Inuit Culture in Transition | From the Arctic to Timbuktu


ArtCirq, a troupe of Inuit circus performers, has traveled to Mexico, Africa, and Ireland. (Photo ©ArtCirq)

Sonia Gunderson, a resident of Fairfield, is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Igloolik, Nunavut, in Canada’s High Eastern Arctic, writing a book about the community’s cultural preservation initiatives. This is the third installment of a three-part series. The first article, in the December/January issue, focused on the checkered history of research in the North. The second article explored Inuit perspectives on climate change.

Inuit hunter Terry Uyarak never imagined he would ride a camel in the African desert.  In fact, his native language of Inuktitut has no word for camel. But that didn’t stop the 21-year-old and nine other members of ArtCirq, Igloolik’s exuberant circus troupe, from mounting the beasts and ambling alongside Tuareq nomads through the Malian desert after their recent performance at the Festival au Desert near Timbuktu.

To reach Timbuktu—yes, such a place does exist—the group took six flights.  Then they rode three hours by jeep to Essakane, the site of the festival.  There, they camped in tents, performed their own show and improvised with other acts on- and off-stage. On their way home, they appeared in Bamako, Mali, and more familiar territory—Ottawa and Cambridge Bay.

Nursing a nasty cold, Uyarak sips tea as he tells me about his recent trip. “It was 50° below [-58° F] when we left home in January, and 50° above [122° F] when we arrived in Africa,” he chuckles, adjusting the collar of a hand-embroidered black cotton shirt he bought at a street market in Morocco. “It was a real culture shock. Thousands of people in turbans were lined up, staring at us. They thought we were Japanese and kept saying arigato [thank you].”

Guillaume Saladin, a circus performer from Montreal, founded ArtCirq in 1998 to stem the alarming tide of teen suicides in Igloolik. Since then, the group has performed in Canada, Ireland, Mexico, and now Africa. Later this year, they will travel to France and Switzerland.

Uyarak, a musician and actor with ArtCirq, adapted quickly to Mali’s heat, sand, mosquitoes, and unfamiliar food. “I never ate goat or couscous before,” he says, grinning. Despite their obvious differences, he and the rest of the troupe soon found common ground with Timbuktu’s native Taureq. “They were nomadic and, like us, used the stars to travel at night,” Uyarak says. “Their elders passed on knowledge to the next generation through stories. And they’ve had to deal with the impact of modern society.”

20th Century Cultural Upheaval

Uyarak is all too familiar with the impact of modern society. His ancestors, like other Canadian Inuit, were semi-nomadic hunters for more than 4,000 years, living in small family groups in seasonal camps where they hunted caribou, whales, walrus, seals, fish, and other wildlife. Their survival in one of earth’s most demanding environments depended on their resourcefulness, adaptability, attunement with their surroundings, and values such as cooperation and sharing.

While Inuit had occasional contact with whalers and explorers prior to the 20th century, by the 1920s their contact with outsiders increased as missionaries, traders, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police settled in the Arctic. After WWII, northern development mushroomed. That intensified pressures on Inuit to move into settlements and adopt mainstream Canadian values and systems—educational, economic, political, justice, and health.

In the mid-1960s, Uyarak’s parents and grandparents, along with Inuit throughout the Arctic, began to move off the land and into settlements—the cultural equivalent of relocating permanently to Timbuktu. Since that time, Inuit have experienced tumultuous upheaval as they have attempted to adapt to a wage economy, alien mindsets, and institutions. But whether the culture is dying or transforming remains a matter of some debate, even in Igloolik, a community renowned for its cultural preservation initiatives.

Leah Otak, manager of Igloolik’s Oral History Project—one such preservation initiative—recalls, “When we moved into the settlement, we suddenly had wrong leaders, people who were not experienced. That’s where we took a sharp turn. Suddenly you didn’t have elders running things. You had organizations running things, and they weren’t cultural organizations.”

Some organizations, such as residential schools and day schools, encouraged assimilation by deliberately suppressing Inuit culture. In the 1950s and 1960s, children were taken from their families and sent to church-run residential schools, where they were assigned Christian names and prevented from speaking Inuktitut, wearing traditional clothing, or maintaining Inuit customs.

“It must have been terrible [for families] to have these lovely children around and then, one day, they’re gone,” Otak says. “All the children are gone. All of their laughter, everything.”

