Feature - Issue #10
Forced off their land and bearing the brunt of climate change, Inuit people are fighting to maintain their cultural traditions.
This feature from Where the Leaves Fall #10 has been selected for Saving Seed - an OmVed Gardens exhibition. #SavingSeedByOmVed
In 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. This is 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. 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. 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.
Children playing in a swimming hole, Ungava Bay, in the summer of 1960. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010836009.
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 humankind and nature is in the traditional Inuit view both foreign and dangerous. 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 symbolised in our traditional dwellings of the past: illuvigait (snow houses) in winter and tupiit (sealskin tents) in summer.
But from the moment that Europeans first came into contact with my Inuit ancestors on the south shore of Ungava Bay just over 200 years ago, our essential oneness with the natural world was challenged and would eventually change forever. 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 icefilled summer seas, was seen as a sort of adversary to be heroically conquered in Europe’s futile efforts to find a northwest 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.
A group of women and girls walking outside in Ungava Bay, in the summer of 1960. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010835780.
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. 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.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier wrapped in her mother’s shawl. Courtesy Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
Inuit family, with settlement in background, Pond Inlet, on northern Baffin Island, c. 1945-1946. Library and Archives Canada/Arthur H. Tweedle fonds/a186229.
In the beginning we came to view this new relationship with the Qallunaat world as essentially balanced and sustainable. 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. But this way of life would not last forever. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Canadian government suddenly took an interest in “its territories” in the far north. 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, this 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 subsidised housing. Along with the provision of health services, these seemingly positive enticements were difficult to resist. Nowadays we recognise these offerings as coercive, though strangely packaged in well-meaning wrappings.
Group of Inuit children picking berries, 1956. Library and Archives Canada/Alex Jerry Saley fonds/e011313644
Outside the Hudson’s Bay Company post, Eastern Arctic, between 1956-1960. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada. Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010836050
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.
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.
This New Hudson’s Bay Co. store was built in 1949. Here William Joss is shown issuing Family Allowances to a group of Inuit, Read Island, Nunavut, 1950. Library and Archives Canada/Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds/a167672
An Inuit catch of white fox, Aklavik, Northwest Territories. Library and Archives Canada/Royal Canadian Mounted Police fonds/e006581074
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 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. 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.
I have an early memory that brought all these strands together, underscoring our essential place within nature that I didn’t fully understand 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 socialised 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.
Man carrying fox pelts, Cape Dorset, Nunavut, between June-September 1960. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada. Library and Archives Canada/Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds/e010975435
Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s family, including her mother, grandmother, siblings, aunt and her son. Courtesy Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
Despite the extensive damage done to Inuit society and culture when we moved from the land into the villages, there is, in most of these settlements, an essential core of families instinctively committed to maintaining our traditions. In a real and substantial sense such Inuit keep the vital flame of our culture alive. They are an irreplaceable resource, in both practical and intellectual ways, and they need and deserve every possible means of support.
But beyond the challenges this already vulnerable way of being endures, in the face of the Arctic’s rapidly increasing urbanisation (and globalisation), there is another imminent threat - no less insidious - that, unless checked, will end forever our unique attachment to the land and its life-giving resources: climate change.
Nowhere else in the world are ice and snow so essential to transportation and mobility. And yet the snow and ice coverings over which we access our traditional foods are becoming more and more unreliable and therefore unsafe, leaving our hunters more prone than ever to breaking through unexpectedly thin ice or being swept out to sea when the floe-ice platform on which they are hunting breaks off from the land-fast ice. Additionally, climate change is affecting the migration patterns and routes of the animals we rely upon. This means that our hunters have to travel further, often over unsafe and unfamiliar trails, to access our country food.
We are constantly reminded that making any significant efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions will negatively impact the economy. But I truly believe that we must reframe the terms of the debate to emphasise human and cultural rights. Focusing only on economics and technology separates the issues from one another as opposed to recognising the close connections among rights, environmental change, health, economic development and society.
Everyone benefits from a frozen Arctic. The future of the Arctic environment, and the Inuit it supports, is inextricably tied to the future of the planet. Our Arctic home is a barometer of the planet’s health: if we cannot save the Arctic, can we really hope to save the forests, the rivers and the farmlands of other regions?
So my message to you is: look to, listen to and support morally, respectfully, openly and, yes, financially, the Inuit world, the Indigenous world, which from a place of deep love for its culture and traditions is fighting for the protection of a sustainable way of life. Not just for its peoples themselves, but for all of us. Heed and support those voices and their aspirations. We will help guide you as we navigate through these precarious situations together. Don’t be on a mission to save us: this is not what we want or need. But in equal partnership, with an understanding of our common humanity, we can do this together.
This text is extracted from the essay, Arctic Spring, as published in This Book is a Plant - How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World, published by Profile Books.
An Inuit woman and three children with the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Pangnirtung in the background, July 1951. Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/e005477210.
No Word for Nature