Review: White Lies About the Inuit

Inuit stories have been a feature of my anthropology classes at Humber college in Toronto over the last 20 years. So it is hard to admit that for years, I taught lies—White lies. I should have known better. I should have checked the facts. However, my stories came from textbooks and other so-called reliable sources, and the lies were so useful in teaching about a culture different from my own.

— John L. Steckley, White Lies About the Inuit

Throughout history, and even in the present (and likely for the foreseeable future), stereotypes about the Inuit have gone unchallenged through popular media and the supposed bastions of truth, textbooks and other scholarly works. Steckley’s White Lies About the Inuit (University of Toronto Press) takes us from popular misconceptions and debunks, in detail that cannot be denied except by the most bigoted, three main stereotypes about the Inuit. And that’s barely scratching the surface; not only does he also cover other stereotypes, he links them to greater contexts, in terms of the framework of institutional racism and even internalized racism, as well as to the real cultural underpinnings.

There’s a reason why the book’s title is White Lies About the Inuit. The fathers of Western study of Inuit culture—you may have heard of Franz Boas at least—were all white. Their seminal works, the works that form the foundation of this research field, are all vastly flawed, judgmental, even colonial in nature. And because they were white, it is their works that inform the vastly white field, which in turn informs media and society. Like a game of telephone, the more grotesque the message is when it finally arrives into popular “knowledge”.

Books like White Lies About the Inuit are important, because we owe it to the Inuit to not be so ill-informed.

The book’s tone is far from chiding, if you’re worried about that sort of thing. It’s matter-of-fact and blunt, which may still shock readers unused to having their preconceptions challenged. It’s balanced but pulls no punches, relentlessly supporting its points.

White Lies has broader applications as well beyond education about Inuit stereotypes. If you’ve never read about institutional racism or its effects, this book is an excellent primer focusing on concrete examples. It’s suitable as well for being a textbook itself, with a list of objectives at the beginning of each chapter, and discussion questions at the end.

The chapters are strangely never dry, even chapter 2, which covers a lot of history.

  • Chapter 1, “Imagining the Inuit”, covers the various misconceptions about the Inuit and starts the discussion on imperialism, colonialism, and racism.

  • Chapter 2, “Four Major White Figures”, covers the history and works of Franz Boas, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Diamond Jenness, and Farley Mowat. He cites the good they’ve done, and the bad they’ve perpetrated, and… well, there are some deeds that I’d call downright evil.

  • Chapter 3, “Fifty-Two Words for Snow”, debunks the first popular myth and discusses the Inuit language.

  • Chapter 4, “The Myth of the Blond Eskimo”, covers the very odd predilection for white researchers to believe that Aryan races founded all the others, including the Inuit.

  • Chapter 5, “Elders on Ice”, debunks a really quite popular and one of the most “othering” myths. Modern suicide, blaming the victim, and the unfortunate incorporation of these myths even into the beliefs of modern Inuit.

  • Chapter 6, “The Lies Do Not Stand Alone”, ties together the rest of the chapters.

My favorite part of the book is perhaps an odd one, but it talks about various concepts in Inuit that have no equal words in English, and goes against the idiotic idea that Inuit is a simplistic language with only nouns, and that deep thoughts are foreign to it. I’m particularly fond of Sila (ᓯᓚ):

It is a concept that combines the concrete and the abstract, a concept that has many complexities to it. It can be simply translated as weather, but there is much more to it than that. It also relates to knowledge and the spirit world. A whole chapter could be dedicated to this word.

You can read more about Sila here, by Rachel Qitsualik (and referenced in the book).

I’m glad to have read this book, and it’s one I know I’ll revisit again and again.

One thought on “Review: White Lies About the Inuit

  1. thank you for the link to qitsualik’s article about sila, it was…illuminating. it’s so fascinating learning of other cultures’ background of language and spirituality, and that the inuits’ naming practice(s?) incorporates both of those is something i find pretty awesome and intend to read into more about it. again, thank you.

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