I write this from my home in Kuujjuaq, an Inuit community in Nunavik, northern Quebec, Canada. We’re located about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal, on the tidal banks of the Kuujjuaq River, at a point where the northern extent of the treeline meets the Arctic tundra.
The remoteness of Nunavik has not entirely shielded us from the global reach of the current pandemic, and indeed outbreaks – although small in number – of infection have occurred in two of our communities. And so, for the past two months, I have been living in self-isolation, part of this time caring for my seven-year-old grandson, Inuapik. He’s an extremely active little boy, always curious and observant. He has kept me on my toes from dawn to dusk.
It is now early June – the beginning of springtime in the Arctic, that brief period between winter and summer when life is miraculously renewed. The snow, apart from patches here and there, will soon vanish from the land. Our delicate plants, such as the purple saxifrage, fireweed and poppies, suddenly freed from their covering of snow, are quickly greening again. The snow buntings – qupannuaq – always the first to arrive, are being followed by flocks of other migratory birds, among them geese, ducks, loons and terns. The snow-white winter plumage of the ptarmigan – aqiggiit, our Arctic grouse – is taking on its summer camouflage. And our favourite fish, the Arctic char – iqalukpik – will soon begin their seaward migration from lakes connected to the upper reaches of the river, where they overwintered, to feed and replenish in the rich coastal waters of nearby Ungava Bay.
This is also a time when families look forward with intense joy to escaping community life for a while, heading to their traditional springtime camping spots near the mouth of the river or on the shores of Ungava Bay. Many of these sites have been occupied by the same Inuit families for generations, and being in any one of these places is to sense immediately the depth of history and connection they hold. In this way, year after year, families simultaneously renew their attachment to the land and to our ancestors. It is a time of storytelling, of remembering who we are. Here, our language, Inuktitut – ultimately a language of the land – reclaims its rightful place. And here our children, according to their age and gender, participate fully in traditional daily activities: learning and absorbing all the essential skills, aptitudes and attitudes required to survive and thrive on the land when their own time to be autonomous comes. In so many ways, the land never fails to invigorate and teach. Family and communal bonds are restored, and our spirits uplifted. We become healthier in mind and body, nourished by the ‘country food’ the land and sea provides. This includes a varied menu of goose and duck, fresh-run Arctic char and trout, and, of course, natsiq, the common seal, a staple food of Inuit coastal dwellers everywhere. This ample diet is inevitably supplemented by seagull, goose and eider duck eggs, gathered from islets just off the shore. At low tide we dig for shellfish, mostly mussels, or catch sculpins, a small, spiny fish we call kanajuq, stranded in rocky pools by the falling tide. Raw, crunchy seaweed, gathered from these same pools, occasionally complements the boiled kanajuq.
With the signs of spring all around me, and my dreams of soon being able to get out on the land again, in season to go berry picking with fellow Inuit women, it’s perhaps not surprising that my thoughts have turned to the place of nature in Inuit life. In our language we have no word for ‘nature’, despite our deep affinity with the land, which teaches us how to live in harmony with the natural world. The division the Western world likes to make between ‘man and nature’ is both foreign and dangerous in the traditional Inuit view. In Western thinking, humans are set apart from nature; nature is something to strive against, to conquer, to tame, to exploit or, more benignly, to use for ‘recreation’. By contrast, Inuit place themselves within, not apart from, nature. This ‘in-ness’ is perfectly symbolized in our traditional dwellings of the past: illuvigait (snow houses) in winter and tupiit (sealskin tents) in summer. What could be more within nature than living comfortably in dwellings made of snow and sealskin!
This is especially true of our relationships with the animals that sustain us: the puijiit – sea mammals – seals, whales and walruses; and the pisuktiit, the land animals, in particular caribou and polar bear. No other people have relied so exclusively on animals as my Inuit ancestors.
In one of the world’s harshest environments, these Arctic animals provided everything needed to sustain human life. Their flesh supplied all the nutrition required for a healthy diet. From their skins, cut and worked as needed, clothing and shelter were sewn. The blubber of marine mammals fuelled the qulliit – our soapstone lamps – providing light and a little warmth for the snow houses in the depths of winter. From bones, ivory and caribou antler, tools, utensils and hunting equipment were expertly fashioned. Thread, strong and waterproof, used with the seamstresses’ delicate bone and ivory needles, came from the sinews of caribou and beluga whales. The reliance on animals was total. Other than berries and roots, in some places available at the end of the Arctic’s brief summer, there was no plant life, no agriculture, to fall back on should the hunt fail.