The traumas of cultural displacement, abuse, and the loss of a self-sustaining lifestyle have trickled down through succeeding generations, with consequences that mirror the dismal trajectory of colonized aboriginals throughout the world.

Today, three out of four students in Nunavut drop out of school by grade 12. The territory has soaring rates of poverty, overcrowding, unemployment, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, domestic abuse, and suicide. It has the highest incidence of childhood respiratory disease in the world. Job opportunities are scarce, as is the training required to fill them. Most residents receive welfare and live in public housing.

Many remember how life was before. “Elders used to say life was easier when we were in camps, because we were in control,” Otak says. “We didn’t have to worry about paying bills and courts. We didn’t have alcohol or anything that disturbs people now.”

Most residents agree that Igloolik’s problems stem from the community’s loss of cultural identity. Various efforts have been made to strengthen cultural roots locally and regionally. Locally, the community voted to ban the introduction of satellite television until 1983—long after other settlements had adopted TV—choosing to wait for Inuktiitut programming, which the Inuit Broadcasting Company and, more recently, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, have provided. “Language is always our big concern,” says Paul Quassa, mayor of Igloolik. “Without that, our culture cannot be strong.”

Regionally, in 1999 Inuit celebrated the fulfillment of a long-held dream—the establishment of Nunavut. Formerly part of the Northwest Territories, the new Inuit-controlled territory oversees the interests of 29,000 Inuit—less than half the population of Iowa City—who live in communities scattered across a landmass the size of western Europe. Modeled after Canada’s provinces, Nunavut’s government includes a premier, ministries, and a legislative assembly. So far, the young government has floundered, sometimes spectacularly, failing to address the pressing concerns of Inuit. New elections will take place sometime within the next year.

Meanwhile, Nunavut’s shifting demographics reveal sobering truths. Canada’s 2006 census lists the median age of Igloolik’s 1500 residents as 18 (versus 20 for Nunavut). Only 25 elders age 65 and older (versus 705 for all of Nunavut)—those who lived on the land and have the most knowledge of traditional culture and the environment—remain.  One-fifth of Canadian Inuit have moved to Ottawa and other locations in southern Canada.

To keep the culture intact, Igloolik and other communities have launched a handful of initiatives to preserve traditional knowledge and enliven Inuit identity in the modern world.

Cultural Preservation Initiatives

Over the years, Igloolik has been called the “hub” of Inuit culture. Since 1986, Igloolik Research Centre’s Oral History Project has compiled the most extensive repository of Inuit oral histories in the world. The collection has served as an invaluable resource for the community and international researchers. The Inullariit Elders Society conducts cultural programs and land-based workshops for the community. Igloolik Isuma Productions, headed by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, has produced award-winning feature films such as Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner and shorter videos on pre-settlement Inuit traditions and contemporary Inuit life. Piqqusilirivvik, Nunavut’s proposed cultural school, also looms on the horizon, with a satellite campus planned for Igloolik.

Since 2005, I’ve traveled to Igloolik several times on assignment to write articles about each of these organizations. This year I’m taking a broader look at Igloolik’s cultural initiatives, exploring their impact on the local community and their potential to serve as models for other Inuit settlements.

Living in Igloolik for nine months, I am faced with daily reminders of the community’s ongoing social and cultural trauma. It seems to me that almost everyone is in crisis—either directly, or through their extended, close-knit families. Apart from the compassion I feel for individuals and families, I wonder if I am witnessing the death throes of Inuit culture, or just another in a long series of cultural adaptations.

“It’s an adaptation,” says Mayor Quassa. “Certainly, a lot of outside influence is in our communities, but it’s just a matter of managing it, and using it to make sure our culture is alive and well.”

If there is reason to be hopeful about the future of Inuit, it’s because of young people like Terry Uyarak, who manages his complex world with quiet confidence and grace.  Besides performing with ArtCirq, he is an outstanding hunter and hockey player.  Combining the best of the old and the new, he steers clear of Igloolik’s dark side and serves as a positive role model for the community’s youth. He has what Leah Otak calls “the heart of an Inuk.”

“It feels so good to be home,” Uyarak says, two days after returning from Africa. “Trips like Timbuktu open my mind so much. I get a world vision. I’m more aware of my own culture than ever before. And I want to help the youth here realize their own culture. It’s a choice we make every moment. It’s all ours, not anyone else’s.” 

Read Sonia’s other articles: Legendary Masters of the Arctic, Inuit Perspectives on Climate Change.


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