Arctic, at the edge of the mountainous world from which I hail. It would take some great map-making skills to chart a course across tundra that is covered in snow and to my inadequate Salish eye appears flat. In fact, it would take an amazing pair of eyes to see difference on the snow-covered tundra. What I did not see was that maps are also internal. The world of the intangible, hidden being can be mapped through an event, a story, by someone with a keen sense of insight and some deep well of understanding about the human soul. The film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, is such a map. It charts the journey of cultural collision and finally the madness born of social implosion that the process of colonization has been, not just for the Inuit, but for all of us.
Once we were a people in ourselves. Our connection to others was minimalist, trade-based. Salish people traded with other Salish people, fished and cultivated the natural world in Salish territory. It was odd to step outside our culture, to discover the culture of others. So the internal workings of our world carried on from one generation to the next, with that kind of slow plodding human development that adds rafters to the house naturally with little to shock or paralyze and dismember our world.
The arrival of Knud Rasmussen altered the relations and the dynamics inside the family of the shaman. It changed what Inuit naturally do. Rasmussen wanted to hear stories. The shaman agreed; in so doing, he altered the way his family related to the very stories that sustained them. Rasmussen was asking him to download his Shamanic knowledge, without any purpose but to inform Rasmussen. It was a call to 'hold court' for Rasmussen, as one reviewer so unkindly put it. Meanwhile the family needed to continue to be a family, and the education of Rasmussen, the downloading of story, was not the way the Inuit naturally related to one another. Rasmussen's presence was an interruption in the continuance of family and community. The film maps the journey of not just the shaman, not just Rasmussen, but it maps the death of cultural belief and community. We watch as family cohesion and continuance perish.
The power relations shift, from the shaman to Rasmussen, as Rasmussen becomes the centre of attention. The objectives of some of the younger members of the shaman's family shift too. What we see and what we pay homage and attention to are mapped by the objectives of our communities, and those objectives are held together by the power relations between us and supported by our beliefs. Attending to something or someone embodies the according of power by the group to that something or someone. The shifting of power from the shaman to Rasmussen pulls the cultural rug out from under the community's feet. We get to see the shift through the interaction of the family and imagine the cultural rug slipping out from under our ancestors' feet. We get to see the interest invested by the family in Rasmussen's desires and remember the investment of our elders in men like Rasmussen. We feel that old disarray that occurs in our bodies, the sort of disengagement from one another that is deep and nameless. This investment in someone so different, so foreign, is what corrodes the original map to the internal world of Inuit. It is so clear and visible through the giggles of the women as they respond primarily to Rasmussen.
The shaman once held a position of centrality in his family, but now it is Rasmussen who has usurped the shaman's place in his own world. The glue holding this tenuous connection to being, to power, to place and cohesion is melting, just as the snow of the igloo too will melt. That the film captures it, visually, actually and dramatically, is what becomes amazing.
We get to see the map to madness in the context of social change and shifting power relations. We see the confidence, the cohesion and the beliefs of a community implode as the journey to an altered dynamic plays itself out. I don't know much about Inuit culture, but it occurs to me that it is unlikely that they ever sat in a circle and downloaded stories and cultural information for anyone before Rasmussen came with his odd request. While the family was being entertained by the very idea, it was also altering its belief systems. Indigenous people did not have complex systems of police, armies and courts to ensure the continuation of their societies. They relied wholly on their beliefs and the trust and respect they invested in those beliefs and positions of authority that held them up.
What the film makes clear is that the way we do things is the foundation of belief in one another. To accord Rasmussen his request required a shift in belief, that is, Rasmussen became important, more important than the natural being of this family. The direction that the shaman initiated by granting Rasmussen his requests, elevated Rasmussen to a place higher than the shaman, and the community, while not necessarily seeing it, or understanding, felt it and responded. In the shift, the Inuit were thrown off course; off their own cultural and sociological map, rudderless they fractured. The shaman had no prior experience, no prior knowledge to help him bring his family back to their original being. He dislocated himself; it is this dislocation that directs him to madness. Colonialism dislocated all of us in some way or other. This dislocation is at the heart of the aimless madness we endure until we finally return to our original being, before we lost our sense of direction. Because the film maps the journey, Indigenous people get to see how we got so off course, how we lost our sense of direction, how we became socially maddened, fractured and divided. What becomes clear is the map to relocation, to re-directing and to re-rooting ourselves in a completely different context.
This is a map through the internal world of dismemberment and implosion. This is a map through the internal world of cultural collision and cultural loss. This is also a map to re-memberment, to re-membering our origins. I love that the map plays out the subtle and not so subtle relations and the alteration of dynamics from the moment Rasmussen enters the igloo. Formalism dominates, Rasmussen becomes a favoured and honoured guest, stories become something to be given, to be orated, and to be told out of the usual Inuit context so long as Rasmussen chooses to listen and record. The shaman loses his position of influence, of arbitration, of map-making familial direction. The community's respect and acclaim for the shaman diminishes as it shifts its attention to Rasmussen.
This is a map. I love that the filmmakers took it upon themselves to map the journals through their own eyes, to play out the experiences that Rasmussen recorded. We don't hear much from Rasmussen. I anticipated that we would. I had already braced myself for the omnipotent narrator, Knud Rasmussen, intervening in the unfolding drama, but it never happened. The story was conjured for the Inuit, not for Rasmussen, and that makes it one of the most singularly powerful and important films for Indigenous people throughout world. We need to be able to see through our own eyes what happened, and we need to chart the journey through our familial experience, so that we can see how we are to be a people again, not a trail of broken treaties, not an oppressed group of struggling nations, but a people believing in what we see and know, creating life from what we believe and building communities from our creativity. We need to know that this is possible. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is not simply a movie about Rasmussen from an Inuit perspective, but a map through the impact of a historic moment in Inuit history that is and always was an Inuit moment.
If we fail to see that, then we fail ourselves.
In another article, entitled, 'Who gets to draw the maps: The land and its claims,' I stated that Indigenous people are at a critical juncture in our history, a sociological juncture, and as such we need to return to the beginning of where we wandered off our own maps. After watching The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, I now know that we need to identify the moment in which the diversion occurred, capture it in story and create the sort of mythology that will put us back in charge of our own sociological map-making.
I don't know the men who made this film, but I can imagine them. I see them as men who come into the world loaded with their own cultural capital, free of the sense of victimization that cripples our communities into a crazy kind of paralysis. I am awed and inspired by the filmmakers who can take a very European document like Rasmussen's journals and create a specifically Inuit film from them that also serves every Indigenous community as it does. I am further awed and inspired that it shows non-Indigenous people exactly how the madness in our world came about. The next time someone asks, 'What happened, why are Aboriginal people so violent?' I will simply say, 'Watch The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.'