A Portrait of the Eskimo Elder
Angaangaq refers to himself as an Eskimo. When I first met him he was dressed in traditional clothes wearing a fur skin, beating the great drum and singing with his full, deep voice. He looked exactly like an Eskimo from one of my childhood picture books.
However we are not in the arctic, but at the beginning of this century in Hannover, Germany. Politicians like Ulrich von Weizsäcker and environmental activists are discussing the imbalance of the ecosystem and the resulting consequences for humankind. Angaangaq has been invited as a representative of indigenous peoples.
With the reality of climate change and the extinction of species taking place now, scientists and even some politicians have come to realize that indigenous peoples are not merely remnants of a long gone era. There is recognition that the traditional way of living in harmony with nature, contains a wisdom which we have all but forgotten in our pursuit of progress and development of a questionable technology.
Wanderer between the Worlds
Later on during the reception, Angaangaq approaches me. I hardly recognize him in his black suit, his long hair tied back tightly into a ponytail. Angaangaq is a wanderer between the worlds, assuring me that he is as comfortable wearing a black suit as he is hunting in the wilderness.
He speaks quietly but intensely with people, looks them straight in to the eye and – so it seems to me – straight into their heart. Every person he speaks to feels touched on a personal level, becomes soft and every so often a tear can be detected in the corner of an eye; astonishment showing about having been recognized as unique in this world where so much is taken for granted. By the time we find out towards midnight that its Angaangaq’s birthday and we’ve congratulated him, sung, danced and celebrated he has become a friend to many of us.
A while later he tells me of the people of the north – of the significance that community possess for them, and how important it is to come together in a circle where people look each other in the eye and see each others beauty, rather than to turn away and talk behind each others backs. At the railway station in Hannover not a single person looked into his eyes or smiled: such coldness is very different from the coldness up north. The ice in the north is easy to melt. His grandmother showed him how to do that by placing her warm hand on the ice. The ice in the heart of man, though, is much harder to melt, she added and smiled.
Angaangaq grew up in Greenland and therefore also has Danish citizenship. It is hard for me to grasp that this enormous piece of land in the northern hemisphere belongs to the state of Denmark and thereby also to Europe. I realize that in general my knowledge about Greenland and the arctic is quite limited.
The first Missionaries, settlers, adventurers, fur hunters and merchants came to the arctic in the 18th century. Some found ‘primitive’ people who didn’t have the right believes and needed converting. Others abducted indigenous people, taking them away to be exhibited like exotic animals at shows throughout Europe.
This all took place around 1880 when Hagenbeck, the director of a circus, traveled throughout Europe with two Eskimo families until they all died, one after the other of smallpox. No one had thought of vaccinating them. It must have been around this time that the illustrations of Eskimos were created, which I found in my children’s books.
They still exist – the indigenous tribes of Greenland: Angaangaq grew up in the traditional community of the Kalaallit Eskimo, who look back on a tradition of thousands of years. In response to my question whether the name Eskimo isn’t discriminating and the politically correct wording would be Inuit he answered that, in principle, this is true. Originally the Inuit were only one small tribe amongst many Eskimo tribes who, as a single ethnicity inhabit the largest landmass on earth. He recites a whole list of foreign sounding names: the names of Eskimo tribes who all speak the same language, and who not only live in Greenland but also in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. However, the name Eskimo means ‘those who eat their food raw’, a fitting name given to them by the Cree nation. This is why Angaangaq personally does not find the name discriminating.
I ask him how many Eskimo still live traditional lives as they did in old times. ‘Well’, he admits, ‘there are less and less’. This is also due to the fact that the old habitats where humans and animals could live side by side have been to a great extent destroyed. But people are becoming more aware of the Eskimo’s ancient spiritual knowledge. Slowly people are regaining insight: that human kind has come to an impasse. We are ultimately endangering the survival of humankind with our single-minded focus on technological development and our disregard for nature as a mere resource to be exploited.
The best example for the return of spiritual knowledge to the traditional people is Angaangaq himself: he grew up in a small, rural community in Greenland where the people for the most part lived off what nature had to offer. His childhood was filled with the stories his mother and grandmother told him about the ancient teachings of his people. In school, however, he didn’t only learn to speak Danish but was also confronted with the so-called modern, civilized lifestyle. As a European student in the 60s he becomes interested in politics.
He fights for the political rights of his people, which are being disregarded in various degrees in all Arctic states. Nothing much has changed from the time when the old colonial system regarded the arctic region as land without people but rich with resources to be exploited. There is oil and natural gas – for our energy hungry society an El Dorado to pillage and loot. On a national and international level Angaangaq became an activist and speaker for indigenous groups who fight for their right to independence.
Later he went to Canada and the USA where he worked for the United Nations. His experience, though, was that his political work wasn’t having enough of an impact. He realized that politics is about separating people. Each political group fights for its own particular interests and belittles the other groups, regarding them as enemies.
Eventually his political activism seemed senseless and he remembered life’s wisdom passed on to him by his mother and grandmother. He remembered the spiritual knowledge of his people, the knowledge that is based on the cycles of life and the respect for mother earth. He emphasizes that it is not possible for us all to return to an original, rural way of life. We do need to combine the spiritual wisdom of the indigenous people with the incredible knowledge of the modern world to create a future worth living in. It is important that people refocus their attention within themselves to find their very own path.