Our ancient beliefs held that the animals we relied upon had souls, just like ours, which needed to be treated with respect and dignity. In the early 1920s, Avva, an Inuit shaman from Igloolik, whose descendants I know well from my residential schooldays, as well as from the time I lived in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for almost twenty years, famously summed up these beliefs at the very core of our pre-Christian identity:
All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, which must therefore be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.
Founded on respect, our appeasement of the animals we harvested took many forms: for instance, giving a newly killed seal or walrus a mouthful of water, a practice based on the knowledge from a deep understanding of and connection to the animals we hunt that these mammals, having spent all their lives in the sea, craved a drink of fresh water. Taboos associated with particular animals were strictly observed. In this way, care was taken to avoid mingling creatures of the sea with those of the land, and so there were prohibitions against sewing caribou-skin clothing on the sea ice. Nor could the flesh of seal and caribou be boiled in the same pot. I remember my mother reminding me of this even when I would eat both frozen fish and frozen caribou together. Above all, the absolute bond between my ancestors and the animals they hunted (and, by extension, the land, sea and air) was founded on respect. Hunters never boasted about their prowess. Abusing animals in any way, or mocking them, or using them for ‘sport’, resulted in serious consequences for society, as did disputes over sharing. In response to maltreatment or insults, animals would withdraw from hunting grounds. Hunters were obliged to kill only animals who ‘presented’ themselves for the taking. This is exactly why, when I lived in the south and made visits home to Kuujjuaq in the early spring, and we hunted aqiggiit, my mother would say to me: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that the aqiggiit brought themselves to you so that you could take them back with you to eat in Montreal!’ My mother always had that deep Inuit understanding of how life gives life.
There’s an ancient tale that vividly illustrates the ethical imperative for Inuit of respecting animals when they ‘present’ themselves, a story that explains why walruses disappeared from a place called Allurilik, a large inlet on Ungava Bay, just over 200 kilometres north-east of my home in Kuujjuaq. It is said that here there was once a hunter out on his qajaq (kayak) looking for walruses. Suddenly, a small walrus surfaced in front of him and begged to be taken because it craved a drink of fresh water. Noticing that this little walrus had very small, deformed tusks, the hunter refused, saying: ‘Go away . . . I don’t want you. Your tusks are too small and deformed!’ Hearing these words, the walrus was deeply offended and went away. Shortly after that incident, all the other walruses left the area and never came back. It is said that the caribou, after hearing about the insult, also abandoned the land around Allurilik. The lesson here is that all animals presenting, or in my mother’s words ‘bringing’ themselves to the hunter, should be understood not as confirmation of death, but affirmation of life.
Indigenous communities and cultures everywhere have been ravaged by contact with the Western world. Introduced diseases, against which they had no resistance, decimated their populations. Christianity – usually the forerunner of colonialism – pushed aside Indigenous belief systems, altering the way they viewed the world, and endangering their mutual bonds with nature, with the land, animals and forests that sustained them.
Europeans first came into contact with my Inuit ancestors on the south shore of Ungava Bay just over 200 years ago. From that moment forward, our essential oneness with the natural world was challenged and would eventually change forever. Like the start of any infection, at first the symptoms were subtle. In those early days of contact, the Arctic, in the European imagination, offered nothing worth exploiting. Our land was dismissed as a barren wilderness, covered in snow and ice for most of the year, inexplicably inhabited by a few nomadic ‘heathens’. Above all, the Arctic, with its ice-filled summer seas, was seen as a sort of adversary to be heroically conquered in Europe’s futile efforts to find a north-west passage to the ‘riches of the Orient’.
Regardless, wherever Europeans ‘discovered’ Indigenous peoples, commerce and Christianity were sure to follow and my Arctic homeland was no exception. In time, the inescapable reach of the Europeans extended to our shores. We named them ‘Qallunaat’. Men of the Hudson’s Bay Company were the first to arrive, setting up, in 1830, a trading post on the east side of the Kuujjuaq River, more or less across from the place where the modern community of Kuujjuaq now stands. Shortly after the turn of the century, an Anglican mission was also established there, joined by a Catholic mission in 1948.
