Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 30, 2010

Inuit in the Wild

Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George (1972), Harper Collins, 170 pp.

This story is so good, I wish it were true. That a 13-year-old Inuit girl is able to survive for months on her own, lost on the Arctic tundra — it makes you wonder what all those European explorers who died there were missing.

Well, actually, the answer is obvious — they didn’t have the centuries of adaptation to the harsh environment. Not just physical adaptation, but mental and cultural, what Clifford Geertz called “local knowledge”. This girl gets by with a tin of matches, an ulu (the crescent-shaped knife used by Inuit women), a “man-knife” (I suspect it’s something like a long dagger), warm clothing made of animal skins and fur, and what her father had taught her about surviving in a land of perpetual cold.

Think of this, just for starters: how do you navigate by the stars during the Arctic summer, when the sun never sets to reveal the night sky? Miyax (aka Julie) solves this problem by watching the paths of birds (she knows their migration patterns) and making her own compass (a length of sinew held taught, with one arm following a bird’s flight).

Miyax’s luck leads her to a pack of wolves who eventually befriend and help her, sharing food when she’s most in need. Like Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf, Miyax shows that wolves kill only the sickly caribou — they are no threat to the herds’ well-being. Without wolves to thin the herds, the tundra would be over-grazed, making it difficult for the smaller animals to survive and thus upsetting the balance of life there.

This book isn’t just about survival in a challenging environment. It’s also about the tension between two cultures: Inuit and white. Miyax is in her predicament because she was running away to San Francisco, but her time with the wolves shows her what she’d be leaving, and eventually she has to choose between a life in the wild and one in a town. After reading this book, I vote for the wild.

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