Every person has a life purpose, which needs to be found within and which cannot and should not be dictated by society. He sees his own purpose as a traditional healer, in helping other people to remember their spiritual origin, just as his mother and grandmother did before him. What exactly does he mean? The healer in traditional society is a storyteller and carrier of a “Quilaut”, a wind drum. With stories, songs and the sounds of the drum reminding us of our heartbeat, Angaangaq reconnects people again and again with their innermost being.
Culturally Creative Society
Angaangaq, who was chosen as an elder by his people, sees himself today not only as an ambassador of the arctic indigenous people but also as part of a culturally creative movement with a Weltanschauung inspired by holistic spiritual experiences. The deep wisdom and love of his people with their attunement to nature’s rhythms is what he endeavors to pass on to all people.
He is active in numerous organizations, where people have gathered who question the old materialistically orientated thinking: for example the World Wisdom Council of the Club of Budapest, an initiative by the philosopher and systems scientist Ervin Laszlo, where scientists and artists come together with people from spiritual traditions to search for solutions to the problems of humanity. Another example is his participation in the United Nation’s panel on religion and spirituality. And so I meet Angaangaq again and again at events: at the ‘Kirchentag’ (church day) in Hannover, where he appeared alongside the winner of the Nobel peace prize, Wangari Maathai and others, to advocate for a just world; or in Berlin last year, where at a meeting held by the initiative ‘dropping knowledge’ including 112 people, scientists, artists and representatives of indigenous and traditional groups gathered together around an immense table on August-Bebel-Square, to answer 100 questions about the most burning issues of our world. There he was, next to the human rights activist Bianca Jagger, the filmmaker Wim Wenders, the Maori elder Pauline Tangiora, the physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, and many more answering questions like: ‘if we could produce so much food that we can feed the whole world, why are we not doing it?’
‘Yes, the earth does produce enough food for all, but it is not distributed justly. People die in Darfur of hunger, yet we do nothing about it.’ And Angaangaq reminds us of how the buffet in his hotel in Berlin is laden down with food, while somewhere else children are dying from hunger.
In Bad Kissingen at a conference with the title: ‘the new spirit in society’ Professor Franz-Theo Gottwald invited Angaangaq to speak of the sufferings of his people. Angaangaq mentioned the enormous pollution of the oceans, which has lead to the accumulation of highly toxic substances in the food chain. For years now mothers have been prohibited from breastfeeding their children because their milk has been poisoned. Unbelievable facts which we are hardly aware of. Even when we do become aware of these issues there is scarcely any headway achieved by the abundance of meaningless resolutions.
Angaangaq’s words never sound accusatory; one never feels the need to defend oneself. Instead his voice touches us in the depths of our hearts. When he beats his big Quilaut-drum and sings the plaintive songs of a tormented people a mirror is held up for us in which we recognize ourselves.
Now that everyone speaks of climate change even we know that the ice in the north has become so thin that polar bears drown because they can’t reach the next patch of ice. An ancient prophecy of the Kalaallit people says, that when the time has come that the stone hard ice of the glaciers has become so soft that the hand of a person leaves an imprint, then mother earth is in danger. Angaangaq never thought it possible that he would come to see this prophecy come to pass during his lifetime. Yet already fifteen years ago one of his people told him about a trickle of melting ice water above the Arctic Circle in Norway. This trickle has in the meantime grown to the size of a river and there are accounts of sounds never heard before, giving witness to the breaking of ice.
Angaangaq says ‘the ice is melting’. ‘We know this, and we also know that there will be floods and we know that it will affect us all. When the ice in Greenland melts and these enormous amounts of water flow into the ocean then the balance of ocean currants will change. The Gulf Stream, which is responsible for Europe’s temperate climate could vanish and possibly bring about a new ice age’. Everyone speaks of the change in climate; politicians give speeches and meet at innumerable conferences producing a huge amount of paper. Yet Angaangaq is convinced that far too little is happening. He wants the people in the industrialized countries to wake up, he wants them to feel the damage they have been creating and are continuing to create in their hearts. “ But when will they finally wake up” he asks both himself and me. Will it be when the first floor of their skyscrapers have been flooded? Or the fifth floor?
Listening to our Hearts
I ask Angaangaq if, in spite of all these terrible things he still has hope. ‘Oh yes’ he answers, ‘I am filled with nothing but hope’!
His mother often visited him in Canada, and this small, humble woman from a tiny village high up in the north would often bring tears to people’s eyes with her simple, warmhearted kindness. She always said: ‘You have to give people a chance to change’. ‘You have to melt the ice in their hearts!’ She believed that people will then use their immense knowledge wisely for the benefit of all people and creatures.
Angaangaq – the name means ‘The Man Who Looks Like His Uncle’ – is convinced that the traditional spiritual message of his people can once again gain in strength and reach out to all of humankind. His father once told him: ‘The greatest distance in man’s existence is that from his mind to his heart’. Angaangaq assures me that he aims to overcome this distance and he picks up his drum, the qilaut, to melt the hearts of mankind with his song.
A Portrait of the Eskimo Elder – written by Farah Lenser