Indigenous Religions Postcolonial Theory

Reorientation In The Field – Why Religion Matters, Part 2 (Wendy Felese)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here. The article was first given at a conference in 2019 in Athens, Greece. Citation for the original paper is as follows: Felese, W. (2019). “Reorientation in the Field: Why Religion Matters”, Athens: ATINER’S Conference Paper Series, No: REL2019-2659.

The Third Eye

From a thematic perspective, neither Nanook of the North nor Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny suggest that there is a sui generis Inuit ideology or identity. However, with some historical background, I will establish how and why Chidester‟s inversive technique works. Zebedee Nungak was born in Saputiligait, south of Puvirnituq, Nunavik, in 1951.

At 9 years old, he, along with Peter Ittinuar and Eric Hanna Tagoona, were abruptly whisked from their homes and transported south to Ottawa. They were told that they had been chosen to study and live in Ottawa due to their outstanding leadership skills and “high IQs.” They were allowed to return home years later but found it difficult to resume their lives and were often the target of ridicule from within their community. It was not until 1999, when all three were grown men with families of their own, that they learned the truth about the years they spent in Ottawa.

The three had been part of a social engineering experiment designed to “expunge them of Inuit culture and groom them to become northern leaders with a southern way of thinking.”33 This practice highlights a kind of inverted colonization. Rather than invasion and outright coercion, the strategy is indoctrination. The following is an excerpt from the Canada Department of Norther Affairs and National Resources, entitled “Memorandum For The Administration Of The Arctic.”

Ottawa has been advocating southern schools for teenage Eskimos of outstanding ability. We are anxious to get Eskimo children capable of giving leadership in various phases of northern development. It can be argued that such a direct educational program will disrupt Northern Native family ties and will rapidly destroy Native culture. We must follow through with the natural consequences of that program.”34

Nungak, explaining that this relocation was meant to demonstrate to them that the life they had been living was somehow defective, also relates how “being immersed in their world gave me a unique opportunity to observe them from close quarters.”35 He decided that his ability to write and speak English well should be harnessed in the service of his people.

For example, in the hopes of establishing aboriginal self-government, Nungak joined the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and served as a political negotiator on behalf of Inuit communities. His involvement helped defeat the passage of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien‟s White Paper proposal in the early 1970s. Assimilation had become the enduring justification for continuing colonialism, so he and others formed the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (The Eskimo Brotherhood) in 1972. The rejection of the White Paper meant that official government attempts to assimilate the Inuit were officially abandoned and The Confederation for First Nations was formed.  

Ittinuar served as the first Inuk member of parliament and Nungak became president of Makivic Corporation, a political organization “representing the Inuit of Nunavik since 1978.”36 He fought for Inuit ownership of traditional homelands, which eventually resulted in the 1999 creation of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. He also represented the Inuit in their negotiations with Québec over a hydroelectric dam project, helping to “forge a landmark deal which acknowledged Inuit rights [to their traditional homelands].”37

Fighting For My Life

In spite of being able to negotiate in two worlds, none of them ever fully recovered what had been taken from them when they were removed from their communities and everything they had known. In recalling it, Nungak states, “I don‟t regret my time spent in Ottawa, but I will never recover from it.”38 Further, he states how he was both victim and beneficiary of the social engineering program and recounts how “Inuit…learning these things as I did, came at a great cost to my own identity.”39 In a subtle and quite powerful segment of Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny, Nungak is reunited with Mick Mallon, one of his educators during his years in Ottawa.

Viewers realize as the scene plays out, that Mallon had a different expectation of what their reunion would entail. He opens the conversation with “who‟s gonna start?” then immediately takes charge, by answering his own question. He instructs Nungak to “tell your story” then looks directly at the camera with a bit of a wink, saying, “I‟ll correct it later.” This is an extraordinary example of how embedded the colonizing mindset is long after overt assimilation techniques have ended.

The following passage is transcribed from this scene. The parenthetical sections are descriptions of Mallon‟s facial expressions and/or bodily gestures during the conversation. They also indicate where I have substituted an English word for Inuktitut. This is done when I don‟t know or cannot hear the word as it is spoken. The speaker is Nungak.

