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Inuksuk: Inuit Memory Guides. Image: The Canadian Encyclopedia


How do you remember?

Why do you remember?

In an age of dementia, memory seems critical and elusive. Learning to remember – or grasping to keep memories – becomes ever more valuable.

I was fascinated to come upon Lynne Kelly’s comments where she says “mnemonic techniques of Indigenous people far outstrip anything imaginable for most members of societies that use writing.” She speaks to the “ritual or memory”, and her primary example is illuminating:

Australian Aboriginal memory palaces are spread across the land, structured by sung pathways referred to as songlines …

A songline is a sequence of locations, that might, for example, include the rocks that provide the best materials for tools, to a significant tree or a waterhole. They are far more than a navigation aid. At each location, a song or story, dance or ceremony is performed that will always be associated with that particular location, physically and in memory. A songline, then, provides a table of contents to the entire knowledge system, one that can be traversed in memory as well as physically.

From: “Exploring how rituals affect memory“, by Scott Thrift

Canadian Inuit Memory and the Inuksuk

Canadian Indigenous people of the Inuit also have a way of capturing memories in a physical formation known as a Inuksuk. Norman Hallendy writes:

“An Inuksuk is a figure made of piled stones or boulders constructed to communicate with humans throughout the Arctic. Traditionally constructed by the Inuit, inuksuit (plural) are integral to Inuit culture and are often intertwined with representations of Canada and the North… In Inuktitut, the term inuksuk means “to act in the capacity of a human.” It is an extension of the word inuk meaning “a human being.” Inuksuit have been found close to archaeological sites dating from 2400 to 1800 BCE…

Inuksuit are placed throughout the Arctic landscape acting as “helpers ” to the Inuit. Among their many practical functions, they are used as hunting and navigational aids, coordination points and message centres (e.g., they might indicate where food was stored). In addition to their earthly functions, certain inuksuk-like figures have spiritual connotations, and are objects of great respect, often marking the spiritual landscape of the Inummariit — the Inuit who know how to survive on the land living in their traditional way…

Many inuksuit, referred to as niungvaliruluit, are constructed with a “window” through which one can align with another inuksuk and project a sightline to a place below the horizon. Such an inuksuk, even when aligned to point the way to a mid-winter constellation, may not have served a strictly functional purpose. After all, experienced hunters knew the direction of such places. Rather, as Inuit elder Osutsiak once explained, alignments were often constructed by those who felt the need “to attach their thoughts ” to distant and familiar places, especially when they were a long way from home.”

In a way, we are all a long way from home, and need every navigational aid we can to site on some distant horizon for the resting place of our soul. We need those who’ve gone before us “to attach their thoughts” and memories so we can find our way. We need to look through the window of the soul of others to see more than the sum of all its parts.

Unique and as beautiful as a snowflake, there are no two inuksuit alike, and like the inuksuk, each person is an object of great respect.

Memory and the Dynamic of Meditation

I suppose an Inuksuk is somewhat similar in shape to a Cross. Does the Cross help you to remember? Or has it be drained of its meaning and memory?

Throughout scripture the people of God were exhorted to “not forget the covenant” of the Living God. Jesus last act of fellowship was to transform the Passover Meal into the daily act of remembrance: “do this to remember me.” It is an act so primitive and tactile – that the simple bread and wine are the edible memorials to the essential Jesus. Those with a living faith do not look to a silver chalice or a gold plate on which bread may be found; we look to Jesus; we remember Him.

The faithful are urged to remember the scriptures through the ancient act of biblical meditation. When I first arrived at University so many years ago I met a student who would memorize Scripture to melody. How she remembered the various melodies was known only to her, but it seemed to increase the joy of engaging in daily biblical meditation.

Like the Australian Aboriginals, “a songline provides a table of contents to the entire knowledge system, one that can be traversed in memory as well as physically.” I suspect that is why worship and singing are strong collaborators in reinforcing the apprehension of truth with the One who is Truth.

What rituals of memory do you engage in?

For more you may be interested in:

The Persistence of Memory – excerpts of an interview with novelist Wendell Barry. In one of his novels he writes, “You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise.”

Are We Our Memories? – One researcher states, “Who are we without our memories? For people with dementia, recovering even some of the experience they have banked is a crucial part of feeling, well, like themselves again.”