BY GALYA MORRELL
The Eskimo dog, called Qimuttoq by the Greenlanders, is one of the most unknown of all the great explorers. He arrived in Greenland from distant Siberia nearly 1,000 years ago, pulling heavy sleds with migrants and their belongings, a treacherous journey few could repeat today.
The ancestors of modern Greenlanders gained their independence and the ability to travel primarily through the two revolutionary discoveries. The first was seal oil and the second was the dogsled. The two gave them the freedom to travel endlessly across drifting ice floes, even during long months of total darkness.
Seal oil and dogs
Seal Oil and Qimuttoq explain how the people of the Arctic thrived in the harshest climate on the planet. These former migrants did not depend on timber or government subsidies. They only relied on their dogs. This is why the ancient Eskimos saw themselves as one being – with their dogs, their tools, nature and time.
âWe are called Inuit today because we are no longer independent,â says Inuit elder Ole Jorgen Hammeken, a prominent Greenlandic explorer, sled and actor. He starred in the Greenlandic film INUK, which depicts the rapid decline of Greenlandic dog sledding culture.
âNow we depend on oil, gas, money and all the other modern essentials,â he says. âWe have lost our knowledge and we are paying the price. “
In 2007, as part of the International Polar Year, Hammeken led the Global Warming Dogsledding Expedition to find a new route between the towns of Uummannaq and Ilulissat in West Greenland instead of the traditional sled route. dogs across Disko Bay, which no longer freezes in winter. . âThanks to the dogs, we were able to find the missing link,â says Hammeken.
Explorer’s best friend
The Qimuttut (dogs) of Avanersuaq, also known as the Thule District, were essential to many 19th century Arctic explorers – Kane, Hayes, Hall, Peary, Cook. They were also the first to go to the South Pole in 1911.
But even before that, around 4,000 years ago, Qimuttut was the first to reach the end of the world – Nunarsuup Isua Aka, the northern tip of Greenland.
Today, the Qimuttut are the only thing left of a once rich culture. When Christian missionaries arrived in Greenland in the early 1700s, they banned all traditional ceremonial life. Drum dancing, community living, and spiritual beliefs in giants, dwarves and demi-humans were prohibited. Only the dogs remained. This is why the people of Avanersuaq cling so fiercely to their dogs. Dogs are their only hope for preserving the unique culture that is quickly disappearing with the ice that disintegrates.
Today, 800 people and as many dogs live in Avanersuaq. The region is just 1,000 km south of the North Pole and is the only place in the world where the dog sledding culture lives. Here people still wear skins and harpoon hunting. Dog sleds are the only means of transport, as are small boats open in summer. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are available, but their cost is prohibitive.
Thule has banned snowmobiles except for fishing in Qeqertat. Fishing, traditionally seen as a bad second after the hunt, is on the increase due to climate change. Qaanaaq residents say they noticed a sharp decline in animal life once snowmobiles were allowed further south in Greenland, in towns like Uummannaq. That’s why they chose to stick with tradition.
âA snowmobile is fast, but it’s brainless,â says Rasmus Avike, one of Qaanaaq’s most experienced subsistence hunters. âHe has no eyes, he has no ears. Dogs can smell dangerous ice and open water and move in a zigzag way, but snowmobiles only move forward, often straight to disaster.
The Qimuttut are the descendants of the first canine migrants to arrive in Greenland from Siberia via what is now the Canadian High Arctic. To keep the lineage pure, no one can bring other breeds to North Greenland. To avoid disease, if a Greenlandic dog crosses the Arctic Circle to the south, it is not allowed to return.
No outside dogs allowed in North Greenland
Even some very experienced explorers do not know this law.
In 2013, my Inuit husband and I were in rural Siberia when we received an emergency call in the middle of the night. Russian explorer Fyodor Konyukhov had dog sled to Greenland from the North Pole and now hoped to cross the island from north to south in record time. His expedition boss, Dr Arthur Chilingarov, needed our help.
Konyukhov was not allowed to enter Greenland, or rather his Russian-bred dogs from Karelia could not. Konyukhov didn’t know why. Chilingarov, also known as the Russian Arctic Czar, asked us to contact the Greenlandic government and try to resolve the issue.
We had very little cell coverage in our small Yakuti village, but managed to make a call from the local mayor’s office. As expected, the response was, âNo, it’s the law! No exceptions, even for celebrities or good causes.
