I think more so then anywhere else in the world knives hold a great fascination for Inuit. The hunters all have their preference and they are quite attached to their knives as much as they are to their other half. They take care of them as much as they do their little ones. My family was no different. Having several brothers, I learned very quickly not to play with their knives.
My dad always put his away safely but it quickly came out when his peers came to sit, chat or when they would bring him a bite of tuktu or some other country food, most often frozen and served on cardboard on the floor. Usually they’d converse about how bad the other person’s knife was: not sharp enough, too short, too pointy. And they’d back up all those statements like men talk in a barber shop. I wasn’t invited to sit in the circle but Pops cut up pieces on the side and didn’t look at me but I knew that quietly and without too much attention, I could have some lunch too. It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to talk, but it was just different. When one of the men asked me a question, usually something about who has the best knife — hands in the air my Pops — then I could speak and converse.
One day, My Bro Dan asked me to hold his new knife. We were in a 22-ft Moose Head Canoe with an Outboard Sprite 75 top end probably 30 miles per hour. We stopped in the middle of the ocean to have tea. Dan made the executive call on this as he was the oldest. Dan gave me his knife to hold, brand spanking new out of the box! I put the shiny, new unused knife in my jean jacket breast pocket and looked at him as I tapped my pocket and said it was safe. He smiled.
The boat had wooden seats every couple of feet. I sat up front looking for seals and playing with the rifle, pretending to shoot eiders flying by. It was a beautiful day, and when the tea was ready, Dan muttered, “Pete! Your tea.”
Excited, as I was getting up I leaned over the boat and the shiny knife jumped out of my pocket into the deep ocean. When it plunged in the water, it was at least a 9.5 score! But my brother still to this day won’t agree with me. I was already motioning to grab my cup of tea as he poured it into the ocean looking at me and sat back down. I poured myself a cup of tea.
My brother Paul saw this and told my brother, “here, take my knife.” I think he meant, here take this knife and don’t throw Pete over board!
I got my tea and bannock and went back to my seat, wishing I was really, really, far away from this boat that now capsulated me with a really, unhappy brother and no parents to save my butt! There was no yelling but if you can cut tension in the air, that knife that just jumped into the ocean was probably the knife that would have done that. I know somewhere in the deeps of Chester waters sits a knife that never cut tuktu or anything else for that matter. It did, however, perform an Olympic standard dive. I always consider that some kind of feat.
Several years later, I topped that performance with Bro Paul’s knife. This one had a leather string at the end and again, it was new and loved just out of the box. It was a blustery day. Bro Paul shot a tuktu and we got off the boat to butcher the caribou. I had Paul’s new knife as I was walking and playing with the shiny new steel. I was holding the leather string at the end of the handle and swinging it, making the knife dance. I don’t know, maybe the knife got excited? The string untied, the knife did a superman into the air and rocketed at least 30 feet forward. It was perfect, aerodynamic, all the curves in the right places. Bro Paul was behind me. If this show was on for everyone to watch, he had a front row seat.
It’s a funny thing when you get scared for your life. Life slows down and at that moment, my life literally slowed down. I can remember hoping the knife would land safely on a soft rock. We were walking in all rock by the shore of Hudson Bay. In that moment, I had time to pray for forgiveness if the knife did break out here in the middle of nowhere or maybe it would just bounce and be okay and the worst would be that it would have to be re-sharpened. All these thoughts passed through my head as I was alone with Paul, my older brother who if I didn’t score a goal in a hockey game would yell at me: “shoot to score, don’t shoot to shoot!”
After what seemed like forever, the knife did bounce off the rock; at least one of my wishes came true. But when it bounced, several other knives within it decided to come out as well. I can only say that steel is very strong but no match for the rock that day. If you have ever seen glass shatter, that sums up what happened.
Well, since there was still the matter of the caribou, he just said go get a knife from the boat. Luckily there was old Rambo, the rusty knife. That day for once I didn’t enjoy helping my brother butcher the caribou. It was a wonder I didn’t get left on the land.
My Pops said one time, “I don’t care where you are, always have a knife with you for tuktu or some other unexpected uninvited time to eat. At the very least, have one to hand to someone who wants to eat.” I’ve always tried to keep a knife on me but sometimes it’s not easy. I tend to forget. My Pops likes the wooden handle knives because they don’t burn the hand when it’s minus 30 or lower. I’ve seen custom designed knives and knives made for the North. I’ve had really appealing knives but the metal on the handle stings you and you have no time for that when you want to travel back home and there’s so little daylight or in some places none at all.
Hunters always have one knife but if you ask any of them if they have a spare one, there’s usually a bag of old knives that have been sharpened too often and lost their steel but they are kept for emergency. You never know when they’re going to jump out or fly away from you!
There are many stories about Inuit who returned to that place where they butchered their kill, travelling 300 km by snowmobile to retrieve a forgotten knife. If you walk on the tundra and come across tuktu heads, take a minute and walk the surrounding area to see if there’s a fancy knife. In my lifetime, I’ve come across two. I left them there hoping the owners would go back for them as I didn’t know whose they were. It’s usually minus 40 when Inuit butcher their kill and amid packing all the harvest, they sometimes forget about the precious knife and leave a souvenir on the land.
If you ever go North and want to start up a conversation in one of the smaller communities and you meet up with a hunter, ask him if he has a good knife. You may have a really good conversation and maybe several great stories. Maybe you’ll even meet a new friend.
Peter Autut grew up in the community of Chesterfield Inlet, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay in the Kivalliq Region, in Nunavut. Population 405.