An Evening with an Inuit Elder

By Alesia Kunz

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Henry Kablalik with reindeer hide used in head-lifting.
What a privilege for about forty of us who gathered in the Tamalpais Community Center in Mill Valley to meet and listen to Mr. Henry Kablalik, Inuit elder from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. He was going to demonstrate the divination technique of “head lifting.”

When Michael Harner introduced him saying that Mr. Kablalik is a walking encyclopedia of information about his culture and shamanism there, Mr. Kablalik smiled and said that he liked being thought of that way. He then said that he gets all his information from the elders. “I’m not a shaman,” he said.

My ears perked up hearing this declaration of respect, humility, and acknowledgement of his relationship to the elders and to shamanism.

Michael showed Mr. Kablalik the stairs that led up to the stage where he would be speaking. But ignoring the stairs, Mr. Kablalik said, “I’m a tall person,” and jumped, lifting himself onto the stage. Although it seemed like a small thing, his observation about himself in relation to the environment startled me.

During the evening Mr. Kablalik wove a soft and beautiful web. Sometimes subtle and sometimes more explicit, each story, each comment was a different color thread connecting to another and always connecting to the elders. Although he never said this explicitly, he demonstrated where everyone, including himself, fit in the web. “My uncle who is in his eighties says that I’m a child.”

Mr. Kablalik gave a demonstration of the “head-lifting” shamanic divination method of his people. We watched as, speaking in his own language, Mr. Kablalik “lifted the heads” of Michael Harner and Gizelle Rhyon-Berry. He said that a person doesn’t have to be a shaman in order to do the “head lifting” technique. It can be used to discover ailments a person has, or to answer questions.

At one point when he was “lifting” Gizelle’s head, he stopped and asked her if she had anything sharp in her pockets. She took her keys out and put them on the stage. He told us later that the spirits won’t come if a person has sharp objects.

Although “head lifting” was what we had come to witness and it was fascinating, Mr. Kablalik’s presence was the real gift. During his talk I was keenly aware of how the culture of the United States, to a large extent, has lost an understanding of compassionate relationship. Relationship to all things. We don’t teach ourselves or our children about it. We don’t think of ourselves as being an integral part of the web of life. Perhaps this is why I was so struck by Mr. Kablalik’s presence. He manifested this reality in everything he said.

In his own introduction, Mr. Kablalik began by saying, “When I thought about coming here, I said to myself, ‘I can go alone.’ But I couldn’t. Someone offered to come with me and help me and she did.” He looked at Mrs. Kablalik sitting in the front row. “Thank you,” he said.

He showed us some slides of his land and people, laughing when he introduced them, by telling us that he wasn’t sure of everything that was in them as his daughter had put them together for him.

The first slides were of a herd of caribou who had just arrived near his community. The land, the caribou and the village spread across the screen. There were adults and calves in the herd. Mr. Kablalik told us that they can only shoot bulls in the summer. Mosquitoes are attracted to caribou,” he said, “and the adults surround the calves to protect them from the mosquitoes.”

Following these photos were slides of people in his community who were doing “head lifting” at a shamanic seminar. “That is my cousin. That is my uncle. He doesn’t do head lifting anymore because the spirit left.” There were photos of Mrs. Kablalik and their children.

He discussed naming, incantations, bilocating, spirit helpers, retrieving souls, and confession. He constantly referred to the elders. In his way of speaking, he manifested compassionate, thoughtful relationship with his environment, with people, animals, spirits, and land. An awareness of himself and how he fit into his community and the universe.

In talking about naming, Mr. Kablalik told a story about his grandmother requesting a namesake. Some of what she wanted, she said, was a tall person, half Inuit and half white, a boy, and handsome. Mr. Kablalik said that’s what they got with a boy 6’2”, half Inuit and half white, and they think he’s handsome. He laughed. Another story he told was about a child who was sickly all the time and after naming the child for an aunt who had been healthy all her life, the child was not sick again.

Mr. Kablalik said that in his culture, no one speaks an elder’s name. They are called by uncle, aunt, mother-in-law, grandmother and so on. If a child is named after a mother-in-law who is still living, the child is not addressed by the name of the elder; the child is called, “mother-in-law.”

In talking about taboos, Mr. Kablalik said there were taboos against eating certain parts of animals. “Missionaries went into small communities,” he said. “Cut up all these parts into small pieces and passed them out. Many people lost the ability to become shamans.”

“My grandmother said, ‘Everyone is a shaman. They just haven’t tapped into it.’ My mother said, ‘Dogs can be shamans.’ She had a dog named Ituk, named after Mr. Kablalik’s grandfather’s spirit helper. The dog always brought home new things, like boots and clothes, everything.” Later he found out that his grandfather’s spirit helper was a thief.

As Mr. Kablalik answered questions the threads reached out from his community into the environment, the universe, to all living beings. “Don’t disturb the land,” he said. “Don’t mistreat any animals, or small bugs.”

Who’s to say what we saw and learned that night? Perhaps it was separate pieces of interesting information about Mr. Kablalik and his community, about the “head lifting” divination technique, or the other topics he spoke about. Perhaps we all received different impressions.

At the end of the evening I talked with Mr. Kablalik for a moment. I told him that I loved seeing the pictures of the caribou and that I had seen a herd of caribou only once when I was visiting my brother in Alaska. Mr. Kablalik looked at me. “What a privilege,” he said.

As I drove home I realized that I, too, am part of the complex compassionate web of life that Mr. Kablalik demonstrated in his stories and presence. What a privilege, I thought, what a responsibility.