Keavy Martin, Stories in a New Skin.

Citation: Martin, Keavy. Stories in a New Skin. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012.


In this excellent book, Martin argues for readings of Indigenous literature in general, and Inuit literature in particular, that do not simply incorporate more knowledge into pre-existing paradigms, but through ways that fundamentally change the systems that process and retain knowledge.  

Scope/Organization/Main Points: Introduction.

Martin describes Indigenous peoples’ objections to research on polar bear populations, a situation that allows elders to “question the very methods that the academy employs – not only in its interactions with polar bears, but in the acquisition of knowledge itself” (2). Conversely, she wonders, how Indigenous literary studies can “take seriously Indigenous knowledge,  ‘traditional’ or otherwise” (2). She puts it diplomatically: “in order for the academy to truly decolonize, it must radically shift its understanding about the nature and location of knowledge. And it must recognize that its ‘attention’ can also harbor methods and ideologies that, in Indigenous contexts, are not always appropriate” (4).

Martin introduces the metaphor of skin, based on the artist whose work – a shaman unzipping their skin to reveal a bear — is featured on the front page of the book: “I am interested in the ways in which Inuit intellectual traditions might similarly dress in new ‘skins’ for the purposes of infiltrating the academy – and likewise, in the ways in which the wrongs of the southern institution might similarly be ‘re-dressed’” (8).  She takes a strong stances against insisting on purity in Indigenous literature, noting that “Inuit songs are occasionally decontextualized and even exported to serve as tools and trade itsef: they might then take on a spiritual power, function symbolically to evoke a particular place or ideology, and they can in some cases be bartered for, or bought and sold” (9). She then suggests that we “might put to rest some (though not all) of our anxieties about the ethnographic record and southern adaptations of Inuit traditions” (9).  Interestingly, she notes that labels like “literature” are Eurowestern “skins”, and as such, they “can be as misleading as they are helpful” (11).

Chapter One – “It was Said They had One Song”: ‘Tuniit’ Stories and the Origins of Unuit Nationhood.” 

This chapter discusses whether Inuit peoples can be considered a “nation,” and the benefits and drawbacks of organizing under the banner of nationhood (or, differently, peoplehood). Many of the issues that arise parallel discussions about the usefulness of and problems with labelling Inuit stories as “literature”, and thus canonizing them, and she does lots of work to shown ties between Eurocentric privileging of the written word and the teleological inevitability of all societies one day forming a nation-state. The “idea of the Arctic as a vast, barren, and empty space often translates into impressions of Inuit as a people without history or politics, and certainly without any unified sense of nationhood” (13). Of course, though, Inuit peoples can enjoy the benefits of leveraging hegemonic concepts of nationhood – and develop their own – while also maintaining local particularity (14). Martin writes later that the term Inuit “is not so reified as to be impenetrable, and the boundaries of Inuit peoplehood are not rigid” (36). And “national self-definitions based on a share difference from Others might even allow for more flexible internal definitions of national identity” (37).

This chapter includes a nifty analysis of Inuit – Tuniit relations, the latter being a people of whom very little is currently known. Interactions between the two groups are complex, and even the lines of identification between them as distinct peoples often appears quite blurry (26-30). Part of the reason that Martin includes this part is to show that in Inuit representations of Tuniit, the people “are not fully developed characters, and there is a humanity and a complexity to the first people that is beyond the scope of outside depictions” (32) – a statement that is useful for how identity can be better represented by acknowledging its unrepresentability.

Moreover, as Martin notes, Inuit nationalism goes beyond just being an effort to “reformulate their cultural and political identities into shapes which non-Inuit will recognize and respond to” (15). Utilizing her metaphor, Martin argues that “nation” is a “’skin’ that Inuit adopted in 1977 [with the creation of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference], but it was not an entirely new or unfamiliar one” (15). Indeed, focusing too much on the emergence of Inuit as a nation feeds into the logocentric assumption that “the destiny of every people is to practice agriculture and commerce rather than hunting and gathering and to develop a written literature as a way to avoid reliance on the seemingly untrustworthy spoken word. Similarly, the assumption goes, in order to have a political life, and in order to be sovereign, a society must progress out of tribal obscurity and eventually form (or preferably join, or be subsumed by) a state” (17). Martin states that literature is central to assertions of Inuit nationhood: whereas “Indigenous nations are imagined communities,” Inuit “nationhood is affirmed in its intellectual and artistic traditions – in the stories that it tells” (19).
And, importantly, Inuit “literature nationalism” requires that it “be considered within the framework” of its own “intellectual histories” (19).

