iv. the gift of food

having got ourselves in and shaken hands, what is to come next? we will sit at the table and wait for the famed tea and bannock (in pangnirtung, pulauga). and, more often than not, nothing happens. there is the tea, sitting in a clear glass coffee urn on the stove, warm and inviting. and, nearby, on the counter, surrounded by a setting of scattered crumbs, some still warm pulauga, vague traces of steam rising from it, a tempting vessel filled with raspberry jam on the table we sit at. our hosts are happily lathering the jam onto pulauga pieces that sit in front of them, sipping tea as they do so. on a sheet of clear plastic, on the floor, some muktuk perhaps, or seal meat. so close, and yet so far. in inuit houses, unless the hosts are accustomed to the strange habits of the qallunaat, one could wait a long time to be served. a long time. if one is hungry, why not help oneself; if one is thirsty, why not find a cup and pour some tea? again, why tax one’s host by making them serve you? why tax one’s guests by making them wait for you to anticipate their needs? instead, when visiting in pangnirtung, it is polite to find a cup, pour some tea, cut or break off some pulauga, try some of the seal or char or muktuk on the floor, and perhaps smile a thank you as one enjoys it.

much has been written about sharing practices of gathering and hunting peoples. those sharing practices continue. the rules of generalized reciprocity that sahlins (1976) described in culture and practical reason remain viable: the closer the social proximity the more likely sharing behavior will be practiced; the more necessary the item, the more likely it will be shared. hence, even visiting researchers — surely the lowest form of social life in the whole arctic — get to help themselves to pulauga.

greenlandic inuit communities often impress visitors with how ‘traditional’ they are by the fact that the recognizable forms of ‘traditional’ technology are still used. most communities have a local bylaw that forbids motorized hunting within a specified radius, hence ensuring game stays closer and dogsleds and kayaks remain in use. hunters can sell their game at local markets, and get money to buy the bullets and other equipment they might need. there are no such bylaws in baffin inuit communities. in pangnirtung, it is a scottish teacher who for many years had one of the only dog teams in town, and the few local inuit who use kayaks do so for sport. but it would be a great shame for a hunter if she were to sell game to other local people. so which is more traditional, the technology or the values?

the tea and bannock we will eat on our visit are in my view a kind of sacrament, one of the few places where we can encounter the sacred as a part of everyday life. it points to another temporality of justice: where generations will repeat themselves problems of justice can be given the time they need to resolve themselves. in the crassest of terms: i will feed you today because i may not be so successful tomorrow, and then have to rely on your better luck or skill as a hunter. and if you have less skill, perhaps one of your children will have more. sooner or later, these givings and takings will balance out. on a more abstract level, the aporia derrida points to in his essay on justice is, if not resolved, at least indefinately deferred. derrida writes that though “justice is always required immediately, ‘right away’ [i]t cannot furnish itself with infinite information and the unlimited knowledge of conditions, rules or hypothetical imperatives that could justify it” (26). but in the social context of pangnirtung, where one’s children’s children’s children will meet one’s neighbor’s children’s children’s children, justice may not be required right away, justice may indeed give itself unlimited knowledge of conditions. the next generation, or the one after that, can resolve the problem if need be: in the very process of the passage of generations justice may unfold. derrida’s aporia respecting justice (it must be timely/it must take time) is here imploded. what is given will come back, what is taken will be returned. in the time that is given. if not in my time, in my children’s. or my children’s children’s. so i may give food. i may take food. i may, through this giving and taking, bind myself in a small way and free myself in a small way.

the gift of food.