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“The Voyage of the Narwhal” by A. Barrett Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 27th, 2021


The current state of international relationships between countries is predominantly focused on financial and political domination. Unfortunately, the power of developed capitalistic nations adversely affects the prosperity of minority groups that live in detached regions. The indigenous population of Inuit that inhabits the Arctic territories of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland has been historically subjected to neglect and disregard from the majority of nations that came to explore their lands. Their values and cultural heritage were scrutinized and disrespected by Westerners who viewed them as savages and uncultured people.

The goals of Westerners were caused by the economic agenda of exploring new lands for finding valuable resources. In this regard, there is a need to study the experiences and perspectives of Inuit peoples, including their views on the exploration of their region by foreigners with different values and cultural heritage. To aid the mentioned objective, Andrea Barrett’s novel The Voyage of the Narwhal will be analyzed and interpreted. The book is an adventure story that brilliantly combined science and history with magical elements to present to the readers the extreme conditions of the Arctic as well as how they morally and spiritually affect those who choose to discover the mysterious lands. While the Inuit population is presented as a unique culture with its specific perspectives regarding environment, nature, and religion, European explorers consider these through their own experience and reject the majority of the local traditions.


The Significance of Hunting for Inuit Tradition

The brilliance of Barrett’s work lies in the author’s ability to integrate facts and fiction into the novel seamlessly. Consequently, readers can find some references to Darwin, Franklin, and Thoreau as they are related to fictional characters described in the novel. However, the name of the ship, on which the main characters explored the Arctic, is a compelling stylistic move that should not be overlooked in the discussion about the Inuit experience. A narwhal is the name of a whale with a tusk that inhabits the Arctic waters around Canada and Greenland. The name of the novel bears a deep meaning because the practice of narwhal hunting is extremely valuable to the Inuit tradition. By reading the title itself, a reader can prepare for the journey through the Arctic, which is filled with mystery and secrets that may be difficult for foreigners to understand.

The value of the above animal to the Inuit population is immeasurable as it has widespread cultural importance. One may, for example, note a narwhal’s skin and fat attached to it, the use of which is considered nutritional (Lee and Wenzel 134). In addition, the history of narwhal hunting shows that the animal provided Inuit with raw materials for domestic use; for example, dried sinews were used for waterproofing seams. Most importantly, the narwhal’s tusk was the most valuable trophy for hunters as it provided the Inuit with trading opportunities with Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since hunting was and still is an irreplaceable part of the Inuit heritage that provides the population with resources for survival, Barrett weaves it into the story: “we have heard a story, from some Inuit we met hunting seal several winters ago” (103). The author acknowledges the fact that hunting for animals that inhabit the Arctic is a natural part of Inuit’s lives.

There are several mentions of how native people used the hunting trophies in their domestic environments: “whalebone vessels and walrus-tusk knives, spoons made from what looked to be hollowed-out bones,” “women brewed vats of tea, which they served in bowls … I believe this is made of the base of a musk-ox horn” (Barrett 101). These passages clearly show that Barrett recognizes the fact that creating the picture of how Inuit lived is impossible without describing small objects that compose the essence of their culture. Compared to average citizens of Canada, for example, Inuit experience may be characterized by high levels of food and resource insecurity, which means that they have to find the use for everything that Mother Nature brings to them. While now Inuit have opportunities to buy food in stores, which is usually more expensive, at the time of Franklin and Zeke’s expedition, they relied solely on hunting and foraging.

With regards to hunting as a pivotal activity on which the Inuit culture and experiences were built, Barrett does not avoid details and paints the image of the population as it is. As found by Lee and Wenzel in their study “Narwhal Hunting by Pond Inlet Inuit: An Analysis of Foraging Mode in the Floe-Edge Environment,” optimal models of foraging suggest that Inuit want to maximize their energy gains and utilize as much value as they can get from resources they obtain (140). This shows that making cutlery and other objects of domestic use were not only a necessity but a feature of foraging models developed for evaluating hunting patterns, determining what Inuit eat, where they look for resources, and how long does it take.

When it comes to the Inuit culture, foraging was an essential part of it also due to the ecological factors that affect the population’s daily activities. Barrett writes that “Erasmus threw on all his clothes and followed him, too angry to feel the cold although the thermometer outside the observatory read fifty below” (168). The severe cold that the Inuit population learned to accept and even cherish is what also makes them value the practice of hunting as the key way to survive and feed their families.

