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Entries in Nunavut (2)


Moving into town – Kinngait, Nunavut

Or, instead of walking across a land-bridge, you can try to get there by plane.

…into this treeless land of ice and snow and wind.

Not that we were concerned…

…even if Debi caught the steward/co-pilot reading through directions for take-off. Click on the photo above. You’ll see we aren’t kidding.

Because somehow the blonde pony-tail of our pilot consoled us, even though she didn’t seem any older than our daughters. It was good to realize that the era of Arctic bush-pilots – not that she was exactly that – wasn’t completely over.

Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, seemed more ephemeral than a hunting camp.

Because of permafrost, buildings have to be stilted above the ground.

And the land itself seems perplexed by the mere idea of town.

Like all towns in Ninavut, Kinngait is a new invention. Kinngait’s colonial name is Cape Dorset. It’s sixty years old.

While Inuit have been living nomadically in hunting camps in Nunavut for over 4,000 years.

This doesn’t mean that we didn’t find Kinngait’s modern incarnation full of charm.

And its people utterly delightful.

But that also doesn’t wash away the fact that something crucial is being lost.

But we already living our own modernized lives have no right to wash our hands free of our own responsibilities – and we have no right to expect people like the Inuit to hold for us our own nostalgia for our own lost connections to the land.

In 1913 the Hudson Bay Company built a trading post in Kinngait to facilitate their own trading for furs, and as Inuit families and hunting groups gradually moved closer to the post, a more settled community began to emerge.

Not that the Inuit missed the irony and significance of this transition. This is carver and photographer Peter Pitseolak. He has deliberately posed with a qakivak in one hand (a long-handled fishing spear) and a rifle in the other.

On a hillside above Kinngait, there is a memorial cairn to three men: Ashoona, Saila, and Potoogook (the namesake of our guide on Mallikjuag).

The arrival of these three men with their hunting groups is considered the start of the community in Kinngait – the beginning of a new era. And among the new skills required of these founders was knowledge of how to deal with qallunaat, white people from the south.

Saila, one of these three founders, was the father of Pauta Saila, whom we introduced to you in our last blog.

Here is one more of Pauta’s dancing bears.

And carver and printmaker Kananginak Pootoogook is the son of one of the other three founders. This means that Kananginak and Pauta are direct links between a life of nomadic hunting and town life. And it means that their art has created a path for a younger generation.

When Kananginak was still living in an outpost camp, he found a walrus tusk and carved a bird on it. He gave it to his father to sell in town. When his father returned, he brought back five bullets for Kananginak in trade.

Now Kananginak’s carvings and prints appear in galleries and museums around the world.

It is impossible to explain how one small community like Kinngait, whose population is perhaps 1400, could produce so many thriving artists.

But one partial explanation lies in how long the Inuit have so skillfully used their hands. If men and women could not have made and mended their clothes and gear at a moment’s notice out on the land – their kamiik (boots), avataq (sealskin floats), and so many other things – they simply would not have survived.

So these hands…

…chisel a stonecut like this, which in turn…

…produces a stonecut print.

We suppose some might want to argue with the transition to a modern tool.

But we don’t see the point.

This is a loon by Etulu Etidloi, the father of Isaci Etidloi, whose sculpture a man could die at any time we showed you in our last blog.

You see the generational passing of this art.

And the hands again.

The Inuit first carved mainly on ivory and traded with the occasional whaling ships passing through.

Even when Kinngait was on its way towards becoming a settled town, it was still an exciting moment when a dog-team would arrive and as a family unfurled sealskins, among the furs there might also be a carved masterwork or two, by now perhaps carved in local serpentine that can range in color from yellow-green to nearly black.

The above photo was taken at an Inuit campsite about 1964.

In the 1950’s disease ran through Qimmiit, Inuit dogs, and the Canadian government undertook, or ordered to be undertaken, wholesale slaughters of the dogs, purportedly for public health reasons.

The connection between the Inuit and Qimmiit would be hard to over-emphasize. One could not have survived without the other.

"My grandmother often told me that I am still alive today because of our Qimmiit," Paulusie Cookie from Umiujaq said.

The slaughtering of the dogs remains a controversy. In the post-WW II era, military activity was “setting up the Distant Early Warning line across the North to protect North America from attack.” The northern mining industry was booming, and a young Canadian government feared the possibility of larger powers trying to annex these sparsely populated lands.

And there are those who still fear the dogs were slaughtered to force the Inuit from their nomadic hunting lives into fixed settlements.

This history leaves big questions – and not just for Kinngait.

Perhaps one way to frame the question is this: how can our life in town stay connected with the land – and with the spirit of our ancestors who have lived on the land before us?

Or in other words, how can Cape Dorset stay connected with Mallikjuag?

But this is a question we have to own in our own lives – and not just expect that it’s a responsibility that people like the Inuit should carry for the rest of us.

The best way we’ve heard the question asked is by poet Robert Hass:

“How do you re-animate a world denuded by western positivist science?”

The last time we saw Hass, he didn’t have answers to his own good question.

What’s important is that the good question remains.


Mallikjuag Island, Nunavut

You have to read the tides right if you want to cross on foot to Mallikjuag Island.

So Pootoojoo Elee had called the elder to get the best estimate of when low tide would be.

Still when we arrived where we could cross, the tide was already coming in.

And Pootoojoo thought it was too late to cross.