I have several reminiscences to share with you. You‟re my second Qallunaat teacher ever. You were one of the people that set me on the trajectory to formal education and for that I have many things to thank you for, but I‟m not here to give you a catalogue of those; I just wanted to share some early memories of formal education with you as a teacher [nodding and smiling]. The consequences of formal education upon us as children was quite dramatic in that now we had to stay cooped up in a one-room classroom 9 o‟clock in the morning until 3 o‟clock in the afternoon, including in thebeautiful spring season. Of course, in those days, the hunting urge was still very strong amongst the boys and I remember one time I wrote a note to you saying, “Dear [teacher], I will be hunting today so I won‟t be going to school. I think I signed my name. Another boy and I took off. We had just crossed the Puvirnituq river and were reaching the other side [chuckling, smiling]…when up runs [our teacher]…quite assertive. Aggressive and assertive …very clear…making it very clear to us that we are to go back to school. My buddy and I were trying to make it just as clear that we‟re not going back to school. But of course, you are the Qallunaat teacher. You are the boss. You prevail [nodding, smiling]. But you prevail at the cost of picking me up like a sack of flour [grimacing, red-faced] on your shoulder and grabbing the other guy by the wrist and dragging him physically back two miles [nodding abashedly, eyes closed]. We had quite a fight…you trying to get me inside the schoolhouse, without any success…„cause I was fighting actually for my life.

The scene is extraordinary. For my purposes, it is the lynchpin of my argument. It demonstrates that for Aboriginal (in this case Inuit) peoples, the land, human beings, and other-than-human beings (animals, rivers, etc.) are connected. There is no separation between them – they are relatives.

Hunting is a critical activity in this highly sophisticated, relation way-of-being. Carrying it out is important (I argue more important) than submitting to the techniques of discipline inherent in formal education. I wish to make note of several things. The basic retelling of the encounter is agreed upon by both Mallon and Nungak. The teacher‟s priority was clearly the “civilizational mission” of assimilation and acculturation of Inuit students.

The hunting activity was irrelevant. He probably thought the kids were essentially ditching class/playing hooky. The teacher‟s actions were essentially in line with the imperial policy. Teach the northern kids in southern schools, and the acknowledged consequence of destroying culture is an acceptable (possibly desirable) side- effect. The reversal in this scene is for the film-maker to articulate that by going out hunting and resisting the teacher, he was in fact fighting for his life, i.e. way of life, and the central activities/behaviors that characterize that life.

While Inuit ontological concerns cannot be subsumed under the term “religion,” deploying the term in colonized settings has functioned as an instrument to sever longstanding, historical ties between people, places, and other beings. Simply put, for Mallon, “religion” takes place in one space, hunting another. From the Qallunaat perspective, religion is absent in the act of hunting. For Nungak, and by extension, his community, these distinctions are nonsensical -non-existent.

The segment also highlights the power of the third eye perspective by which “boundaries blur as those with a third eye attempt to put together all the dispersed fragments of identity…” while fully knowing that they have been historically portrayed as “a museum display…an ethnographic spectacle.”40 After a chance encounter with the director of Canada‟s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) program, Mallon was inspired to participate in the social engineering project as an educator. Accounts of his interactions, piped to imperial centers (the bureaucratic offices of Canadian government officials) are transmitted as part of a production of knowledge about Inuit culture.41

This knowledge is circulated and authenticated via these authoritative structures. Reversing the flow is an empowering, subversive move. For those of us in the field of religious studies, this reversal is imperative. One way to do this is to center Indigenous theorists. The method is a form of quotation. Retaining the term “religion” is an important part of the strategy.

When Nungak decided it was time to “reverse those tables”42 he had come to the realization that it was time for Inuit to present their own knowledge of Qallunaat. That is when he and filmmaker Mark Sandiford decided to create the satirical film.

