Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"The Great Day That Dawns": The Source for a Kitlinguharmiut Song and My Redaction

Judging from the number of quotations on the web, this song from the Kitlinguharmiut or "Copper" Eskimo people (they made copper tools) has had a remarkably widespread and pervasive influence.  The US Department of Health has even used part of its concluding lines as the title for a handbook on suicide prevention:  To Live To See The Great Day That Dawns . . . Preventing Suicide by American Indian and Alaska Native Youth and Young Adults.  I read this song for the first time about ten years or so ago, when I was researching the hunting cultures of Northern Indians and of the Inuit, and it made a great impression on me.

I copied the English translation of the song and subsequently rewrote it.  I wasn't concerned about altering the integrity of the original:  after all, that was already at two removes.  This song first had been translated into Danish and that version then had been translated into English.  If you want to be strict about it, every translation is a betrayal, an idea expressed more succinctly in Italian:  traduttore, traditore.

Recently, as part of an extended conversation, I wrote down my redacted version and sent it to a group of friends that included Steve Bodio, who wanted to post it on his blog Querencia.  He asked me where it was from, and I told him that I'd reworked it but had lost my note on its source.  After Steve posted it, "Anonymous" then commented that a longer version could be found in Nick Jans's excellent The Last Light Breaking.  That is correct, on both counts:  that book gives the source, and that book is indeed excellent.  Thanks to Jans's citation of The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24 by Knud Rasmussen, I was able to run down the original English translation.  It can be found in Rasmussen's  Intellectual Culture of the Hudson Bay Eskimos (Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24.  Trans. W. E. Calvert. [Copenhagen:  Gyldendalkse Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 1932]), IX, 53.  I believe that this is the first time it has been quoted on the web with a full citation. 

It goes as follows:

     And I think over again
     My small adventures
     When from a shore wind I drifted out
     In my kayak
     And thought I was in danger.
     My fears,
     Those small ones
     That I thought so big,
     For all the vital things
     I had to get and to reach.
     __ __ __

     And yet, there is only
     One great thing,
     The only thing:
     To live to see in huts and on journeys
     The great day that dawns,
     And the light that fills the world.
     __ __ __

I felt by shortening the song and dividing it into three quatrains it could be more expressive and, perhaps, even more emphatic.  I was pleased enough with my version that I decided to inscribe on a canoe paddle I'd made.  That might have been a good idea, but my execution wasn't.   Although my handwriting was legible, the design didn't look right on the blade of the paddle, so I erased it.  Apparently, I then tossed the notes I had made on the source of this song, keeping only the version I had reworked on my computer.

Now that the source is clear, here is my reworked version:

     Kitlinguharmiut Song

     As I recall once more
     The time I drifted out
     On an off-shore wind
     And believed I was in danger,

     I recall again my fears,
     Those small ones I thought so big,
     For all the things I hadn't yet
     Accomplished in my life.
     Yet there is only one big thing
     That truly matters:  to live
     To see the great day that dawns
     And the light that fills the world.

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