“C’mon,” I called back, hurrying ahead. “We can still make it, can’t we?” I felt like I was rockhopping up San Carpoforo Creek, back home in the Sur.

But north and south mean something different here.

We did make it across, but by now the tide had come up so high that we couldn’t entirely follow along the shore. We had to scramble up the rocky slope. If you click on the photo above, you’ll be able to make out the thin pencil-line of stones where we crossed. Though stones are still visible, had we crossed even ten minutes later, Pootoojoo said we’d have been stuck in places where water would’ve already been rushing above our knees.

While on Mallikjuag Island, the tracks we saw ahead of ours were an Arctic silver fox’s, most likely stalking collared lemmings, like the one we saw dart into rocks quicker than a camera click.

And the skeleton of a beached beluga whale.

Pootoojoo saw in the vertebrae the possibility of two or three carved owls.

Several times before and after we had arrived in Nunavut, people who knew told us pointedly to be aware of polar bears.

It was not meant as an idle injunction. This bear was killed near town just a couple days before we arrived. “A small one,” Pootoojoo said. “Probably only seven and a half feet or so.” He has friends who have been mauled.

So I asked the obvious question.

“Are you carrying a sidearm in that bag?”

“Something like that,” Pootoojoo said.

“Is it enough to stop a bear?”

“Let’s hope we won’t have to find out,” he said.

Isaci Etidloi calls this sculpture a man could die at any time.

There are other beings in this land as well. And I was astonished to learn a precise word for them.

Ijjigait, they are called. The word means those fleeting glimpses you might get out of the corner of your eye -- too fleeting for you to recognize, but they leave you with the vague feeling that one of the old ones might have just appeared.

I shouldn’t speak of them.

But we were approaching the rim of a small lake…

…ringed with the depressions of sod and stone homes built perhaps two millennia ago.

They’d crib roofs from whale bones and then cover them with skins and sod.

People have lived in the Arctic for at least 10,000 years, crossing from Siberia in migrations of a pan-Arctic culture. Thule people, ancestors of the Inuit, arrived during a warming trend a thousand years ago. They hunted bowhead whales and other large sea-mammals from open boats and gradually displaced the earlier Paleoeskimo Dorset culture.

The Thule and Inuit have been nomadic people living in seasonal camps and hunting sea mammals and following caribou migrations in their qamutiik (dog-sleds) and qajait (skin-covered hunting canoes).

Inuits' nomadic hunting life in camps ended only fifty years ago. It’s hard to think of a more accelerated change in a culture.

Pauta Saila has lived in both worlds. He was born in a caribou hunting camp in 1916. His father took him everywhere with him, and Pauta learned how to survive out on the land. His father taught him never to rush – but always to wait for the weather. By the time he was sixteen, Pauta was driving a dog-team on his own.

His first wife is in the center of this photograph.

As a carver, Pauta’s signature is the dancing polar bear. He has an affinity for polar bears. If you do not bother them, they will not bother you, he thinks.

One day as Pauta sat on his porch smoking, people inside the church across from him suddenly began gesticulating wildly to him. Pauta turned around and saw a polar bear right behind him. Figuring that the bear was interested in the walrus meat being stored outside, Pauta took a piece, reached down, and handed it to the bear. The bear waited patiently, took the walrus meat gently, and wandered off.

Pauta and his current wife, the printmaker and carver Pitaloosie Pudlat Saila, and their great grand-daughter.

In Pauta and Pitaloosie’s kitchen hang these ulus. They serve many functions, including cutting muqtaaq from a whale.

They are also used for scraping clean sealskin.

Pauta is the oldest member of his community and hopes to do one more carving.

Pootoojoo had more he wanted to show us on Mallikjuag Island.

Like this burial site that is perhaps a thousand years old.

The skeleton inside is of an enormous man, Pootoojoo points out. There are sites in Nunavut where such large stones have been moved that anthropologists conjecture that among the peoples who once lived here might have been people who were nearly giants.

Once young men from town disturbed these sites. In fact, one young man took two skulls and kept them in his room. Shortly afterwards he committed suicide, and the elders then returned the skulls where they belong.

The stone cairns on the right are for perching your qajaq off the ground.

If you do not do this, the dogs you’ve brought with you will eat through the sealskin of your canoe.

There are many theories about the purposes of these ancient inuksuit. The word means something like made to resemble someone. They can be seen for miles, and among other things, are likely directional markers.

This inuksuk points towards northern fishing camps. A collection of inuksuit gathered together likely indicates that you have come into a particularly powerful place.

In old Inuit stories, when you pass beyond inuksuit, you have truly entered a trackless, wild world.

And it was time for us to be heading back ourselves.

Much as we wanted to linger.

Much as there was to talk…

…and brood about.

We had come at the perfect time. It hadn’t gotten cold yet. It was only zero degrees out, and the inlet hadn’t frozen.

Pootoojoo thought he had arranged for a canoe to pick us up. But no boat was appearing.

And he thought there was a chance that a blizzard could be coming in. There had been a blizzard two nights before.

We could walk back the way we had come, but the tide wouldn’t be low enough for that for three or four hours more – and it would be plenty dark by then.

Finally, a canoe entered the inlet, coming from the fishing camps further north. Pootoojoo waved a blanket to call the canoe to shore.

And soon we were crossing the inlet again, this time by canoe.

Not only had the family had a successful weekend at the fishing camp, but the next day they discovered they had also caught a beluga whale in their fishing net tethered in the inlet. There would be a feast that night.

And we were back as well.