Listening to Inuit Stories

  • Bernard Saladin d’Anglure (Author) and Peter Frost (Translator)
    Inuit Stories of Being and Rebirth: Gender, Shamanism, and the Third Sex. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Marianne Stenbaek

The new English edition of Inuit Stories of Being and Rebirth: Gender, Shamanism, and the Third Sex—translated from the French by Peter Frost—is a major accomplishment. This is one of the great classics of humanities and social science research in the Canadian Arctic.

Bernard Saladin d’Anglure is one of the giants in Canadian Arctic research. He went to the North, to what is now Nunavik and Nunavut, when few researchers did that. He took the time to get to know the Inuit and learned to speak their language. Maybe most importantly, he listened to what the Inuit said, he became friends with them and highly respected by them, so he was able to gather material that few other researchers had been able to gather.

The famous Greenlandic-Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, had visited the area around Igloolik in the 1920s, and it became the centre for Saladin d’Anglure’s research. It was here that he found the three Inuit who became his main narrators and informants: (Michel) Kupaaq, (Rose) Iqallijuq, and (Juanasi) Ujarak. The last two had met Rasmussen. Because of their connection to Rasmussen and his own enchantment with these three Inuit—who were great storytellers and who were able to open up the whole community to him and his research—Saladin d’Anglure decided to focus on Igloolik. He returned there for over thirty years and developed a profound and intimate knowledge of the cosmology and mythology of the Inuit in Igloolik. This small settlement off Baffin Island became a rich environment for this study. Igloolik was a place that between the 1970s and 2000s embodied both the traditional Inuit life and modernity that was imposed from the outside. Igloolik had a deep spiritual, mythological, and traditional lifestyle which developed great and profound storytellers in different media. An excellent example of the Igloolik narrative and artistic power is Zacharias Kunuk’s film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which was filmed in Igloolik and based on local legends; it has now played around the world and garnered many prizes, including the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Saladin d’Anglure pioneered a new way of doing research by living with the Inuit and listening intimately to them. He also chose a subject matter that few have handled as he has. He is an anthropologist, but in his work there are no delineations between social science and the humanities, between traditional anthropology and religion, mythologies, memories. In this book, Saladin d’Anglure focuses on, according to the publisher’s description, “womb memories, narratives of birth and reincarnation, and the concept of the third sex—an intermediate identity between male and female.” The book is essentially a collection of narratives and memories by these three Igloolik Inuit—Kupaaq, Iqallijuq, and Ujarak—and others. Saladin d’Anglure intersperses the narratives with his own analyses or the words of Rasmussen. Inuit Stories of Being and Rebirth is an exciting collection of narratives grounded solidly in Saladin d’Anglure’s academic rigour. It can be read with equal interest and insight by a broader audience as well as specialized researchers. As Claude Lévi-Strauss writes in the preface, Saladin d’Anglure’s “devotion lends distinction to an exceptional case in the history of anthropology. This lovely book bears witness to his work. It will become a classic.”

This review “Listening to Inuit Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Jun. 2020. Web.

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