Unique Inuit Experiences

As explorers of the Arctic move through its waters on the Narwhal, they encounter the unique land and people with a cultural identity that cannot be seen anywhere else: “all the arctic peoples build a culture around the available food sources … and those cultures may be very different” (Barrett 119). The cultural identity in the context of the current discussion may be defined as a basic consciousness of a specific group regarding its language, values, customs, and habits. The first point concerning the unique Inuit experiences refers to language. The author writes that “Zeke greeted the Esquimaux in their own language, although he still needed Joe’s help interpreting their responses” (Barrett 181). As mentioned by Dorais, the Inuktitut language is the main means of ordinary communication among Inuit people, and Barrett also underlies this fact by showing that the main characters had some difficulties while communicating with locals (295).

It should be emphasized that modern Inuit value second language acquisition as a method to communicate with the outside world, especially for the younger generation that seeks opportunities to work or study in more developed regions. Nevertheless, the value of the Inuit language is not overlooked in Barrett’s book as the author clearly made readers aware that the population’s culture is not only characterized by unique approaches to feeding themselves but also by a language that has been inherited from one generation to another.

The thorough review of the given novel shows that some points of the unique Inuit experience such as traditional beliefs in myths or shamans have been overlooked in Barrett’s literary work. The Inuit society deeply values the differentiation of roles, from hunters to dressmakers, and there are parts that people play while adding with their contributions to tribes. Shamans were historically the centers of Inuit society and played the role of spiritual support for everyone who believed in their power. Nowadays, the Inuit Shamanism as it was decades ago is changing, and Barrett’s timeline allowed including this feature into the novel (Oosten et al. 445). The fact that shamanism was not something that Franklin and Zeke encountered during their journey is surprising, especially since the author tried to interweave fiction and actual historical events.

Speaking of the habits that Inuit of the Arctic practiced, one should note that there is a fascinating belief in consuming raw animal meat and blood to maintain a healthy human body and soul. At the same, the consumption of raw meat can be interpreted by some other cultures as inhumane. There is an example in the novel where the Esquimaux caught birds “with nets at the end of long narwhal tusks … the children sucking on bird skins and tearing raw birds limb to limb, their faces buried in feathers and blood smeared over their cheeks” (Barrett 235). The readers who might not be aware of this unique dietary habit can see this episode as revolting and not adding to the positive image of Inuit as a nation. However, Barrett should be praised for including the quoted passage into the narrative and not being afraid of depicting although unpleasant but valuable parts of the Inuit culture as it relates to the society’s identity.

The uniqueness of Inuit experiences is characterized by the way the society valued the resources given by nature and how it interacted with it to maintain the health and prosperity of generations. While Barrett touched upon language as a part of the cultural identity of Arctic citizens and mentioned some of the interesting eating habits, the role of magic and Shamanism, in particular, was overlooked. Such a decision is thought-provoking since shamans were irreplaceable parts of Inuit societies and represented its core. To some extent, the neglect of such an important part of Inuit cultural identity can be explained by the fact that the population is not the primary focus of the novel, and it exists as a background for the main characters, which seems to be a missed opportunity to expand the narrative.

Unit Perspectives as Lenses to Discover Their Culture and Align it with European Perceptions

In order to present the perspectives of Inuit in terms of their views, the author provides their words to describe flora and fauna as well as the perception of the world in its entirety. For instance, Oonali’s character is represented as a mysterious figure that guides the expedition’s way through the Arctic while not much is revealed about his heritage, beliefs, or view on the exploration of his homeland. For Inuit, animals play a central role not only as the source of survival but also as religious traditions. When they kill a bear or a narwhal, they pray for its spirit to ensure further success in hunting. Such an approach reflects the close unity with nature and a deep understanding of these ties. Therefore, one may claim that Inuit perspectives and their unique culture compose an important area for exploration.

Apparently, the mentioned perspective cannot change the European culture yet it may affect it and enrich with new knowledge about unexplored lands. Among the features that foreigners value in this novel, there is their perception of nature and morality as a way of transitioning the cultural heritage (Bennett and Rowley 109). Compared to Europeans who tend to use literature, Inuit transfer their values through the oral stories that are kept in mind for centuries. In this way, the European culture may also be considered in its vast majority of stories about famous people or even peasants, reflecting the lifestyles of certain cultures. In other words, morality can be viewed as a specific framework, within which people can preserve their identities as part of the nation. It should also be stressed that the above feature of the Inuit population is perceived by foreigners ambiguously.

While explorers in the novel do not understand how Inuit can eat raw meat and practice some other seemingly savage issues, they tend to be enchanted by their magic rituals. To avoid harm from Pamiuluq, a spirit, one of them says that Pamiuluq would chew their ship (Eber 31). It shows how shamans used to take revenge if they were abused by someone. The imagination and dreams of Inuit are also marked by Whitridge in the scholarly work called “Landscape, Houses, Bodies, Things: ‘Place’ and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries” (213). The author claims that the Inuit perception of geographic locations as opposed to those of Europeans as the former regarded their communities as the most essential center of the universe. The dichotomy of objective and local perceptions could not be accepted by foreign explorers who were aware of the global geography. In his turn, Wright notes that the views of the local population and Europeans are different with regard to the environment (32). While Inuit peoples value the Arctic and understand its role on a global scale, explorers seeking wealth and resources disregard ice melting and climate change.

