So for thousands of years, the iglu has been an essential home in the Arctic. In fact, the importance of this skill has been passed down through the generations and we are reminded of it when Nunavut’s Education Minister Paul Aarulaaq Quassa explains in We Need to Know Who We Are, “that’s what they used to say, that you had to know how to build an igloo first before you get married.”
Remarkably, it was not too long ago that Inuit were still born in an iglu, as was Paul Quassa and Kugluktuk’s Wildlife Officer Allen Niptanatiak. So it is no surprise that students at Kugluktuk High School (KHS) have been inspired to rediscover the snow house.
Our goal was to rediscover the art of iglu building and recreate the ultimate Inuit metaphor of collaboration. In the winter of 2014, Elder Charlie Bolt led us to the eastern end of our runway. Under his playful guidance we erected our first snow house. For recent graduate Kevin Ongahak, this was his first time. Imagine if building an iglu was also a requirement for graduation; we would be better prepared for winter camping and marriage!
A year later, in the winter of 2015, we began again, but this time we headed north onto the sea ice. Guide Jorgen Bolt (son of Charlie) found a suitable location below the cliffs of 5 Mile Island where the harsh Arctic winds pack the snow into solid drifts. Jorgen chooses the snow carefully; consistent firmness through its thickness is critical. The blade of the pana must slide with a constant resistance down into the drift; this way we know the blocks will be strong without any weak layers.
The magic begins. Blocks are cut from the drift: first the length, then both sides and then the bottom. While on our knees we lean with our forearms applying weight and rocking the block forward; most blocks feel surprisingly heavy. Watching the faces of people as they lift their first block is memorable. How can snow be this heavy? The wind packed drifts are a clue to its’ density.
As the first row of blocks is laid and the slope is cut, we intuitively know that this is both a mathematical puzzle and magic in the making. Each vertical edge is connected to the
centre by an imaginary radial line; each horizontal plane also leads to the same point at the centre of the semi-sphere.
The spiral works its way skyward, dizzying the block layer. There is a sense that something much greater than the sum of any individual block being tapped together is being created. The process humbles us and we are in awe at the result as the dome closes, seeming to defy gravity. The winter home has been recreated.
As Eva Otokiak from Cambridge Bay notes in the book, Birth on the Land “living in an iglu was the most memorable because that was a shelter for us to live in, to sleep in, to eat
in, to celebrate with family and friends”.
This sense of home probably explains why there is often a genuine innate interest in this humbling ancient process. The igloo meant survival in the most unforgiving Arctic environment and the youth seem to sense they are involved in something ancestral, something deeply meaningful: active Inuit wisdom.