We slowly began to accept these strangers in our land and over time we gained some understanding of their ways. But through coercion, when our own powerful spiritual beliefs, which included shamanism, drum dancing and throat singing, were forbidden and considered ‘taboo’, our people eventually converted. The traders’ goods were an obvious convenience, especially metal items such as needles, knives, kettles, traps and firearms, joined later by an increasing selection of woven fabrics, sewing materials and basic foodstuffs, including flour, lard, sugar and tea. And, of course, tobacco. Although we could not have known it at the time, the seeds of consumerism, profound and dangerous changes to our diet and new diseases were unobtrusively planted among us. We distanced ourselves from the Qallunaat, and our interactions with them tended to be irregular and infrequent. We continued to live on the land, moving predictably from place to place in harmony with the animals, which had sustained us for countless generations. From time to time, usually travelling by dog team, visits were made to the post to trade furs, or to celebrate Christmas at the mission. Yet despite this distancing, our way of life, our unity with nature, was to change forever. Our traditional perception of time, for example, which had ticked to nature’s clock – the rising and setting of the sun, the position of the stars, the cycle of the tides, the succession of the moon months – now needed to make room for the Christian calendar. Suddenly there was a unit of time called a ‘week’; how very strange the idea must have seemed to my ancestors that one in every seven days was a special day when hunting and all other ‘work’ had to stop! Similarly, the traders’ constant need for fur, especially white fox, began to alter our subsistence patterns as we spent increasingly more time on our traplines during winter.
Throughout this initial period, which lasted from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, of coming to terms with the now permanent presence of traders and missionaries in our lands, our lives remained relatively unchanged. We continued to live in extended family groups, distributed along the coast of Ungava Bay. Our culture, values and traditions remained strong, as did our language, which easily incorporated new concepts and objects brought from the south. ‘Sunday’, for example, we called allituqaq, literally a time when we have to ‘respect a taboo’ – in this case the taboo against hunting on that particular day. And the kettles and pocketknives we bought from the traders were named tiqtititsigutik or uujuliurutik (that which is used to boil something) and puuttajuuq (that which regularly unfolds). So we slowly adapted to the newcomers, integrating their ideas and material things at our own pace. In the beginning we came to view this new relationship with the Qallunaat world as essentially balanced and sustainable. Above all, by continuing our life on the land, usually several days of dog-team travel away from the Qallunaat dwellings, we were able to retain our autonomy over the aspects of our lives that mattered most. This included our bonds with the land (including the sea ice) and its animals; and, most important of all, teaching our children the traditions, philosophies and skills needed to continue this land-based life.
Looking back on this period we certainly did not think that this way of life would last forever. And indeed, it didn’t. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Canadian government suddenly took an interest in ‘its territories’ in the far north. Focus on the area first came from the construction of the so-called Distant Early Warning Line, a sort of necklace of defence radar stations built by the US military above the Arctic Circle, from Baffin Island, Canada, to Wainwright, Alaska. With advancing technology and increasing explorations by prospectors, mineral exploitation in the Arctic was becoming a real possibility. And there were also tragic reports of inland-dwelling Inuit in Canada’s ‘barren grounds’ starving to death. The Canadian government decided it was time to act. Without any meaningful consultation, they instigated a policy to move Inuit from the land into settlements that, in most instances, would be built at sites previously established by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the missionaries.
From the start, the government’s policy to move us ‘off the land’ was misguided and paternalistic. The idea was to make the ‘administration’ of Canada’s Eskimos (as we were then called) easier. We were seen as a problem needing to be fixed. This would be mended by gathering us into settlements, building houses for us and ‘educating’ our children in English with a ‘Dick and Jane’ curriculum, an education that had nothing to do with what we knew to be the real world. We would partake of the government’s assistance programmes such as family allowances (which sometimes could be withheld if we didn’t send our children to school) and, when needed, social assistance payments and subsidized housing. Along with the provision of health services, these seemingly positive enticements were difficult to resist. Nowadays we recognize these offerings as coercive, though strangely packaged in well-meaning wrappings.
In my case, our family’s move into the settlement happened in 1957, earlier than for most Inuit then living in the Canadian Arctic. At the time, we were living at Old Fort Chimo, where I was born, and where the Hudson’s Bay Company still ran a trading post. Across the river from us, the US military had built a weather station and landing strip during the Second World War, one of several airstrips on a northern route to Europe, along which the Americans used to ferry aircraft to Britain. After the war the US transferred the site’s buildings and airstrip to the Canadian government and in time, under its ‘ingathering of Inuit’ policy, these became the present-day community of Kuujjuaq.
