We have silence.

Stupid Questions
Things the translator refused to put in her main Notes article
because they’re too annoying

Do you remember your teachers saying that the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask? Those teachers should hear some of the things people ask me when they find out I’m Suqu. And I don’t just mean Americans, either.

I understand that some of these questions aren’t really stupid. But they annoy me all the same.

Q: Why can’t I find you on the map?

A: Because we’re not on the map. And we’d like to keep it that way, thank you.

A century ago we avoided the missionaries. We may even have bought a little time for the people in the deep North.

A generation ago we avoided the anthropologists. More sneaky, but less determined.

Ottawa was a horrible blunder. We prefer not to talk about it. And even they don’t know exactly where we are, only that we exist.

Next it will be the journalists and sociologists. They will make embarrassingly obvious pronounce­ments about our low rates of suicide and alcoholism. And then they will want to interview us.


If you look on a brand-new, up-to-the-second map, you may find the site of Duma’s former village. Not with its true name. Instead there will be one of those names that sounds like an American housing development. And then the name of a mining conglomerate, probably also American. But they’re not getting free advertising from me, so don’t ask. There is a downside to not being on the map. If you don’t exist you can’t be displaced.

Q: How can you talk so calmly about school? Don’t you know that people’s lives were destroyed?

A: A few decades can make a huge difference. You had six or more solid years in an alien environ­ment. Forced to speak a foreign language. No idea what was going to happen to you, or if you’d ever see your home again. We have four separate winters living in a strange culture and speaking an unfamiliar dialect. But it’s in our home climate, we’re prepared for it, and we know how long it will last.

A few years ago, they tried adding an extra year at the front to push it back up to five. I had a small part in squashing this idea. We already have the highest graduation rate in the Territory. In English: Don’t press your luck.

By the time they found us, Ottawa had picked up some vague idea of reciprocity and keeping promises. Frankly, we’re more worried about Iqaluit. Right now they love us. We’re doing a job that everyone agrees has to be done—by someone else. Next year they might decide we’re an embar­rass­ment and an incon­venience. And we’re running out of places to move to.

Q: You don’t really eat raw meat, do you?

A: We do, as a matter of fact. Do you want to see some journal citations? When you choose to cook meat, you’re weighing nutritional loss against the risk of food-borne pathogens. The balance is a lot different for us than it is for you.

Q: What about polygamy?

A: You probably mean polygyny. Most people do.

Historically it was never all that common. We’re not a warlike people, and we’re not strongly hierarchal. That wipes out your two big motivators. That is, we don’t have a big surplus of women to take care of. And we don’t have a lot of men needing to show their status by being able to support two wives. Or by having two wives working for them, depending on how you look at it.

In my home village, one man in my parents’ generation had two wives. Nobody in mine. And that’s a conservative village. The change is not because polygamy is technically illegal. Even if we don’t agree on anything else, we can agree that what Ottawa doesn’t know won’t hurt them. It’s more about practicality. When 51% of the population is saying You know, I don’t have to stick around here, it forces you to think about which traditions are really essential.

If, on the other hand, you really meant polyandry . . .

Um. Let me get back to you.

Q: If I show up at your camp in the middle of winter, do I get to cuddle up with your wife?

A: Oh, get real.

In the old days, if she liked you, you might get lucky. And so would your host, because your wife would normally be traveling with you. Reciprocity is an important concept to us. Then again, your host might simply say that if you’re that cold, we can bring some of the dogs inside.

Today . . . For starters, see above about 51% of the population. More importantly, everyone has spent four years in school. You’re exposed to a completely different set of values. Maybe not deliberately shoved down your throat as in the old missionary schools. But the ideas are still there. By the end of those four years, you’re no longer saying “Well, of course that’s what should happen, it’s only sociable”. You’re more likely to say “Now, wait a minute . . .” And that applies, in different ways, to both men and women.

Q: What about rubbing noses?

A: If you have to ask, you don’t know me well enough.

Q: Does your culture really say that a person is allowed to do anything they want, so long as it doesn’t hurt the community? That’s cool.

A: Excuse me a moment.

Sorry. I had to step outside and scream with rage. I’ve heard this more times than I can count, and it makes me just as furious every time.

Here’s how it works. A household consists of one hunter—that is, an able-bodied adult man—and one or more non-hunters—that is, people who are not able-bodied, or not adult, or not male. What a hunter does to the non-hunters in his household is nobody’s business but his own. What a hunter does to a non-hunter in someone else’s household is between him and the other hunter. You can work out the other permu­tations for yourself. It comes down to this: The only trans­gressions that matter are the ones against a hunter. Against an able-bodied adult man. Do you think there’s something new or special or unusual about that?

Q: All right, come clean. Who are you really?

A: What—and spoil all your fun? Mostly we get variations on The caribou Inuit who got away. It’s not technically correct, but the mistake is understandable. One writer came up with The Ihalmiut who survived. Wishful thinking, I guess. It would be touching if it weren’t so hopelessly wrong. I’m still waiting for a Lost Tribes hypothesis.

Q: You keep saying “we”. But you left. Isn’t it “they”?

A: I left physically. If you don’t understand the difference, it’s no use explaining.

Q: What about . . .?

A: Pick one:

a) I explained that, but you weren’t paying attention.

b) It’s in my notes, but I haven’t got it cleaned up yet.

c) I’m sorry, I don’t know.

d) We prefer not to talk about that.