Search This Blog

25 April 2005

It seem old pile-o-stones is causing some confusion these days. I was
always told Inushuk meant "we are here" - when it looks like it means we don't know - very typicaly Candian, eh?

Inukshuk replacing the maple leaf
Canada's new symbol leads us
... somewhere


Joseph Brean
National Post


Monday, April 25, 2005


On Saturday night, when he shrugged off the absence of a maple leaf in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics logo, organizing committee CEO John Furlong heralded a new era in Canadian national symbolism: the descent of the maple leaf, and the rise of the inukshuk.

"It was time for us to go on and find a new mark," Mr. Furlong said of the maple leaf, adding that the new inukshuk logo "will speak to the humanity of the country, the people, the culture, the values we have."

He might have added: "Whatever those are." Because if anything is clear from the inukshuk's recent rise in the public mind -- on beer labels and in bank ads, as a monument of joy or grief, in the name of an Internet company and a polar bear at the Toronto Zoo -- it is that no one really knows what an inukshuk is, except that it is Canadian.

The Olympic press release said the humanoid stone
structure "has become a representation of hope" and "a uniquely Canadian symbol of friendship, hospitality, strength, teamwork and the vast Canadian landscape."

Only vague -- and not fully accurate -- reference was made to its
origins as a "directional marker" for Inuit hunters and travellers.

Norman Hallendy, 73, an Arctic ethnogeographer who wrote the first
academic paper on the inukshuk, laughed aloud when he heard about Canada's new Olympic logo.

"It's not an inukshuk," he said yesterday, meaning that it should properly be called an inunnguaq. "The two objects are very different."

For a national symbol on par with the maple leaf or the American eagle,
he says, the inukshuk is at best misunderstood, and at worst misrepresented.

Three years ago, for example, when Pope John Paul II arrived in Canada
for World Youth Day and was honoured with a new inukshuk on Toronto's waterfront, then-Toronto mayor Mel Lastman gave him a tiny replica and explained that it was "a symbol of safe harbour." He was promptly contradicted by organizers of the papal visit, who said it meant "peace and friendship."

The Olympic logo's designer, Elena Rivera MacGregor, said she was
inspired by the towering inukshuk on Vancouver's English Bay, which was built by Rankin Inlet artist Alvin Kanak for Expo 86, then left behind as a gift. Even then, before Inukshuk was a telecommunications company or a type of beer, it was described as "a well-known symbol in Canada of northern hospitality and friendship."

But an inukshuk is no such thing, says Mr. Hallendy, who is
a fellow of the Smithsonian Institution and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It is not even uniquely Canadian, at least according to archeological field work in Patagonia, Mongolia, Iceland and the Sahara.


The word inukshuk (plural inuksuit) means "that which acts in the capacity of a person," and comes from the word inuk (plural inuit), which means "person." It refers to the stones stacked by Inuit on the land to remind themselves and instruct others about all sorts of things: danger, a safe crossing, a spring of fresh water, thin ice, deep snow, or that travellers should go this way as opposed to that.

"A stoplight or a stop sign is an inukshuk, because it acts in the capacity of a person telling you to stop," Mr. Hallendy said. "It reminds you of
something. It's like the string that you tie to your finger to remind you that you gotta go to the dentist."

The most prominent type of inukshuk is a single upright stone, whose Inuit name translates as ''de-confuser," but the popular incarnation of the inukshuk is more elaborate, with stones representing arms and a head, just like on the Olympic logo. That makes it an inunnguaq, not
an inukshuk, Mr. Hallendy said, and their story is very different.

A well known collection of inunnguait (plural of inunnguaq) were at Pelley Bay, and were built under the direction of a missionary priest, which makes their
resemblance to a cross no mere coincidence. There is even strong debate over whether Inuit made humanoid rock piles before the arrival of Christian Europeans. Mr. Hallendy also pointed to the use of inunnguait to inform European whalers, known among Inuit as "men of spring," that an Inuit village was nearby, or to mark the place where women had been swept out to sea.

So, whereas the inukshuk took the place of a person for the mundane necessities of Arctic travel, an inunnguaq actually referred to a person, with all the spiritual gravity of a tombstone. (The Olympic logo is explicitly designed as a person. Its name, Ilanaaq, means "friend" or "companion" in Inuktitut.)

Even before the inukshuk received the Olympic blessing -- IOC president Jacques Rogge said it reminded him of a hockey goalie -- its continued success as a Canadian symbol appeared certain. For instance, self-appointed "inukshuk masters" now hold court on Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach, instructing passersby in this new national art, and a Toronto real estate agent has based an entire business
philosophy around the things.


In Dutton, Ont., an inukshuk marks the birthplace of economist and expatriate statesman John Kenneth Galbraith. In Kandahar, Afghanistan, there is an inukshuk honouring the four soldiers killed
there in 2002 by friendly fire. Another stands at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, and another at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

And the "world's tallest inukshuk," a 10-metre-high curio in the tradition of Wawa's Goose and Sudbury's Nickel, is at the side Hwy. 27 just outside Schomberg, Ont.

Indeed, as the writer Douglas Hunter once observed of the inukshuk in
Ontario's cottage country: "You can scarcely round a point in the rock-and-pine landscape of our very near north (so near, in fact, as to be south) without encountering one. These ubiquitous piles of rocks are starting to whiff of monocular monoculturalism."

© National Post 2005

Post a Comment