Whenever I tell people that I have worked among Inuit for sustained periods, I am inevitably asked, “Do Inuit really eat their meat raw?” The answer is a qualified yes.
First, eating raw meat (mikigiaq) is part of a much broader system of cuisine. Unlike most peoples in the world, there is very little vegetable food in the Inuit diet. Inuit can only collect berries and available plants in the summer (late July and August) and they are not preserved for the most part. The only vegetable available in winter is the partly digested lichens in the contents of caribou stomachs. Humans are unable to digest lichens on their own but can eat them if they come predigested. So, about 98% of the Inuit diet is meat.
Meat can be prepared in several different ways. There are different terms in Inuktitut for each of these modes of preparation. I have, generally, given the words used for preparing caribou meat (tuktuviniq). First, it can be eaten frozen (quaq). Not frozen solid; rather, a state where the meat is firm, but one can still slice through it. One only eats rock-hard meat while traveling on the trail, and then it is like eating chips. Second, meat can be dried (nikku) in the summer and kept over the winter. Third, meat can be boiled (uujuk) to make delicious blood soup (qajuq) as well as the meat itself. In the past, the women would put a pot of meat on to boil at the beginning of the day. It would heat slowly over the seal oil lamp and be ready for the evening meal. Today, of course, meat can be boiled quickly on a stove with carrots, onions, and potatoes. Finally, meat can be aged (igunaq) to achieve a certain flavour, very much like sharp cheese. In some areas, meat could also be “fried” on flat stones over a fire in the summer. So, yes, Inuit eat raw meat. But they eat it in many other ways as well.
When eating with the Elders, one will note that they carefully select small pieces of meat from different carcass parts and combine them with a small amount of fat or blubber. They seek out different flavours and textures in the meat and combine these in delicious ways to make up a meal.
In 1921, a middle-aged shaman named Umik from Igloolik heard about Christianity from another Inuk Akumalik, originally from Pangnirtung in Cumberland Sound. Umik gathered the Igloolik community together in the spring in a snow windbreak open to the sky. Umik took some seal heart and other organ pieces and chopped them up into small pieces. He handed them around, and as each person took a bit of meat, they said, “This is my body.” After everyone had eaten, he took a ptarmigan heart sac, filled it with caribou blood, and passed it around. As each person sipped, they said, “This is my blood.” The Igloolik community had now siqqiqtiqtut “crossed over” (as in a caribou walking down from the land and crossing over the sea ice) and become Christians.
Our sacraments arise out of whatever fundamental foodstuffs we may have, always shared and eaten in the context of community.
The first Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the area in 1929.
Christopher Trott is the former Warden of St. John’s College.