Avinngaq — Lemming

A collared lemming.

The lemming shares with the insects the interesting characteristic of inspiring fear and disgust in many Inuit, including those who would not hesitate to fight a polar bear. Although it is generally disliked, perhaps on account of the possibility that it may crawl inside things, the lemming is understood to be an important source of food for many tundra animals and birds. Children playing in camps often caught lemmings, which would be eaten or, occasionally, kept as pets for a while. Lemming skins, softer and thinner than those of other animals, were used medicinally to place over boils and occasionally as bandages (IOHP 192; Randa 1994).

Two species of lemming live in the Arctic: kakuji, "the brown one" (brown lemming), and amiqlaq, "the one that has a lot of skin" (collared lemming), whose skin and long fur sometimes seem too large for its body. Kakuji lives in moist areas and is larger and more aggressive. When it feels threatened, it heads towards water; it is seldom seen in the winter. Amiqlaq, the smaller and less aggressive collared lemming, is common in dry areas where it often lives under rocks. Both species of lemming feed on a variety of grasses and flowering plants.

Lemmings, along with foxes, have the ability to dig into the snow very quickly using their paws. The paw of a lemming (or a fox), worn by a young child, would help him become a good igloo builder. A lemming skin was regarded as a powerful amulet, able to defend people against their enemies and, when placed inside a sealskin harpoon float, capable of protecting it from being torn by the tusks of a walrus. The spirit of the lemming contained inside the skin amulet was said to attack its enemy at such a great speed that it would dart into the anus and come out the mouth of the victim. This ability was also assigned to ermines, creatures with which the lemming shared the sacred name of putuuqti, "the penetrating one" (Randa 1994).