Discussion: Representation of Inuit

The analysis of Barrett’s representation of the Inuit population illustrates that the author’s attitude towards the cultural narrative as well as the people’s experiences and perspectives was associated with creating a background image rather than giving it a central part in the book. It is evident that foreigners who came to explore these lands lack understanding of unique Indigenous traditions that were passed from one generation to another. For example, Barrett wrote, “It’s not what you think. It’s not that they disrespect their dead: but they believe that a heavy weight placed upon the deceased’s body hinders the spirit from moving on … savages, Thomas said” (100). As newcomers to the land were seeing bizarre things that the population of the Arctic did or believed in, they interpreted the rich cultural heritage as a savage-like one. This point is important to mention because there is a possibility that the author intentionally established a disconnection between Inuit and foreign cultures to underline how different they are.

When examining how Barrett illustrates the image of Inuit perspectives in the book, it becomes evident that the author pays attention to predominant characteristics of the population’s domestic life such as objects of the daily use, hunting equipment, the role of women in preserving families, and taking care of them, and so on. The value of the conversational method in indigenous research that seems to be missed by the author could have helped Barrett to delve deeper into Inuit culture and reveal plenty of interesting traditions. The conversational method is considered to align with an Indigenous worldview because it “honors orality as means of transmitting knowledge and upholding the relational which is necessary to maintain a collectivist tradition” (Kovach 42). Taking into account the obstacles of the meeting of Inuit with foreigners, it is possible to explain this.

While there were several stories that the Inuit told to foreigners like Oonali’s tale of the sinking ship, the latter did nothing for enriching the historical heritage of the Indigenous population, especially with regards to the value of storytelling. However, this oversight can be explained by the fact that successful indigenous research is different from the Western approach that is based on face-to-face interactions rather than literature reviews. Therefore, if Barrett had an opportunity to have more interactions with the Inuit population, the author would have included more mentions of myths and stories that the Indigenous population shares among them as well as with other people. Thus, it cannot be concluded that Barrett misrepresented the Inuit in The Voyage of the Narwhal. However, the author pays more attention to details of the population’s daily life as opposed to exploring its valuable perspectives and experiences that could have enriched the story.

Concluding Remarks

The Voyage of the Narwhal can be analyzed from different angles and perspectives. From the role of women in Arctic exploration to the unique properties of the polar environment, there are multiple directions that research can take. It was chosen to focus on Inuit experiences and perspectives as they are essential for enhancing the readers’ understanding of the book’s context as well as the exploration stories depicted in the novel. Barrett carefully presents the value of hunting and foraging to Inuit survival and prosperity and mentions as many instances as possible of people using their hunting trophies to make objects of daily use such as weapons, utensils, and clothing. This allows readers to understand that the Inuit use all resources they have in order to survive in the brutal Arctic environment.

The unique dietary practices such as eating raw animal meat were also included as a part of the Inuit cultural identity. It should be mentioned that the story’s protagonists were foreign to the values and beliefs of the Arctic people, which is understandable because the fascinating culture of Inuit is far from Western traditions. Thus, it may be concluded that Barrett wanted to persuade readers that the exploration of the Arctic land was a difficult yet value-adding journey that did not only involve withstanding the cold but also being prepared to meet people with a unique cultural heritage that is different from anything that they have ever seen.

Works Cited

Barrett, Andrea. The Voyage of the Narwhal. W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Bennett, John, and Susan Rowley. Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut. McGill-Queen’s Press, 2004.

Dorais, Louis-Jacques. “Language, Culture and Identity: Some Inuit Examples.” Brandonu. The Canadian. Journal of Native Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 1995, pp. 293-308.

Eber, Dorothy. Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers. University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Kovach, Margaret. “Conversational Method in Indigenous Research.” First Peoples Child & Family Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, pp. 40-48.

Lee, David, and George Wenzel. “Narwhal Hunting by Pond Inlet Inuit: An Analysis of Foraging Mode in the Floe-Edge Environment.” Erudit, vol. 28, no. 2, 2004, p. 133-157.

Oosten, Jarich, et al. “Perceptions of Decline: Inuit Shamanism in the Canadian Arctic.” Ethnohistory, vol. 53, no. 3, 2006, pp. 445-477.

Whitridge, Peter. “Landscape, Houses, Bodies, Things: ‘Place’ and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 11, no. 2, 2004, pp. 213-250.

Wright, Shelley. Our Ice is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqtuq: A History of Inuit, Newcomers, and Climate Change. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

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