Chapter Two: “’Tagvani Isumataujut” [They are the Leaders Here] Reading Unipkaaqtuat, the Classic Inuit Tales.”
This chapter tests out some strategies for reading the 1979 collection, Eight Inuit Myths: Inuit Unipkaaqtuat Pingasuniarvinilit”, written by Alex Spalding of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as told to him by Thomas Kusugaq in 1950. Crucially, the “unipkaaqtuat are full of lessons about good behaviour especially […] for people who find themselves in unfamiliar territory” (47).

[FIELD PAPER]           Martin suggests that strategies for Inuit reading, listening, and interpreting run counter to cultural studies and critical theory-based approaches, which tend to include a distrust of what the text is conveying. While she has long encouraged her students “to question everything that they read or are told,” she “became aware that the critical practices that [she] had celebrated might not be universally applicable or appropriate” (54), suggesting that there is much to be gained by putting critical thinking, or at least the forms of it with which we are most used to approaching knowledge, aside. From analyzing unipkaaqtuat, Martin finds that the lesson that they convey, as well as the reading practices that they invite – two things that overlap – include a prohibition against questioning too adamantly the knowledge of others: “the kinds of reading practices that require students and scholars to subject the text to painstaking analysis, to rigorously question its commentators, and to reject the idea of authorial intention may be inappropriate in an Inuit context” (55). In fact, in the company of Inuit, “why” is an inappropriate question. “Not only does it smack of an impertinent skepticism or an unwillingness to seek out understanding for oneself, but it infringes upon the autonomy of another person’s private thoughts” (56).

According to Martin, “Kusugaq seems to advocate for a learning style that stresses compliance over criticism, and faith over doubt. While some may label this as ‘uncritical,’ a less-ethnocentric way might be to say that Kusugaq’s story advocates a reading practice that results in isuma: the self-reliance, maturity, and intellectual competence that results from having listened carefully to one’s elders” (57). Isuma, I gather, indicates a balance between personal autonomy and deference to the knowledge of others. Hence, defending one’s autonomy is done in the name of best having faith in the wisdom that exists outside the self. Readers, then, must “listen to the isumataujuit – the people who know and who are at home in these unfamiliar places” (58). Of course this also means respecting the autonomy of others, particularly as regards ethical forms of non-knowing. Hence, rather than asking “impolite questions” about the authenticity of authors’ identities and perspectives, as might arise in response to contemporary works like The Curse of the Shaman, “we might attribute its author the agency that he deserves as an inheritor of his father’s tradition and as an Inuk writer grappling with the challenges of the post-settlement era” (62).

Chapter Three – “’Let me Sing Slowly and Search for a Song”: Inuit ‘Poetry’ and the Legacy of Knud Rasmussen.  

Martin outlines some potential problems with identifying Inuit songs as “poetry,” such as perpetuating the idea that Indigenous peoples are unthinkingly and unintentionally “poetic” (67). “The problem with understanding these songs as ‘poetry,’ then, is not decontextulization [sic], but rather the failure of outsiders to reciprocate for the resources that have been shared” (68). This position suggests that art can be received in ways that refuse or fail to recognize the responsibility of onlookers.  Interpretations of Inuit songs often give the sense that they exist outside of creation: ethnographers have often been “content to erase the individual authorship of the singers” (75).

Sophie McCall’s terminology – “the aesthetics of the ethnographic fragment” – is helpful for Martin to detail to the stakes of ethnographic compartmentalization of Inuit songs (75). I’m particularly interested in how dominant presumptions about the fate of Inuit tie into perceptions about just what their art is and does. (ie. Songs are spontaneous and fleeting works of poetry, produced by a fleeting people, rather than embedded within a dynamic system of social and political action.) At the same time, a great portion of the chapter notes that Inuit song is adapted, sampled and repurposed without undermining its worth and potency (78-89). Martin assures readers that “adaptation and song-sharing – even outside of the community – have longer term, relationship-building benefits that may only now be apparent” (91).

