Ukkusiksalik's Northern Tour

Ukkusiksalik's Northern Tour

Posted on April 22 by David F. Pelly in News
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Iqaluit

Unikkaarvik means “the place to tell stories” in Inuktitut, and that is exactly what happened here last night, at the Unikkaarvik Visitors Centre in Iqaluit.  The centre joined forces with Parks Canada local staff to host the Nunavut launch of Ukkusiksalik – The People’s Story.  The largest crowd ever gathered in the small but evocatively northern presentation space at Unikkaarvik included an equal mix of Inuit and non-Inuit (Qablunaat), several members of the younger generation with connections to the elders featured in the book, as well as the former (and first) Nunavut Premier, Paul Okalik, an old friend.

With a stuffed polar bear overhead, and a walrus to one side, I gave a 30-minute slide-show talk, using some of the stories provided by Tuinnaq Kanayuk Bruce to demonstrate the power of the oral-history, much of it passed down orally through three or four generations before it was recorded (by me) in the 1990s.

Tuinnaq Kanayuk Bruce was a celebrated elder in her own region, on the west side of Hudson Bay, but previously not really well known here in Baffin.  Nonetheless, the people here were delighted to hear about the knowledge recorded by her and all the other elders in Ukkusiksalik.  There remains among Inuit a deep respect for the elders who, they know, were the last to live the traditional life out on the land prior to the shift into communities in the 1960s.

After doing one newspaper and two CBC radio interviews today, I then walked through a mounting blizzard to spend the normally busy late-afternoon pre-supper hours at the local store for a book signing.  You need to understand that this was not a book store; it is a general store that sells groceries, clothing, house wares, hunting equipment, and everything else including (now) the newly released Ukkusiksalik.  I was set up at a table piled high with books, not far from the check-out cashiers, right in front of the frozen food section, between a stack of $199 Keurig coffee makers on one side and a stack of mini juice boxes ($8.99 for ten) on the other.  Lots of people came by to chat, including several who had not heard about the book – so it was good exposure, though an unusual sight in this part of the North.

Tomorrow – if the blizzard dies down – I fly to Yellowknife.

 

Yellowknife

Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories, a bustling, growing city of about 20,000 people.  Its economy fluctuates with the mining industry’s level of activity throughout the territory.  Regardless of that, however, it maintains the air of an old frontier town, and home for a lot of interesting and diverse folks.  I’ve always enjoyed my visits here and over the years have made many good friends. 

It was a beautiful spring day in Yellowknife; in fact, the first calm sunny weekend of the year, so people were heading out of town in all directions for cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, you name it.  It was not the ideal Saturday afternoon to hold a book launch event – most people wanted to be outside, after a long cold winter.  But nonetheless, just over twenty people came indoors at the museum to hear about the Inuit oral-history collected in Ukkusiksalik.  The result was a small but genuinely interested audience, with lots of penetrating questions.  I think we all had a thoughtful and stimulating afternoon.  And since nearly everyone there bought a copy of the book, even the book-seller was happy!

 

Rankin Inlet

Along the low-lying coast of Hudson Bay at this time of year the view from the airplane window, on a cloudy day, is starkly white and featureless.  Telling the difference between the sea ice and the flat land demands a practised eye.  Apart from the odd little outcrop of rock showing through, it is difficult to make out any distinguishing landmarks on the tundra.  Gazing down on this scene, on approach to Rankin Inlet, brings back memories of travel on that land in winter, with Inuit companions, when I was dependent on their finely tuned instincts for survival.  I learned to navigate from them, for example how to use the sastrugi (uqalurait in Inuktitut, meaning the uniform ridges formed in the hard-packed, wind-swept snow) as a compass to maintain your sense of direction.

Rankin Inlet is the administrative centre and transportation hub for the seven Inuit communities on the west side of Hudson Bay.  It is also home today for many people with family ties to Ukkusiksalik.  So it made complete sense to stop in here for a couple of days on my way to Naujaat (Repulse Bay), father north on the Hudson Bay coast.  When I walked into Theresie Tungilik’s office on Monday morning, she told me right away that she was getting phone calls and Facebook messages asking about the book launch event planned for that evening.

By seven o’clock, the room was full, the welcome table was laden with plates of frozen caribou (quak) and dried Arctic char (pipsi), and the excitement was palpable.  We chose not to reveal the book beforehand, heightening the anticipation even more. Then you could hear the whispers and drawn breaths as images of long gone elders came up on the screen.  It was an emotional experience for everyone present, contemplating the notion that the elders’ stories are now preserved.

