Daniel David Moses’s “Inukshuk” and Colonial Transformations

Delware/Tuscarora writer Daniel David Moses’ poem “Inukshuk” reflects on the “colonist problem” and “progress” seen in northern expansion.

In this poem, the ecological imagery of snow, wind, and lichens carries multiple levels of meaning through the language of dreams “from the south.” The idea of dreams from the south having an impact on the north implies the expansion of colonialism northwards. Settler culture developed from the dream of “progress” across the presumably wild and empty spaces of North America. This progress dream spread from Europe to North America, and then from the east to the western and northern “frontiers.”

The image of northernness is reinforced through the Inukshuk, a rock structure used by the Inuit peoples who live there, and who stand in opposition to colonial understandings of the empty and formidable North. As Sherill Grace notes,

Real Inuksuit … “act in the capacity of a human” by encoding many forms of information vital to the physical and spiritual survival of those Inuit with the wisdom to read them; they can be as simple as two coloured rocks laid side by side or as complex as an extensive field of cairn-like and single boulders reaching up to the sky. (Grace 145)

The dreams from the south bring songs of scientific discovery and nightmares of war, transforming the imagery of the solitary observing Inukshuk at the beginning of the poem. Thus, the wind that once brought ecologically natural things like snow and lichen, now troubles the Inukshuk with foreign dreams of death.

This poem captures a sense of the transformations wrought on Inuit peoples and their territories through colonization, using the trans-generational image of the Inukshuk to trace these changes.

“Inukshuk” by Daniel David Moses

You were built up from stones,
they say, and positioned
alone against the sky
here so that they might take
you for something human

checking the migrations.
That’s how you manage this,
standing upright despite
the blue wind that snow is
this close to Polaris.

Still the wind does worry
you some. It’s your niches
which ought to be empty.
Nothing but lichen grows
there usually. Now

they’re home to dreams. Most came
from the south, a few from
farther north—but what comes
out of their mouths comes from
nowhere you know about.

They keep singing about
the Great Blue Whale the world
is, how it swims through space
having nightmares about
hunters who hunt only

each other—each after
the other’s snow white face.
How beautiful frozen
flesh is! Like ivory,
like carved bone, like the light

of Polaris in hand.
So it goes on and on,
the hunters’ refrain. Dead
silence would be better,
the Pole Star overhead.

The wind wants at them—at
least to stop each niche up.
How long can you stand it,
that song, the cold, the stones
that no longer hold you

up now that they hold you
down? Soon the migrations
recommence. How steady
are you? Dreams, so they say,
also sing on the wing.


For help with critical reading, see “Close Reading Poetry.”

To unpack in detail the allegorical or metaphorical significance of the poem, consider the following questions:

  1. What are the roles of the following figures in the poem?
    • the Inukshuk
    • the wind
    • the dreams and nightmares
  2. A common characterization of Indigenous peoples as hunters is often used in contrast with the farming practices of settlers. Moses reapplies this idea to the settler cultures themselves, transforming its meaning in the process. How have the colonizers taken up hunting practices? What has their refrain become, and how does this contrast to the Inukshuk’s experience of the migrations and the dreams?
  3. The italicized refrain is a turning point in the imagery of the poem, in which the white of snow becomes the white of death. Why would “Dead / silence … be better”?
  4. The Inukshuk’s environment, including the snow, wind, and animal migrations, as well as the Pole Star and the world in space, seems to carry on amidst perceived changes in the environment. At the same time, troubling dreams of Western “progress” fly on the wind and prompt nightmares in the Inukshuk. How does the Inukshuk interact with this tension between worldviews? What does this suggest about Inuit and perhaps other Indigenous histories and cultures before and after colonial contact?

Works Cited

  • Moses, Daniel David. Inukshuk. Canadian Literature 124–25 (1990): 241–42. Print. (Link)
  • Grace, Sherrill. “Listening to the North.” Rev. of Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic, by Norman Hallendy, It’s Like the Legend: Innu Women’s Voices, ed. Nympha Byrne and Camille Fouillard, and Walking on the Land, by Farley Mowatt. Canadian Literature 174 (2002): 145–47. Print. (Link)