"The Trail as Home: Inuit and Their Pan-Arctic Network of Routes" by Claudio Aporta is a dense article connecting Canadian Inuit land use and oral knowledge in recent and historic times with personal observation that give some stunning insights into the Eskimo way of life and the human talent for humanizing a harsh terrain. A related article by the same author is here and here.
We were traveling the route that days before Abraham Tagunak had mapped for us. Tagunak, a well-known elder and traveler from Naujaat, had followed that same route for the first time when he was a little boy several decades ago. It was the same trail that members of the Fifth Thule expedition used in the 1920s. It had also been used by Captain Hall’s Inuit guides in the 1860s. In fact, it seems certain that this trail and the place names around it were known to Iligliuk, the Inuit woman who acted as a guide for Captains Parry and Lyon in the 1820s. What is remarkable about this is that trails in the Arctic are not permanent features of the landscape. On the contrary, they disappear when the sled tracks get covered after a blizzard, and as the snow and ice melt at the end of each spring. The spatial itinerary, however, remains in people’s memory and materializes again when the next trailbreaker makes the trip.
to Inuit, the Arctic was in fact a network of trails, connecting communities to their distant neighbours, and to fishing lakes and hunting grounds in between. Based on the data collected during that trip and after mapping over sixty trails in several communities of the territory of Nunavut, I argue here that this network extends across most of the Canadian Arctic, most likely including areas that were not the focus of this research. Since Inuit did not use maps to travel or to represent geographic information, this enormous corpus of data has been shared and transmitted orally and through the experience of travel since time immemorial. Although new trails or new segments of trails are sometimes created to accommodate new travel needs and transportation technologies, while a few others are abandoned, most of these trails are so old that they are part of Inuit’s distant history, perhaps beyond oral memory and certainly beyond the limits of written documentation.
The implications of this premise are several: (1) it rejects the idea of the Arctic as a barren place, or an empty land inhabited by geographically remote and isolated communities (still present in the popular imagination); (2) it implies that Inuit have made systematic use of the Arctic environment as a whole; (3) it suggests that trails are, and have been, significant channels of communication and exchange across the Arctic; (4) it presumes that some types of oral history and knowledge can be accurately transmitted through generations, and (5) it proposes that an important part of Inuit cultural identities is better understood in terms of moving as a way of living.
On place names:
The importance of place names in Inuit culture has been pointed out by several authors. I have elsewhere shown the connection between trails and place names. The mapping of place names makes this connection evident to the point that often the existence of trails can be guessed just by knowing where the named places are. In other words, the spatial layout of the names suggests the existence of a particular itinerary. Figure (above) indicates the presence of a trail across the northern tip of Baffin Island. Through the use of these names, a narrator can describe a trail, identifying creeks, lakes, hills, portages, stone cairns, and landing spots. The oral description of the trail (or the narrative of the journey) will help a listener picture how the horizon will look from the trail, and what kind of features a traveler should expect.
The trail as home:
During his travels in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, Knud Rasmussen documented a ritual just before a newborn child undertook her first journey. After describing the ritual and the prayer, Rasmussen noted that “this was the child’s first journey, and the little girl ... had to be introduced to life by means of [a] magic formula”. Being introduced to the first journey was, in a way, being introduced to life, as if both living and moving were part of the same journey. The trail was a place where life unfolded. Life on the trail involved the learning from an early age of an immense amount of geographic and environmental information, as the individuals experienced the land through actual or figurative travel. Through that process, a sense of community was also developed. The oral and experiential knowledge learned on the trails is, in fact, intertwined with information on and understanding of topographic features, environmental dynamics, and ecology of the familiar region. As Inuit travel to less familiar or more distant regions, this knowledge needs to be acquired from neighboring communities, which suggests a system of tenure in which knowledge equals survival (social and physical). It is through accessing this corpus of knowledge that Inuit travelers from distant communities would be able to find the good trails and the resources necessary to live in other regions.