Back in the 1970’s, I was privileged to spend a summer in the high Arctic and meet the Inuit people. While a lovely talented Inuit woman was making me a parka, her husband told me a story from his days living on the Tundra in tents in the summer and igloos in the winter. He was 13 before he saw his first white man so he is a link to the past when the Inuit people reigned supreme in the Arctic.
“Once, a long time ago, the People were being hunted by a giant polar bear who had 13 legs. He would lie on his back and wave his legs in the air. Hunters who saw this from a distance thought his white legs with their brown paws were Inuit hunters gathered around a kill, sharing the meat. The hunter would rush over to get a share and suddenly the bear would leap up, tear him limb from limb and eat him instead.
As more and more of the hunters were killed this way, the People were in danger of starving to death, for without hunters, they could not survive. The Chief called a meeting and explained the situation. ” We are being destroyed by the 13 legged polar bear! Someone has to kill him or we will all die.”
At first everyone was silent. Most of the hunters were too old or young to hunt such an enemy and the rest were too scared. Then one brave man stood up and said: ” I will kill the bear or die trying.”
His wife and mother began crying and begged him not to go but he was adamant. So they prepared food for him to take on his long journey and the chief gave him his best spear.
It was winter so the sun had gone away and would not return for three months. The young hunter guided himself by the stars as he wandered across the frozen tundra looking for the bear. At long last, far in the distance on a moonlit night, he saw what he was looking for: 13 white legs waving in the air.
He crept up as close as he dared and then stood up and taunted the bear. ” I know who you are! You will not eat me, bear!” Then he turned and ran as fast as he could.
The bear leaped to his feet and roared angrily as he set off to catch the man.
The hunter ran as fast as he can across the tundra but he could hear the bear coming closer so he turned and ran out onto the pack ice. up the ice hills he ran and down into the ice valleys he ran with the polar bear close behind him.
At last he saw what he needed. There ahead of him was a slim crevasse in the ice just big enough for a man. He leaped down into the crevasse and when the bear ran over the top of him, he speared it through the heart.
And that is how the great hunter saved his people from the 13 legged polar bear.”
He told me that story while his grandchildren sat in front of the tv watching shows with canned laughter and ads for products they could not buy. He was talking about a way of life that was ending, perhaps forever.