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For anyone who might be lost and hungry on the frozen tundra of Canada's north, there are few things more welcoming that an inukshuk. It is a crude sculpture of stones, often in the shape of a man, perfectly balanced, and it says, in effect: 'You are safe; man is nearby.'
You can see them for kilometres on the stark landscape: two stones representing the legs, two or three for the torso, one long stone for arms outstretched, and one massive stone for the head. They have a rough permanence, and they seem ageless, like the stone heads of Easter Island.
They are a unique art form, made by the northern-dwelling Inuit. But few Canadians have ever seen an inukshuk in its natural setting. And that is why there was some national head-scratching last week, when the organisers of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver selected the inukshuk as the symbol for the competition.
Symbols are important in Canada; the maple leaf, the beaver, the loon, the orca (killer whale) and the birch-bark canoe all evoke strong emotions in a country carved out of the wilderness. However, the Games' organisers were looking for something different this time: a nod to the oft-forgotten people of the north. Their hearts were in the right cultural place, but they may have misread the public mood.
One coalition of west coast Indian bands almost walked out of the unveiling ceremony in disgust, arguing that the selection committee ignored 'first-class' native art that would have better reflected Canada.
And an Inuit man, Angus Kaanerk Cocknet, said he was 'insulted' because the inukshuk was used for killing. He has a point. Aside from a greeting to strangers, the stone sculpture was also used to frighten caribou, and lead them to a killing ground where hunters would slaughter them.
Criticism also came from Canadians who said they want to dispel the image of Canada as an icy wasteland where people 'go to school by dogsled'.
What the critics ignore is that despite their relatively small numbers, Canada's Inuit have as much a claim on the national attention as anyone, and their cultural symbols were in place long before Canada was settled by Europeans. Furthermore, the Inuit help keep the country together: without their presence in the vast untracked north, it would be much harder for the central government to maintain sovereignty there.
Even though their symbol will grace the Olympic Games, the Inuit may not be so enthusiastic once they see the merchandising plans: inukshuks on mugs, scarves, T-shirts and even Visa cards. That is the price you pay for admission to the Canadian consumer mosaic.