Naming and Re-naming

One of the ways that colonization (of lands and minds) succeeds through the process of renaming Indigenous lands and peoples. Henry VII of England, for example, referred to the land discovered by John Cabot in 1497 as the New Found Launde (Newfoundland). Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland, given in 1621. Prior to its official naming, the First Nations knew it as “Mi‟kma‟k.” The name “New Brunswick” was given to the area in honor George III who also held the title of Duke of Brunswick. After the 1867 passage of the British North American Act, this renaming became systematized through bureaucracy.

As discussed, Allakariallak was renamed Nanook and “Flaherty thus literally redefined [him] for Western audiences.”43 The Canadian government, trying to “change the personality” of the Eskimo in order to “help him adapt or continue in ignorance,” took up a task of building new communities and government schools organized around “our ways of thinking.”44 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in an archival clip from the film, speak in clipped, official jargon of how they will transform Inuit communities to more closely resemble Canadian ideals. Their efforts are organized from the centralized location of subdivision headquarters of Baffin Island and begin with renaming the area itself.

I now turn back to the strategic inversion in Qallunaat! In one scene, Inuit researchers are recorded trying to create a sophisticated morphological system for organizing diverse Qallunaat communities. The system is based partly on similar cranial measurements and general cognitive capacity, but other physical characteristics as well. Clearly, the Qallunaat will have to be named in order to distinguish them from each other.

However, Nungak, playing the part of the chief researcher, is concerned that the “tiny, square thought processes”45 of the Qallunaat could be compromised by imposing a complicated naming process upon them; they decide to give them numbers as names. The task is performed efficiently, making use of techno-jargon common to the scientific disciplines. Subjects are required to wear their number on lanyards around their neck, and are depicted as gaining a new identity, leaving their old ways behind, as they learn to respond to queries like 26834, how are you today? Or, 75346, have a good day! The Inuit researchers, like Flaherty, are portrayed as indulgent and certainly benevolent and kind to their subjects. In some cases, they even give them fond nicknames such as Small-Buttocked One, Droopy Pants, or One Who Is Forever Cold.46

For another example of quotation inversion, an early scene from Nanook of the North helps us facilitate this strategy. Flaherty‟s camera captures Allakariallak,47 whom, as mentioned, Flaherty has renamed Nanook, because, he determines, it sounds more “Eskimo-like.” Allakariallak is traveling with relatives by kayak to a trader‟s post. Among several staged scenes at the post, (Flaherty himself admitted to also simulating costumes, igloos, etc. to make Nanook appear more authentic),48 that play out while they visit (including the trader “feasting” Allakariallak‟s children with sweets that end up making them sick), he is shown gazing and smiling at the gramophone the trader has hauled out to impress him.

Eventually, Allakariallak curiously picks up the record and takes a bite. This scene is meant to isolate and romanticize a contrived way-of-being, by producing “self- confirming, self-referential, and self-reproducing closed systems…of knowledge.”49 In other words, the conventions that have produced and reproduced representations of Indigenous peoples. Clearly Flaherty wanted his viewers to experience both the Noble Savage, and his childlike, “primitive”50 ways. With the exception of films produced by Indigenous filmmakers,51 the tradition continues uninterruptedly.

The camera is still too often seen by ethnographic filmmakers as an unproblematic, innocent eye on indigenous peoples, a useful tool for science. The episteme of the Ethnographic is still alive and well, especially in popular media. Television specials like Harvard anthropologist David Maybury Lewis‟s Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World (1992), Hollywood films like Kevin Costner‟s Dances With Wolves (1990), Michael Mann‟s Last of the Mohicans (1992), or Frank Marshall‟s Congo (1995).52

Let us return to the scene in Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny, when “field officers” trail hapless “subjects” over the frozen landscape. Visual sovereignty is enabled by use of the third eye, allowing for a deliberate inversion, a way of not only resisting the Gaze, but also strategically “quoting” and reversing. The Qallunaat subjects are portrayed as helpless, but also as naïve buffoons in a more complex world than the one they are used to. Save intervention by the more sophisticated field officers, literally in a position “above” them, they would have surely perished.

