Recently I had the opportunity to take part in some Inuit culture traditions. Through a program called CONNECTIONS, attended through the school I work at, I was able to go out to see what the program was all about and the day I went was devoted to Canada’s first peoples: First Nations, Metis, Inuit. Zinour Fathoullin (pictured leading drumming and dancing below) lead us in several different Inuit arts. We learned how to drum using a Qilauti (a traditional Inuit drum). We learned how to dance some Inuit dances, including a walrus (where you lay on your back, fling your feet over your left shoulder, lay on your stomach, flip over, and start again). The dancing and the drumming allowed me to understand a lot more about Inuit culture. Seeing Inuit culture and traditions together allowed me to have a better appreciation for those who live up North. When I came home, I stumbled upon this fabulous video from the North West Territories with video and interviews.
At this same presentation, Zinour Fathoullin got the students throat singing. I had already heard throat singing because of Tanya Tagaq coming onto my music radar during the Canadian Polaris Music prize. I found it so interesting to learn the history behind the singing: throat singing was a competition between women to see who could come up with the most animal noises. Also, Zinour shared with the students an ajai jaa (a personal song or chant that tells a person’s life story). As he sang, he drummed and danced and it was so powerful and beautiful.
While leaving school for Spring Break, I came across Jamie Bastedo’s book On Thin Ice at the school library and I knew I had to read it. Bastedo is, according to his publishing company, a biologist turned story teller. The novel centres around a teenager, Ashley, who lives in Canada’s North, and is the daughter of an Inuit man and a French/Irish mother. Bastedo’s novel tells the story of Ashley’s vivid dreams about polar bears, her artistic ability to draw polar bears, the polar bear hunts of her community, and the magical and mysterious connection she has to the polar bear. From the perspective of Ashley’s dream journal, the story of her every day life, and the perspective of a mystical polar bear, readers are able to get an amazing glimpse into a culture that is both beautiful and powerful.
Throughout the novel, Ashley is both terrified and memorized by the polar bear. Her dreams turn from nightmares into something more mystic and magical, leading her to develop a new relationships with her mysterious Great Uncle Jonah. As she dreams, she draws her visions of the polar bears and becomes known in the community for her art work. In fact, at the end of the novel, she is honored and respected by her community as they recognize the power of her artwork. She learned that her Great Uncle Jonah has carved several polar bears from the soap stone found under their town. She learns that her father is a gifted polar bear hunter. She learns that her Aana (Grandmother) is able to interpret her drawings. Ashley also finds meaning, healing, and belonging as she learns to drum, sing, and dance. At the end of the novel she realizes the importance of the stories and traditions of those who came before her and she allows herself to take on a role that at first, seems to not fit. At the beginning of the novel her mother and Aana find an old, fur, patchwork coat in the dump and continue to patch it and add on to it until at the end, the coat represents who she is: a mix-match of blood, generations, and cultures.
Overall, I loved Bastedo’s novel. I found the stories of the changing climate and its affect on the land (permafrost melting), the ice (the ice becoming unpredictable), and the animals (the seals and polar bears running out of traditional habitats) disturbing and I realize the passion with which Bastedo writes. He shows the dangers and the unpredictability of the future, yet he also ends with hope. He ends with the new generation of Inuits taking over from their elders and being able to blend science/technology and tradition in a way that celebrates and continues an ancient culture.
As with many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit tribes/nations, the hope rests in the people and in the youth.
“And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
“For the first time visitor to the north, these first impressions imply that Inuit have thoroughly embraced the benefits of modern life. This is true but it is important to note that in doing so they have not left their complex and ancient culture behind.” (http://www.uqar.ca/files/boreas/inuitway_e.pdf)