Interestingly, contemporary works by Inuit artists, like the film The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, are one way in which Inuit have allowed Rasmussen “to compensate the community for the resources that were shared with him, as the material in Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, itself a Greenlandic Inuk adaptation of the original performances, is now reimagined by contemporary Iglulingmiut singers and storytellers” (90).

Finally, Martin’s analysis of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) aptly points out that understanding is not necessarily the necessary condition for storytelling, and nor does fragmentation and commodification (as signaled by the relationship between material goods and song in Atanarjuat) cancel out the value of story. (93-97) Martin notes, “There is some suggestion here that Rusmussen’s status as an outside may have increased the extent to which songs – magic songs, at least – were commodified. But on the whole, it appears that the decontextualization of songs is neither an appropriation nor wholly a qallunaat practice; indeed, it was condoned by the Inuit singers who agreed to share them, perhaps in order to create an alliance with a friendly stranger” (95).

Chapter Four – “’I can Tell You the Story as I Heard It”: Life Stories and the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Land Bridge.”

The concept of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) refers to resourcefulness and adaptability (100). This runs counter to ethnographi perceptions of Inuit intellectual work, as “Indigenous memoirs are expected to provide accurate witness to the reality of Indigenous life” (101). By contrast, many interviewees say, “I am only going to tell you what I know from experience” (107), as in the Interviewing Inuit Elders series (108). Moreover, hearsay must be acknowledged as such and not taken as the only or the authoritative account of an event (108).  Stories – or unikkaaqtuaq – are, perhaps, ceremonial rather than descriptive (111).

Martin is ultimately trying to figure out how to work with IQ from the realm of literary studies. She concludes that the category of stories actually “includes literary knowledge,” although “the evidence of Inuit aesthetic concerns – such as when elders profess an apparent lack of skill in storytelling, or when authors like Freeman remain attentive to the way in which stories are told – does not render literary analysis (as practised [sic] in southern academies) unproblematic. Analysis, like critical thinking, has its own cultural origins and ideologies; like the rigorous questioning of elders, it may often strike Inuit audiences as inappropriate, or at the very least, foreign” (119). One “skin” for Inuit studies is that, today, literary studies of Inuit stories can form connections between the north and the south to develop better relationships. But Martin still wonders what will happen when the “land bridge” is not needed. She asks, “What might a truly Indigenous ‘academy’ look like in Nunavut” (119)?    

Points of Importance/Interest: ·

  • Key term: IQ – Inuit Qaujimajatiqangit (3), translated loosely as traditional knowledge.
  • Metaphor of putting on and taking off skins, which encapsulates a being’s ability to be multiple things at once and / or seeming to be one thing while remaining another way (7).·
  • Can we put on different skins while reading (ie. reading a text involves momentarily filling the role of reader – an identity that might not actually ‘really’ be ours).   
  • The flux of literature’s role and purpose is useful for discussions of materiality and economy outside of capitalism (ie. that songs can be bought and sold (9)).
  •  Inuit word “sila” meaning, among other things, wisdom, as well as balance with nature.
  • If particular types of literature (writing) are linked to the creation of politically recognizable forms of nationhood (17), then how might thinking about art as treaty disrupt hegemonic concepts of what a treaty is, and by extension, illuminate a different relationship between art, materialism, identity, and place.
  • She includes a useful quotation from Lisa Brooks (Digging at the Roots): “On all of the ideas cultural theory seeks to understand, to deconstruct, or to reconstruct, our traditions have much to say” (39)
  • The personal responsibility for learning through compliance and faith rather than criticism and doubt in order to develop isumu points to the relationship between the role of the individual and the benefit of the whole (57)
  • Her mention that “Indigenous memoirs are expected to provide accurate witness to the reality of Indigenous life” (101) and her assertion that stories are told from personal perspectives that are limited (107) resonates with Audra Simpson’s call for ethnographic refusal.
  • If Inuit knowledge works better by incorporating the academy, rather than the academy incorporating Inuit knowledge, this directionality seems to present ways for the academy to decolonize: by being responsible for transforming itself – for keeping a good mind – through respecting the autonomy of that which it stands in relation to (ie. isumu).


Key Terms / Concepts: skin; isumu; problems of using cultural theory for Inuit studies; the academy; fragmentation; commodification / materiality; stories as political (with flux and adaptability fundamental to their political nature)  



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