Sunday, January 16, 2011


Inuit dancers at Return of the Sun ceremony, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, January 2010
Culture is not just based on song and dance... The indigenous culture is based on values and sustainability.
--Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuit environmental activist

At this time of the year, the Inuit people celebrate a festival they call “The Return of the Sun,” as the light finally returns to Arctic regions. While this normally brings with it the welcome warmth and fertility of the Arctic summer, the rapid melting of the ice in recent years has brought well-publicized changes to the icy North. I wished, therefore, to honor this year’s festival with a visit to the Inuit traditional virtue of Akisussaassuseq (Stewardship of the Land). We can learn of it through Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit advocate sounding the alarm over the threat climate change poses to her people.

Akisussaassuseq (say it: ah-KEY-soo-SAH-soo-seck), the virtue of Earth Stewardship, occurs explicitly in a few cultures. Some imply the idea in a sense of Relatedness to the living creatures and/or the land, and we touched on some of these during our stay at Umoja (Unity). In the Jewish tradition, rabbis speak of the middah of Ohev et HaBriyot (Love of Creation), which I think comes close to Akisussaassuseq. Looking after the environment indeed grows from a reverence for Nature.

But the Inuit themselves have a different virtue to describe Earth Reverence, Nunamut Atagginnineq, translated as “Respect for the Land.” Akisussaassuseq pertains to one’s actions. If you combine these two, you cover both the thinking and the doing. The Hindus describe an emanation of Sattva that fits this: protecting and revering the Earth. (A further exposition on Inuit virtues and environmental ethics can be found in a political science thesis written in 2002 by Sophia Close.)

Our ambassador to the virtue of Akisussaassuseq, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, hails from Iqaluit, the largest city in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. A total of 160,000 Inuit people reside across the Far North, not only in Canada but also Alaska, Greenland, and Russia. Since 1995, when she was elected President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Watt-Cloutier has fought to ban the manufacture of pollutants like DDT and PCBs, which have accumulated in the bodies of the animals--and humans--of the Arctic.

More recently, as the effects of melting ice on the Inuit way of life have become clearer, Watt-Cloutier has turned to more aggressive legal actions. On December 7, 2005, she filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging that unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States have violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

Of all of the climate changes affecting the planet, global warming most directly affects the Inuit people of Arctic. In an interview at Dartmouth College last year, Ms. Watt-Cloutier explained: “The permafrost is melting very quickly and homes are buckling inwards... We also have new species of fish and birds and unpredictable and extreme storms.” Melting and unpredictable ice jeopardizes all facets of Inuit life — transportation, hunting and fishing, even childhood games of iceberg jumping.

As Starhawk reminded us back at Activation, “At this moment in history, we are called to act as if we truly believe that the Earth is a living, conscious being that we're part of.” I find it interesting, in contemplating the virtue of action that is Akisussaassuseq, that the Pantheacon meeting this February has chosen the theme of “Walking The Talk.”  As explained by the organizers: “Our pagan ethics and worship of our Earth Mother help us forge new sustainable lifestyles as we honor the old ways. What we know about the old ways of life, others now acknowledge as new imperatives to be custodians of our earth...

“What are we doing individually and as groups to take our vision of Earth Centered Spirituality out into the world? What skills and visions, found in our traditions, are especially needed for the future?” I can think of no better way to pose the questions asked of us by Akisussaassuseq.

How do we sing our reverence for the Earth? How do we dance our protection of the Land?

May we see the gates of Akisussaassuseq, and perhaps make a home there.

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