Arctic Hunters: Life in Savissivik, Greenland's Remote Inuit Community

Article excerpt

Qaerngak stooped motionless on the ice beside a seal's breathing hole, as his ancestors have for thousands of years. I waited by the sled two hundred yards away, where his team of huskies gazed intently at their master. Ten minutes passed. Then suddenly, a rifle shot rang out. In a second the dogs were on their feet, running flat out toward their master, who was standing beside the now blood-tinged breathing hole with a broad smile of satisfaction. For Qaerngak, a hunter from the small Inuit community of Savissivik in northwest Greenland, the day had started well. We had left the hunters' hut at nearby Cape York only half an hour earlier, and already he had shot a seal.

Life of the Inuit hunter

Qaerngak hauled the dead ringed seal from the hole and began skinning it with a large knife. His bare hands seemed not to feel the intense cold, even though it was February and minus 34* C. Afterward, he dipped the skin several times into the seawater at the breathing hole to wash off the blood, folded it neatly, and put it and the seal carcass on the sled. With everything securely lashed down, we again headed west, across the sea ice from Cape York. A short while later, Qaerngak pointed to a fine mist on the horizon. It was "frost smoke," and during the arctic winter, it indicates open water.

Twenty minutes later, Qaerngak brought his dog team to a halt beside an expanse of open water separating two large sheets of sea ice. The frost smoke rising off the water's surface was turned golden by the morning sun. As Qaerngak scanned the water for seals through his binoculars, I could see another dogsled approaching in the distance. We were joined shortly afterward by his 21-year-old son, Ole.

As father and son waited by the floe edge, a seal's head broke the calm of the water's surface. Qaerngak grabbed his rifle, aimed carefully, and fired, killing the seal instantly. Its body floated on the surface of the water, buoyed up by a thick layer of blubber. Almost immediately, another seal surfaced, and Qaerngak fired again, killing it too. A short while later, Ole shot a seal as well.

With three dead seals in the water, Qaerngak unlashed his kayak from his sled and carried it to the floe's edge. He climbed in and, with a gentle push from Ole, slid into the water. Qaerngak paddled out through the thick curtain of frost smoke to retrieve the seals. Ten minutes later he returned, paddling hard as he towed his heavy load behind him through the water. Ole grabbed the front of the kayak and, with his father still inside, pulled it up onto the ice. One by one they dragged the seals up, too. While Ole began the job of skinning them, Qaerngak continued to watch for seals and brewed tea on a Primus stove. Later, he put on a pan of seal meat to cook. Eating this fatty but tasty dark meat is a very effective way of keeping warm in such severe cold.

As I sat on the sled cradling a mug of hot tea in my hands, I was impressed by the sheer beauty of the region. The frozen sea around us was studded with icebergs of all shapes and sizes. Behind us, the imposing cliffs of Cape York rose out of the ice. At the top stood a nineteen-meter-high monument to American explorer Robert Peary, who spent much time in the area preparing for his expeditions to the North Pole.

For centuries, local Inuit have come to Cape York to hunt. Numerous remains of Inuit sod houses and graves can be seen. Surrounding the cape is a polynya, an area of open water in the ice. Even in winter, when temperatures can drop to 40 below, the water remains unfrozen. Year round, it attracts sea mammals such as seals, walrus, polar bears, and narwhals, animals the Inuit have long depended on for food and clothing.

We saw no more seals that day, and at sunset we packed up the sleds and returned to the shelter of the hunters' hut at Cape York. From there I could see two other dogsleds approaching. Soon, we were joined by two men who had been hunting nearby. One of them had ventured onto some very thin, newly formed ice. As a result of this error in judgment, he, his dogs, and his sled had fallen into the water. As he hung up his skin clothing to dry, he seemed remarkably relaxed considering what he had been through. But falling through thin ice at -32* C is just one of the many dangers that Inuit hunters face in north Greenland. Inside the hut we ate Greenland halibut and drank hot tea. For Qaerngak and his son, it had been a good day. They had shot four seals; the others had shot only one.

A community in transition

All the hunters were from the small community of Savissivik, which is situated some forty-five kilometers east of Cape York on Meteorite Island. It was from this island that Robert Peary removed three meteorites between 1894 and 1897. One of these was the largest meteorite ever recovered and is now housed at the Natural History Museum in New York. It is often said that Peary discovered the meteorites, but local Inuit had used them for centuries. They had long depended on the meteorites as a source of iron for making harpoon tips, knives, and other tools. The name Savissivik even means "the place where you find iron."