The descendants of the late elders were presented with complimentary copies of the book from Parks Canada, and yet when the book table opened for the purchase of books, it was sold out in less than ten minutes.  Said the Co-op manager: “I promise – I will bring in some more!” People lined up to have a short chat and get their books signed, the warmth of our long-standing connection embracing us all.  It was an evening none of us will forget.  The photos say it all.

 

Naujaat

Flying north over Hudson Bay, early in the morning, the sky cleared and the sun came out to highlight the beauty of this northern landscape in spring.  I could see the little contours and snow-patches on the sea ice.  For a northern traveller, it is a scene of beauty.

The plane descends and we land smack on the Arctic Circle at 66°34′ North, in the small Inuit village of Naujaat (meaning “seagulls”).  It used to be Repulse Bay, so called by the British Navy explorer Captain Christopher Middleton in 1742, the same summer he entered the long fiord in Ukkusiksalik which he named Wager Inlet.  But that is only a hint of the strong connection between this bay and that – for the Inuit of this area, Ukkusiksalik is like a second home.  Almost everyone in this community has ancestral connections back to Ukkusiksalik.  That’s why it is so appropriate for the book-launch tour of Ukkusiksalik to reach its climax here on the Arctic Circle, unusual though that may seem at first blush.

I first came to this community in the early 1980s, and it has held a special spot in my heart ever since.  When I stopped in here in 1986 after my first time hiking and kayaking around Wager Inlet, a friend took me to meet an old man by the name of Marc Tungilik.  He gave me some of the tiniest ivory carvings I have ever seen, which I treasure, but I am even more indebted to him for his final words to me: “People are always happy to go to a plentiful land – that is how I felt about going to Ukkusiksalik.”  He passed away the next month,  September 1986, but those words lingered, and moved me to return to Ukkusiksalik to understand better what he meant, for I knew that seen through an Inuit lens, a land that gave food was a beautiful place.

Now, all these years later, I am here to celebrate the publication of a book containing the stories and traditional knowledge from a group of elders who spent the final years of their long lives in this village.  They were all born out on the land in the first half of the 20th century.  They all knew the traditional ways of the Inuit.  They all had the old skills so essential to survival.  They all lived and hunted in Ukkusiksalik.  They are all still revered here.

That is what makes it so special to bring the volume of Ukkusiksalik stories “home” to Naujaat.  And that is why it was so appropriate and heart-warming to spend the morning at the school, with a succession of groups of kids from grade seven up to grade twelve.  All of them were not only fascinated at seeing their grandfathers’ or great-grandfathers’ pictures and stories in a book, but perhaps even more significantly they understood that what they were looking at is essentially the end of the oral tradition.  The reliable transmission of the oral-history has ceased with the generation of elders celebrated in this volume.  But these young people now feel some attachment to the old stories of their ancestors.  I believe they understood that Ukkusiksalik is history from an Inuit perspective and their excitement was palpable.

The park office for the newly created Ukkusiksalik National Park is here in Naujaat.  So for the afternoon, park staff arranged an open house with snacks and story-telling and slide-shows and book presentations.  About twenty-five members of the community dropped by; all watched the slide-shows with fascination and admired the book.  Everyone left with a copy in hand.  Then, to counter the stormy weather which prevented some folks from attending, park staff loaded into their truck and drove around to various houses delivering books to significant family members whose ancestors are featured in Ukkusiksalik.  The day ended with a feast of country food at the community hall.  For Naujaat, where the connection to Ukkusiksalik is strongest, this was a day of celebration.

Then overnight a blizzard blew up, extending my stay in Naujaat for an indeterminate time.  There is no prospect of an airplane coming here for at least the next twenty-four hours.  But if ever there was a place I could be happily storm-stayed, it would surely be Naujaat.

 

The northern tour for Ukkusiksalik was made possible through the generous support of First Air, Calm Air, Parks Canada, above & beyond magazine, Nunavut Tourism, Yellowknife Book Cellar, and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

David F. Pelly

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

David F. Pelly

David F. Pelly is a modern-day explorer of the North's cultural landscape, who has lived in and travelled to the Arctic since the late 1970s. He is the author of several books and articles on the land and its people, including The Old Way North, Sacred Hunt, and Uvajuq: The Origin of Death. Much of his writing is based on oral history shared with him by Inuit elders. He lives in Ottawa.