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Text and photos by Lee Narraway

This year I was in Iqaluit for the festivities. The Celebration of the Seal was held out at Sylvia Grinnel Park and many people had dressed up in sealskin for the event. The beauty and practicality of their clothing was enhanced by the intricate sewing and varied styles of parkas, mitts and kamiit (boots) on parade. There was a biting wind that evening and I was envious of the windproof quality and warmth of their sealskins.

The hunters stood in a ragged line, overlooking the frozen river. They aimed their wooden guns and with a shouted, “Kerpow!” …shot the seal and dragged it up the slope. They cheered as a young girl used a cardboard ulu to “cut” up the toy seal and then all knelt on the ground and happily pretended they were eating it. This performance by young preschool students was a celebration of their culture and also an important reminder of Inuit traditions: hunting to provide both food and clothing, sharing with others and the sense of accomplishment, self esteem and joy in a successful hunt.

As a final tribute to the seal, we shared in a feast of fresh seal meat, barbecued seal, char soup, seal stew and bannock.

One of the highlights of Aboriginal Day was the concert held at the Winter Games Arena and broadcast nationally on Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN).

I spent the day before the actual concert watching and photographing some of the performers as they rehearsed. A backup group of teenaged girls synchronized their drum dancing to the rocking rhythms of Sinuupa. It was hard to sit still as his dance music filled the arena and easy to see why a CD from this singer-songwriter Edward (Etua) Snowball was voted Best Rock CD by the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards in 2012.

Saali, an Inuk singer-songwriter, blended his beautiful voice together with the steady rhythmic throat singing of Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory into a poignant melody. In another song, he creatively incorporated a Jew’s harp, one of the oldest instruments in the world.

When Leela Gilday began her rehearsal, her powerful voice and vibrant energetic performance made it obvious why this talented Dene singer-songwriter is so popular.

In between acts, I snooped behind the scenes to check things out. It had taken over a year to plan this three-and-a-half hour event and the logistics required to put on a show of this magnitude were astounding. A million dollars worth of equipment had been shipped up by First Air from Winnipeg. It took 14 truckloads to move the 30 thousand pounds of gear from the First Air cargo to the arena. Then a crew of 40 people
worked for five days to get everything set up.

At last, it was the summer solstice and the long awaited concert would begin. The town had been buzzing for days. All the free tickets to Aboriginal Day Live had been claimed from the local stores yet still more people were trying to find a way to see the show.

Out at the arena, the crowds turned up early to enjoy a free barbecue sponsored by the RCMP. When the doors were finally opened, they poured in. Seats rapidly filled, children ran and shrieked and laughed and adults visited with friends.

Co-hosts Madeleine Allakariallak of Iqaluit and Don Kelly, a star of the APTN series Fish Out of Water opened the show. Kelly explained how the evening would proceed. Because the show was being simultaneously blended with another Aboriginal concert held in Winnipeg, there would be down times when the cameras would not be on us. There was no need to encourage this audience to respond when we were at last on air… the cheers nearly raised the roof. And then the show began.

The Inuk stood in the middle of the stage, staring straight ahead. A young woman walked out and slowly climbed up to stand on his shoulders, then triumphantly raised her arms high. No one made a sound as she bent low and carefully placed each hand precisely in the middle of his palms, then rested all her weight there and bit by bit unfurled her body into a perfect handstand. The audience went wild. Artcirq continued its tradition of top notch entertainment with a blend of juggling acts, acrobatics, comedy and circus arts that combined traditional and Inuit performance styles.

As musician Nelson Tagoona sang, Mathew Nuqingaq drum danced to the music, his body swaying slowly back and forth. Then Tagoona took hold of the mike and began his popular vocal percussion, a catchy blend of throat singing and hip hop style beat boxing that has become his trademark and gained the quirky name of throat boxing. The throbbing beat was infectious.

For the last seven years, APTN has sponsored an Aboriginal Day flag competition. This gives young aboriginals from across Canada a chance to share their vision and pride in their heritage and culture. This year, Jocelyn Arreak from Igloolik created a vibrant flag that included many elements from the Inuit culture and way of life including northern lights, qulliq (seal oil lamp), qamutik (sled), caribou, igloo, polar bear and seal. Her flag was bright and beautiful and her poise and confidence while being interviewed on national television was remarkable.

Saina delivered a unique act that was based on music from the elders of rural Yakutia in northern Russia. Her haunting melodies and graceful dance movements allowed the audience to comprehend the story without understanding the language. Her performance was unforgettable.

Seasoned entertainer Susan Aglukark invited over 40 young children onto the stage for her opening number. Dressed in matching amautiit, they solemnly stood and looked out at the audience. Cell phones and cameras clicked madly as they began to sing with the star. It was certainly a crowd-pleaser. Aglukark, a celebrated singer-songwriter and one of Nunavut’s best-known performers, closed out the evening with a polished performance.

I wandered home after the concert, humming an Inuktitut tune, interspersed with my own rather pathetic version of throatboxing. As I approached the rise of the hill, I came to a sudden, breathless stop. There, spread before me was the Super Moon rising over Frobisher Bay. Although the scientific explanation for this extra large, full moon is that the moon has just reached its nearest point to the earth… I prefer to think that it was there only to provide the perfect final touch for the celebration of Aboriginal Day in Iqaluit.