By Anick-Marie – she has co-written a Lonely Planet guide on alternative travel techniques to be published this summer (in French). She volunteered several years for CouchSurfing.org and presented on Travelling Alone as a Woman at the RoadJunky Film Festival in Berlin. She keeps a blog, also in French, covering all types of hitchhiking (cars, boats, planes and trains), dumpster diving and other alternative means of living on the road. She’s been living a semi-nomadic lifestyle for over 9 years now and doesn’t plan to stop soon.
Nomadic nordic peoples have for a long time fascinated the “civilized world”, as we can’t seem to get our heads around a few things. First, how can they survive in such a harsh climatic and geologic environment ? And the second, past survival, how can they develop a thriving culture ? I was dazzled myself by the richness of their traditional knowledge, and in the spirit of curiosity and openness I soon discovered Canada’s inuit people. (singular=Inuk, plural=Inuit) while living in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit.
Canada’s inuit people are grouped under a cultural entity called Inuit Nunaat, itself divided in four political division with distinct statuses and rights.
The Territory of Nunavut (created in 1999) is the most autonomous inuit area, with the land officially belonging to all native beneficiaries of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement. Its government is trying hard to make the best of all these political opportunities, although there is much criticism over how effective it is in tackling social issues. Next on the autonomy scale is its younger brother Nunatsiavut (created in 2005), an autonomous region within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Although in this case the land doesn’t belong to the local Inuit, they are granted special rights over it and have implemented a form of self-government
The Nunavik region of Quebec’s province did try to gain more autonomy in 2011, but its resident rejected that option by referendum, probably because the current institutions were not trusted to ensure a proper transition and efficient management of the area. Finally, the Inuvialuit area is part of the Northwest Territories and its residents are also entitled to certain special rights.
Canadian inuit have had a chance over other native groups : their remoteness and the harshness of their environment preserved them from an early invasion by white settlers. This is not to say that they were not aware of white people : the romantic image of a blissful pre-contact state emerges more from the white discoverer’s fantasies since there are early traces of interaction not only with their native neighbors, but also with European whalers as early as the mid-16th century.
Traditionally, inuit are hunters and gatherers. Their lifestyle follows the cycle of the six seasons, each an ideal time for hunting certain species, due not only to migration patterns, but to the quality of the fur, thickness of the fat, reproductive capacity, etc. Depending on their geographical location, their targets are whale (especially bowhead and beluga), walrus, seal, caribou, polar bear, muskox, as well as various species of fish and birds. In the absence of woodland in a major part of their territory, it is notable that inuit would use bones, tendons and fur for most of their technological needs. Although they sometimes found driftwood.
Nowadays, hunting is often done using guns, although many traditional inuit tools are still in use : kakivak spear for fishing, ulu knife for cleaning the skins, igimak and unaaqharpoons, etc. In summer, inuit complement their diet by gathering berries of the tundra such as crowberry, cloudberry (also known as bakeapple), cranberrry and blueberry. Although they nowadays have access to a wide variety of Western foods, their high cost and dubious freshness makes them unreliable, and it is traditional country food that still ensures food security in most communities.
Most inuit can be proud of speaking one of the very few native languages not to be facing a direct threat of extinction. Inuktitut is an official language of Nunavut and this ensures its teaching in schools. At the current time, it is possible for an Iqalummiut (resident of Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital) to go through elementary and middle school completely in Inuktitut, along with a functional learning of the English language. Some inuit dialects are still endangered, such as Innuinaqtun, although it is also an offical language of the territory.
This is a big improvement compared to the former Residential Schools system that prohibited any native language from being spoken by the pupils, aiming at turning all native children into “proper Canadians”. Current policies are now reverting the damages that over 50 years of cultural genocide have done to the language and the community, disconnecting more than a “generation” from its cultural roots. Many claim that this is now the reason, along with forced sedentarization, why inuits are facing so many serious social issues. The new generations are now faced with both the challenge of defining their identity in a changing global world, buth also recovering from a link almost severed with their past.
Despite these issues and challenges, the inuit are famous for their contemporary cultural flavour and acheivements. Famous throughout the world are their soapstone, serpentine and walrus ivory sculptures. Cape Dorset, on southern Baffin Island, is now famous for making high quality prints.
For their inner music market, inuit mix celtic riffs with country music sung in Inuktitut, but inuit are world famous for their skillful throatsinging, often presented as a women’s duel. Nowadays, artists such as Tanya Tagaq work with musicians from different cultural background to mix together amazing sounds and styles.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, inuit culture was featured (sometimes even without their consent/approval), from the inukshuk Olympic Games logo to drum dancing, throat singing and contemporary dance performances. The community of Igloolik is today a nevralgic point of modern inuit culture, home of Isuma Productions (making movies with world-famous director Zacharias Kunuk) and Artcirq, Nunavut’s own circus. Indeed, inuit culture is still thriving!