A Language Defunct - by Jack Thiessen

The churchyard for non-locals in Baker Lake, NWT lies half an hour's walking distance northwest of the Catholic chapel. It is that walk and attendant milestones in the moss of remoteness I remember most clearly of my brief sojourn to the NWT in 1968. Father Choque, an Oblate priest from Belgium was the local curate; he was a genuinely pious man who conducted his masses in Latin since he had no knowledge of English when he arrived in the High North. Then, finally, after having sufficiently mastered the tongue altogether foreign to his own Flemish and French and the language of God, already mentioned, he was too set or old to switch and so he preferred to keep pilgriming --- the word may be outdated but it fits---on as before.

There is no good reason for wanting to walk to that churchyard except that the NWT is so desolate that even spezeare with the dead is a diversion. Father Choque suggested I take along a sturdy broomstick and whack a few ptarmigan over the head underway and bring them home for dinner.

Mosquitoes by the billion are so commonplace in the High North that they warrant no mention. If discussing the obvious is one's intent, it is best to remain home.

I arrived at my destination in the middle of an August afternoon. There were at most two dozen people buried in random three ply boxes and all covered with stones, similar to graves in Israel. Jews of prominence, like venerated rabbis for instance, merit a more copious pile of ersatz petrifaction. The purpose of stones on graves, now before me on caskets, was identical to those of the Holy Land: to keep foraging carnivores, later idle rodents, from snacking on the dead. In pre-industrial times it was impossible to dig deeper and safer in Canada's north; permafrost dictates its own regulations.

There were three graves in one corner of this hamlet of the dead that stood out. Since even the inanimate radiate auras, this triple was even more remote than their Rest in Peace dwellers; probably their restless muteness attracted me.

Not one of these three deceased had reached his thirtieth birthday; weathered paint scripts said so. There was little point in pondering something to which there is no answer or reason and so I dispatched another round of scurrying chickens of the wild; eager, gossipy little creatures and full of themselves but too stupid to mistrust, before returning to the trivialities of civilization, where I temporarily belonged.

Every society has unwritten rules and decorum of the spirit dictates compliance. Failure to do so might on occasions like mine lead to a not wanted sign posted and not to be wanted was the last thing I wanted. Amenities in the Baker Lake region were too scarce to risk non-conformity.

After dressing the ptarmigan for dinner and fussing about a bit in order to elicit Father Choque's information, I primed the occasion with a bottle of Scotch, brought for such eventuality. The mysterious death of those younger than I was must have a story and I was interested in whatever common denominator marked the demise of the scant remains of these remote dead .

A dinner of the indigenous birds is better than none at all and it was this peasant wisdom which provided conversational meat to our chicken dinner.

"I have already mentioned," Father Choque, reflectively remarked, "that I was unable to read the eyes and the intent of the Eskimo when I arrived to work with them and their souls. Whether this Schweigsamkeit, was mutual I do not know. Since I was ignorant of the language of their soul and I was the stranger who had to play by their rules, I did. The Eskimo spoke little, often less, but survival depended on the unspoken and I so I complied. Moreover, there were souls to be claimed."

We drank to health, santé, Gesundheit and set out on the informational route my host staked out.

"It seems to me that you have experienced something beyond death on the cemetery and if I am right you are pondering the premature deaths of the three buried on the edge of the Kerkhoff, right?"

"Indeed," I responded.

"With good reason," Father Choque replied. "These three, including one with an Anabaptist name were all murdered while I was already here. And since none of the murders by drowning has ever been resolved and speculation is not forbidden, here is my story. Discretion may be advisable, but I am sure you know that."

Contrary to my nature and custom I held my peace; my nod affirmed agreement with tacit confidentiality.

"These men were murdered by the Eskimo elders, or upon their advice some twenty years ago. And this is the story. From their beginning, the native people in the North obviously survived by living as close to nature as conditions permitted or allowed.

Obviously they made do rather well as long as the terms, mutual of man and nature, were honored. If survival is the mark allotted to success then they fared well indeed, so much is obvious. It is equally obvious that winters are long and demanding, more so by the paradigms of the south and by the, shall we say, warped standards of the uninvited, intent on improving the lot of others. Mankind has such proclivities."

The Father and I de-regalized a little more of Shiva and since I had exercised sufficient prudence to desist from inquiry, he went on, "Presumably it took the Eskimos a thousand years or more to learn the language of the wolf but they did. And even in my sojourn here I have literally seen the Eskimo in late May suddenly stop hunting winter animals, and in the midst of whatever activity engaged simply sit right down and wait for the reindeer to arrive when the wolf relayed observations of promise to points further north. Wolves along the caribou trek for close to a thousand miles howled their dialect, the mother of all subsequent lingos of the arrival of the caribou, and the Eskimo interpreted this language and knew within half a day when to expect fresh meat on the hoof. It never failed.

And then it happened. Missionaries from the south came to attempt to teach the Eskimo but also all others, including me, salvation and the language of the Lord. I knew enough to warn the come-latelys of the consequences but they persisted in knowing better and if not they, then certainly their Lord did. All went well for the first few years; there was mutual respect and possibly the hesitancy of natural inertia, one might conclude, for them to leave each other alone, to tolerate whatever differences existed, considerable as they proved to be. But then the evangelicals became more aggressive in terminating what they regarded as witchcraft, superstition and lack of trust in "The Lord will provide."

Some of the younger generation of Eskimos joined the fervor of the newly saved and a showdown was not long in coming. In 1948 in late May the elders got ready to hunt caribou which the wolves informed would be here the next afternoon.

We drank to the denouement, the unfolding of a strange tale. "The missionary evangelicals also got ready by encouraging their converted charges to sing and pray and ask God's forgiveness for their heathen superstitions."

The issue quickly came to a head since the very livelihood of a community, a Gemeinschaft was at stake. The elders spoke a Machtwort, meaning that a line was drawn in the late scant snow. Within the day, or rather within the night the elders started the annual hunt of the caribou and in the ensuing melee the missionaries, the emissaries of the south, who chose to get involved, mysteriously drowned. All three. You have seen the evidence for yourself."

I regarded this haunting tale as one with a reasonably happy conclusion, certainly a satisfactory Schluss. But it was not. After Father Choque and I had dispatched Shiva's Regality, he informed me of the relatively obvious. The missionaries were merely symptomatic: the south with its ideology that every change represents an improvement prevailed with its non-resistable world of instant gratification, that the undefined future be sacrificed to the past and the present. Entitlement, the death knell of every tradition prevailed and the Eskimo, now called the Inuit, another changing improvement of the word, threw in the towel of futile non-resistance.

Within one generation the Eskimo was no longer capable of interpreting the language of the wolf; then nature turned its back on its children and the demise came full circle. The only smile of victory the Eskimo in time took to their grave was that the murder of the intrusive Jesus emissaries was never solved , with the three meddlers from the south remaining victims of the rodent while waiting for God's final decree.

A final word apropos to progress: another Ursprache, a language primeval had obviously been relegated to defunct status and that, as we speak.

© 2007 Jack Thiessen