Founded in the early 1930s, Savissivik is the most southerly community in the Avanersuaq district and one of the most isolated in Greenland. It is also one of the more traditional, where hunting is still the main occupation and the dogsled and kayak are still in common use. But Savissivik is undergoing great change, as the influences and pressures of the modern world make their presence felt. At the southern end of the village, a satellite dish beams television from around the world into almost every home.

Today, few young men wish to become hunters, and girls do not want to become hunters' wives. As a result, much of the traditional culture is disappearing. In the early 1980s, public outcry over Canada's commercial harp seal hunt caused Europe and the United States to ban sealskin imports. The market for sealskins has collapsed, making it very difficult to hunt for a living in Greenland. Many Inuit, particularly the young, don't feel that it's worth all the hard work and danger involved. Qaerngak and Ole are now the exception rather than the rule. Savissivik has few jobs to offer young people; as a result, many have left to try and find work in other towns. Thus, Savissivik's population has declined from 120 to 70 during the past seven years.

Apart from a few jobs working in the village store or in some support capacity in the community, Savissivik's main employer is the government-owned food company "Royal Greenland." It operates a small processing plant where such local foods as little auks, mattak (whale skin), and halibut are bought from local hunters, packed, frozen, and shipped to other Greenlandic communities.

The U.S. Air Force base at Pituffik also offers some job opportunities. Few local Inuit find it easy to keep their jobs there for long, however. In part, this is due to a rather unnatural working environment, which isolates them from their family and friends for much of the year. Also, easy access to cheap alcohol on the base poses a temptation too great for many. The air base, located at a place the Inuit call "Pituffik" (the place where you tie up your dogs) is nowadays jokingly referred to as "Putofik" (the place where you get drunk).

For many years, alcohol was rationed in the Avanersuaq district, but this was abandoned in 1996. It was thought that after rationing was lifted there would be an initial increase in drinking, after which things would settle down. In Savissivik, however, as well as several of the other communities in the district, things have gotten worse. Drinking binges lasting several days are common occurrences, and many people drink until all their money runs out, causing their children and family to suffer. It would seem to be only a question of time before fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related health problems increase dramatically.

Savissivik markets and schools

The village shop, KNI, is the hub of the community. It is here that the hunters or their wives bring sealskins to sell. After the skins are appraised by the manager, the hunters are paid cash. Depending on the size and condition of the skin, this is usually between U.S. $30 and $70. These prices are artificially high, since sealskins are heavily subsidized throughout Greenland. The store in Savissivik stocks the basic necessities for the hunters and their wives, as well as the vast amounts of canned fizzy drinks, sweets, biscuits, and potato chips needed to satisfy their kids. Many of the goods are of inferior quality, and fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables, and eggs is only occasionally available. Much of the food is well past its "sell by" date. I found a lamb in the shop's freezer that was two years old and freezer burnt.

Savissivik, like all the other small communities in north Greenland, is resupplied each summer by ship. Recent summers have been unusually cold. In 1996, the sea ice around Savissivik didn't break up, and the yearly supply ship couldn't reach the village. Supplies for the year had to be flown in from Thule Air Base using a small ski-plane. When the weather was good, it made up to five flights a day, landing on the frozen sea in front of the community. There, the supplies were unloaded, and dogsleds were used to haul them up to the village.

In Savissivik's small primary school, Elisabeth Hansen teaches fifteen children between the ages of 7 and 12. Children above that age must attend the boarding school in Qaanaaq (Thule), the main community and administrative center of the district. For further education, young Inuit have to travel south to other towns in Greenland or Denmark. For many, the wrench of being away from their homes and family proves too great, and they quit their courses before they have finished, returning to Avanersuaq. One teacher told me that it had been several years since a pupil had expressed any interest in becoming a hunter. Those few who are interested are often reluctant to admit it in front of their peers. Hunting, it seems, isn't "cool" with today's Inuit youth.

With the decline of hunting, and with few other employment possibilities to replace it, the future of Savissivik looks bleak. It is but one of countless native communities across the Arctic that are slowly vanishing.

Bryan Alexander is a freelance photojournalist specializing in arctic topics and a frequent contributor to The World & I.