“Inukshuk” by Canadian poet, playwright, essayist, and teacher Daniel David Moses anticipates the northern expansion of Europeans into Canadian lands and the movement's destructive effects on indigenous culture. Moses himself is a Lenape-Delaware native american from the Six Nations lands in southern Ontario, Canada; the poem explores themes of colonialism, disturbance, and conflict from an indigenous person's point of view. He uses symbols throughout the poem to highlight these themes.
The titular “Inukshuk” is the central symbol, personified as a sentry against outsiders. In the Inuit language, inukshuk means “one that looks like a person.” In the poem, the purpose of this structure is
so that they might take
you for something human
checking the migrations
“They” and “migrations” refer to the European settlers moving in from the south. An inukshuk is a tall formation of stones carefully fitted together and piled on top of each other to create a visible structure or landmark; inukshuks serve as markers for navigating in the snow or finding fertile hunting/fishing spots or sacred places. No adhesive (e.g., glue, cement) fuses the stones together. Instead, they stay up and together through balance. An inukshuk also symbolizes balance, harmony, friendship, and cooperation among people—all of which is disturbed later.
The blowing wind (“blue wind”) that the inukshuk resists symbolizes the forces of migration and change. The colonizing settlers are approaching to invade indigenous lands. The winds are worrisome and the poet wonders what they will bring. Instead of “lichen” (symbolizing nature) and “nothing” (purity), the niches of the inukshuk become
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.
The dreams of frontiersman “from the south”—of new lands and expansion—actually are nightmares of the unknown and destruction. Moses uses synecdoche (“their mouths”) to symbolize the settlers and their foreign words and ideas. The wind is a hostile force that attacks the inukshuk and indigenous people;"wants at them—at least to stop each niche up.”
The blue whale, a symbol of living off the land, dreams a nightmare of colonialism and civil war between Europeans and Native Americans. It envisions
hunters who hunt only
each other—each after
the other’s snow white face
The white hunters are the European settlers who will attack indigenous people and then each other in civil war to capture land, property, and culture. The color white also symbolizes valuable property driving man’s destructive actions. Moses sarcastically admires
How beautiful frozen
flesh is! Like ivory,
like carved bone
No longer like pure and undisturbed snow, the color white is a symbol of death and greed.