Acting this out accomplishes several things: it quotes the so-called “experts” whose authority is established and articulated in a circular fashion, based on a misconception of superiority. It accomplishes this strategic quotation by using the third eye perspective. The result is visual sovereignty. I mobilized the strategy of reversal in this piece, as follows.I quoted the memo from the Canada Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources in the introduction, correlating them with the experiments at QSI.

In footnote 15, I invented a visiting schedule at QSI that I imagined closely replicating the American Museum of History‟s 1899 live exhibits of six Inuit people. I juxtaposed film snippets from Nanook of the North with segments of Qallunaat! to demonstrate how an Indigenized reversal of the flow of the production of knowledge is enacted.

In a more oblique way, I drew from the work of Huhndorf to show how Flaherty and other arctic explorers, whether unconsciously or not, imposed a way-of-being that was entirely foreign to Inuit communities, and generated by Qallunaat notions of inherent and innate superiority. These notions are replicated in quite often subtle and hidden ways. The raw materials they brought back to imperial centers (in some cases, people themselves!) were then extrapolated, circulated, and authenticated by so- called “experts” – namely, 19th century anthropologists and comparativists of religion.


My purpose in writing this article is to argue for a radical reorientation in the field of religious studies. As scholars, we take our place in imperial spaces as we carry with us and further extend a dubious legacy wherein our voices, our perspectives, our recorded interactions, and our publications authenticate the flow of production of knowledge. The direction of this flow has been part of a larger project that has not only misconstrued but often destroyed Indigenous culture. I am convinced that today, more than ever, we who write, teach, and think in these spaces have an ethical obligation to not only retain the term “religion” as a tactic of reversal, but as critical way of centering Indigenous memory and tradition.

Given our close affiliation with the discipline of anthropology and the social sciences in general, this conceptual revisionism is required as a justice-seeking alternative to the constraining, limiting imposition of long-held, destructive, appropriative, encounters. Even in our most abstract undertakings, this is how we must practice responsible scholarship as students and teachers, as thinkers and writers. Most importantly, we might recognize, honor, and finally understand what Indigenous communities have long understood to be true. We are all related.

Wendy Felese teaches World Religions and Native American Studies at Flathead Valley Community College in northwestern Montana.


33Margo Pfeiff, “Eskimo Man, Interrupted,” Up Here, September 15, 2012. https://margopfeiff. Accessed March 14, 2019.

34White Pine Pictures, Experimental Eskimos (Baker Lake, Nunavut, Canada: 2009). I chose these same words deliberately in my satirical introduction.

35Interview with Nungak in Qallunaat!

36 Accessed April 27, 2019.




40Rony, 17.

41Please see Mick Mallon, Intermediate Inuktitut (Ittukuluuk Language Programs Iqaluit 1996) for an example of his attempt to create a morphology and phonology of Inuktitut. Also, please see CBC Radio, “How a rascally Irish immigrant became one of Canada’s top scholars of Inuktitut”, 1.4417692/how-a-rascally-irish-immigrant-became-one-of-canada-s-top-scholars-of-inuktitut-1.4417724. Accessed April 28, 2019.

42Interview from Qallunaat!

43Huhndorf, Going Native, 95.

44From archival footage in Qallunaat!

45This observation comes from Zebedee Nungak, chief researcher at QSI.

46Beachwalker Films, Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny, Written and Directed by Mark Sandiford, in collaboration with Zebedee Nungak, (National Film Board of Canada, 2007).

47When referencing his actions in the film, I use his name. When deconstructing Flaherty‟s appropriation and audience reaction, I use Nanook.

48Claude Massot, Nanook Revisited, Princeton: NJ, Film for the Humanities, 1990).

49Quoted in Thomas Biolsi and Larry Zimmerman, Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria Jr., and the Critique of Anthropology, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 3.

50Many have written about the patriarchal, unilineal, stage, sequence, evolutionary paradigm that teleological constructs of Indigenous peoples in the infant stages of humanity. A discussion about it is too broad for this piece.

51Igloolik Isuma Productions, Inc., for example, has produced films from an insider perspective. It is a collaborative organization with most of the production company coming from Inuit communities.

52 Rony, 197.

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