Salutations in stone: A Canadian in Columbus shares an Inuit tradition

October 17, 2012 11:40:07 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Ross Whitwam can't resist a pile of rubble. With stones, bits of brick and chunks of concrete, the Mississippi University for Women biology professor proves that one man's debris is another man's medium.  


For the past three years, Whitwam has used these found materials to erect small inuksuit (in-uk-sue-it) -- simple stone markers or figures -- around his yard and at random spots along the streets surrounding his neighborhood. Most are under 18 inches. No two are identical, and each contains the imagination and message of its creator. Think of it as saying "hello," Inuit style. Each one is a nod to Whitwam's native Canada, where many indigenous Inuit people of the Arctic are centered. 


The professor has lived in Columbus since 1999, but it was only after he and his wife, Holly Krogh, and daughters Lucy and Henrietta, moved to their current home that the idea came to him. 


"When we moved here, we bought the house from a couple who had lived here for a long time, and every piece of brick and rock was here from all those years. I didn't want to throw it out in the street ... and then the idea came to me," smiled Whitwam, sitting on his front porch steps on a mild October afternoon. 


One marker became two, and two became dozens -- not only in his yard, but along the daily dog-walking route, on the way to the Riverwalk, in the lot behind the Princess Theater, underneath a speed limit sign on a neighboring street -- anywhere the materials were found and the spirit suited.  




What are they? 


Inuksuit (plural for inuksuk, a single marker, sometimes spelled inukshuk) have been built throughout the world in ancient cultures, but the Arctic is one of the few places where they still stand today. The oldest are said to have been constructed up to 4,000 years ago. 


Originally erected of unworked stone by the Inuit, the monuments served a practical purpose. In a frozen land of drifting snow and few natural landmarks, they were probably used for navigation, for marking fishing places, hunting grounds or camps. An inuksuk might be a single upright rock, or a towering, intricate puzzle of balanced stones, or even wood. 


In Columbus, they are simply a lighthearted way of sharing a bit of heritage. 


"Some people think they're a homage to Stonehenge, or that they're religious," said Whitwam, stacking bits of rocks and bricks on one of the larger inuksuit in his yard. "But they're really just a friendly little greeting that points back to where I'm from." 




Cultural mainstream 


Growing up in Canada, Whitwam was always aware of the Inuit people, but he recalls first noticing inuksuit only 15 to 20 years ago. 


"I first started seeing them in northern Canada in the mid-1990s," he said. Particularly on long desolate roads typical of that area, the markers were comforting, evidence that someone else had been in those isolated places, that travelers were not "alone." 


Since then, however, inuksuit have gone mainstream. That's partly because an inuksuk was adopted for use in the flag of Nanuvut, the Canadian territory whose population is majority Inuit. And the image of an inunnguaq (an inuksuk built to resemble a human) was the official logo of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.  


Whitwam travels to northern Ontario annually to visit his sister and has witnessed the emergence of inuksuit as a Canadian national symbol of sorts. 


"They're everywhere," he said. "They even sell little glued ones in tourist shops, and people get paid to build huge ones." 




From North, to South 


Needless to say, adjusting to life in the Deep South took Whitwam a little getting used to, the lack of inuksuit notwithstanding.  


"I miss snow and certain aspects of the political and cultural scene (of Canada), but I'm happy in the U.S., and I'm still choosing to live here," said the educator, who graduated from Penn State.  


His biggest adjustment was to life in a small town.  


"I wasn't used to people saying 'hi' to you, and I'd wonder, 'Do I know these people?'" he said, laughing. 


"But I've learned to say 'hi' back," he grinned. "I've learned to live at a slower pace." 


He knows the inuksuit he erects in his adopted hometown down South aren't grand or permanent art. They will fall in time, be knocked down by dogs, by people, by Mother Nature. But while they stand, they provide a passing moment of cultural exchange. 


"I really like the fact that people stumble across them unexpectedly," he said, "and that they are, I hope, a pleasant surprise."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.