With the move, things happened very quickly. At first, we expected that this new world in which we suddenly found ourselves would be as wise as our own. But it wasn’t. It turned out that our new world was deeply dependent on external political and economic concepts and forces utterly at odds with our ways of being. In particular its structures seemed to have nothing to do with the natural world. Almost immediately, we started to give away our power. For a while we thought that if we were patient – as the Inuit hunters necessarily are – that patience would pay off. But we soon lost that sense of control over our lives, especially over the upbringing of our children. They were brought into the classrooms of southern institutional schooling, a concept totally foreign to us, where they were given an ‘education’ that had nothing to do with the knowledge and skills we needed for life on the land. All our traditional character-building teachings went out the window, and our social values began to erode. When we surrender our personal autonomy, we also give away our sense of self-worth, we lose the ability to define ourselves and to navigate our own lives. Being brought into the settlements was the beginning of the end for our traditional way of life. In the settlements we lived in a kind of bubble, separated from the natural world, exchanging our independence for increasing dependency.
In this new, confusing life – which, at least on the surface, seemed to meet all our basic needs – we also lost, above all, our sense of purpose. In our attempts to replace this loss with something else, many of us drifted into addictions and self-destructive behaviours, made worse by unemployment and poverty. This downward trend has played out over several generations in the most horrific ways, seen most tragically in the current levels of suicide among Inuit youth.
I was in my late teens when we experienced our first suicide in Kuujjuaq, a young Inuit woman, though she was not actually from our community. Traditionally suicide, in Inuit society, was rare and affected mostly adults, so this was shocking and incomprehensible to us all. Nowadays it’s a tragic fact that our Inuit youth suicide rates are among the highest in the world. I have no doubt whatsoever that this tragedy is rooted in our move from the land, and the subsequent erosion of our culture and values, not to mention the historical traumas of forced relocations, the slaughter of our sled dogs and abuse in many forms by those with authority. Whatever the underlying causes, these suicides can often be impulsive. In our traditional ways, impulsivity had no place. On the land, to act impulsively was to put yourself and everyone else around you at risk. Even under extreme pressure, decisions had to be weighed carefully. In our upbringing we were taught to develop that sense of holding back, of reflecting and being focused: our very lives depended on us avoiding any urges towards reckless behaviour.
Along with many others of my generation, I was fortunate enough to have spent my formative years deeply steeped in Inuit traditional ways and values that gave us our understanding of the world and our place in it and, importantly, our responsibilities to it. My age group still talk about this – that sense of training and the grounding we got, which have kept us going and made us resilient.
My early years in Kuujjuaq cocooned me in these traditions thanks, primarily, to two incredibly strong women: my mother and my grandmother. I also learned by observing my uncle, a skilled hunter and community leader with a lot of integrity and dignity, as well as my older brothers, who had been taught many skills by my uncle and other men in our community. Beyond these, teachers enough in themselves, were the always gently instructive social interactions I enjoyed with the small community around us. This supportive and caring circle was occasionally enriched by Inuit visitors from other parts of Ungava Bay, coming into Kuujjuaq to trade, travelling by dog team in the winter or canoe in the summer. To this day I can vividly recall their words as I sat, silent and wide-eyed with amazement, listening to them relate their news and stories to my mother and grandmother.
Of course, these occasions were always an opportunity to liberally share in whatever country food we had at hand. Depending on the season, this could be any combination of fish, ptarmigan, seal and the choice parts of caribou, raw, dry, frozen or cooked, according to preference. Most often these foods would be enhanced by our traditional condiment, a dipping sauce we called misiraq, made from fermented seal oil. Sharing the food our land provides is a deeply held Inuit tradition, indeed an imperative – there’s no other word for it. Wherever we are, this practice is still at the core of our family and community life. In this unspoken ritual, sharing nature’s bounty renews, again and again, our bonds with each other and the land that sustains us.
I have an early memory that brought all these strands together, underscoring our essential place within nature that I didn’t fully understand it at the time. Inuit have many categories of relationships and relationship terms without an exact equivalent in the Western world. Traditionally, personal names given at birth were said to carry souls and they immediately established a wide network of relationships, even mutual responsibilities, often extending beyond the immediate family. Nor were personal names ever gendered. For instance, a baby boy named after, say, his maternal grandmother would be addressed by his own mother as anaana – meaning mother – and, in some cases, at least until puberty, would be dressed and even socialized as a girl. Family members would notice with delight how he took on some of his grandmother’s personality traits and mannerisms. In this way, his grandmother continued to live through him.
A particularly significant relationship, in terms of linking community and nature, was initiated at birth with the person who cut the umbilical cord, usually a woman. If the baby was a girl, this woman would be known as her sanajik; if a boy, she would be his arnaqutik. The baby then became the arnaliak of her sanajik, or the angusiak of his arnaqutik.