Elderly people in Avanersuaq still remember that in the early winter of 1988 almost all the sled dogs in northern Greenland died from an outbreak of distemper. The virus apparently came from Canada and then spread rapidly to the colonies. Eighty percent of the dogs died or had to be killed. It was a national tragedy. Today, vaccinations are done regularly, but people believe more in isolation than in vaccination.
A Qimuttoq is intelligent, heavy and strong. A team can pull not a single sled, but a train. These trains often include a small boat, a kayak, and later an extremely heavy catch like a narwhal, walrus, or polar bear.
They were stronger
âTraditionally, the Eskimos used only four or five dogs per family,â says Hammeken. âIt’s because in the old days dogs were much stronger and could pull a very heavy sled. They walked around freely, had their hierarchy and had good natural food. But with the advent of Danish dog food, dogs have become more susceptible to disease and weaker in general. Now, hunters sometimes need up to 20 dogs to pull the same sled.
Qimuttut are normally only fed every two or three days in the summer. They have to stay hungry so as not to lose the survival instinct on those long trips when the hunt goes sour. Even on hungry days, dogs should continue to pull the sled. But when the hunter takes his catch, he feeds his dogs before him. The Qimuttut can easily swallow a whole fish or medium sized whale or seal pieces.
Their double fur coat protects them from the cold
Greenlandic dogs sleep outside. Their double fur coat protects them even in very cold weather. Often in the morning, after a snowstorm, you don’t see them at all. They are buried by a thick layer of fresh snow. At dawn and sunset, they howl in unison, and there is nothing more charming than this arctic choir, heard from miles away.
Qimuttut can be as fierce as wolves. They recognize and obey the owner who feeds them. But stay away from these dogs if you don’t know them well! They can easily bite your hand if something is lost in the translation.
And yes, they can go after more than just a hand. Inuit children are generally sufficiently informed not to fall victim to a Qimuttoq. They know the rules, and even at a very young age they understand animal body language. But when young children come from the south, especially big cities, with their parents, things can very quickly turn badly.
They are not pets
A few years ago there was a tragedy when a Danish child was eaten by Qimuttut. Soon after, a law was passed prohibiting dogs from roaming freely in the settlements as they had done for millennia. If a rampaging dog is spotted, the “killer-man” is called and the dog is put down within minutes.
Because of this law, dogs are chained most of the year to rocks or ice. Sometimes they can stay in chains for nine months. They become depressed. When the ice floes arrive, their memory of hierarchy is lost. The process must start from the very beginning. It may take weeks of fierce fighting before order is restored. Then the travel season can finally begin.
There was a time when Qimuttut were part of sacred rituals. They were the guardians of the house and the family, protecting the intimate relationship between dogs and humans. In Kalaallit (Greenland Inuit) tales, women usually intermarried with dogs and gave birth to entities with superpowers. Meanwhile, a white man – a Qallunaaq – was believed to be the product of an Eskimo woman impregnated by Kalaallit Qimuttoq.
Today, not only the tales, but also the Kalaallit Qimuttut themselves are on the verge of extinction. The Qimuttut still have the right of way on short roads within settlements. Special road signs remind strangers that dogs come first, but their future remains bleak. Over the past 20 years, Greenland’s sled dog population has declined from 31,000 dogs to less than 15,000 today.
Climate change and westernization are putting Qimuttoq’s future in jeopardy. In most of the other areas where the dog sledding culture once flourished, from Chukotka to Nunavut, it now exists only as a souvenir, tourist attraction or sport.
The people of Thule don’t like to talk about bad things. If asked, they will take inspiration from ancient Inuit attitudes and say, âThat will pass too.
Recently, the Greenlandic government has started some projects to save the dog sledding culture. One of them, Qimmeq – The Greenlandic sled dog, is a large multidisciplinary scientific panorama on the culture of the sled dog and the genetic origins of the sled dog. A joint effort of the University of Greenland, the Danish Museum of Natural History and the University of Copenhagen, it aims to start a common conversation about Inuit cultural identity. This can help maintain a viable culture of sled dogs for future generations.
Visual artist Galya Morrell has lived and traveled in the Arctic for over 30 years. Under the stage name ColdArtist, Galya explores the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind, working in a rare genre of synthetic visual performance on drifting ice floes. Together with polar explorer and Greenlandic actor Ole Jorgen Hammeken, Galya founded numerous cultural initiatives focused on circumpolar regions.