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Hunting camp near Iqaluit

Physical Disorders and Mental States: Cultural Representations and Answers in North Baffin

Tipuula Qaapik Atagutsiak
« My father (...) could predict what we would be like when we grew up. He could tell if a boy was going to be a good hunter, based on the way he moved. Boys who took a long time to get up in the mornings would not be successful hunters. The animals start their day early in the morning. Once it was dawn, the animal would not wait around for a person who tended to get up late.” (Page 80)

“I have heard that they (the lice) were very useful for people who had eye infections that were not caused by snow-blindness. A head of a body louse was tied to a strand of hair, and put in the eye that had become infected. The louse would walk around in the eye. After it was removed, the louse’s legs were covered with the infected matter, which it removed from the eye. A person who was going blind was able to see.” (Pages 114-115)
When an Inuit child was born, it was the time to evaluate his/her predispositions, personality, resistance, even his/her future physical appearance. The Inuit considered that each child is potentially different from the others. For this reason, childrearing should not quash diverging personalities; rather, it should favour their development. The child will thus acquire certain values such as self-confidence and self-sufficiency. In the past, children were taught to help the sick and poorly, as well as essential values such as respect and sharing. Traditional Inuit education was based on learning through experience and it is for this reason that many Inuit describe the school system as being inadequate for the needs of children. When treating an illness, externalizing the disease from the body was considered to be a part of the healing process. It was necessary for the disease to appear, or that it be expressed verbally. In this way, speech could heal depression and positive thinking could prevent illness. But when the illness did not want to come out and seemed instead to travel within the body, one called for a shaman.

While the shaman could heal, he/she could also predict a child's future and endow him/her with strength, protection and certain qualities. The shaman had power over an individual's life and the place of the soul (tarniq); only the shaman could see into this. Similarly, the shaman was helped by spirits (tuurngait) to better hunt the animals and reach humans. The Inuit held to various beliefs, such as the use of amulets, signs announcing a specific event, messages revealed in dreams.

Inuit knowledge of the human body enabled the evaluation of the different parts of the body that were affected by an illness or an accident (headache, limb displacement, gangrene, hypothermia) and the carrying out of the appropriate treatments.

Today, faced with the frequent transferring of patients to larger hospitals in the South, many Inuit are thinking about creating committees that would decide on the necessity of such transfers, depending on the degree of seriousness of the illness. This may enable the Inuit to retrace and reuse their traditional medical knowledge.