Home Arts, Culture & Education Education Preserving a disappearing culture through words

Preserving a disappearing culture through words

Hallendy with friend and mentor of 42 years, Simeonie Quppapik. Courtesy of Norman Hallendy

“I’ll show you something really stunning. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.” Norman Hallendy types inua into his computer. Within seconds a list of words and expressions file down the left side of his screen – 378 references to inua, an Inuktitut word for life force.

He then types ‘shaman.’ The database comes up with 569 records for shaman. This is Hallendy’s Inuktitut Language Semantic Field.1 It contains 1,543 words, with five searchable fields in English or Inuktitut. The database has been compiled over 20 years from the collection of words and expressions that Hallendy learned from the elders of South Baffin, living mainly in the Kinngait/Cape Dorset area. The 84-year-old first visited Kinngait in 1958 and developed close friendships with the people who live there. He became familiar with Inuktitut, travelling and visiting the elders in their homes in the community and out at their camps on the land. He became fascinated with the meaning of places and things embodied in Inuktitut words.

“All the elders I knew when I went to the Arctic in the early 1960s are dead. With their dying, died many words and experiences,” says Hallendy. “These are the words, and thoughts that shaped, as elders would say, taututtara avatinniituq – ‘reality, how I experience everything around me’.”

Hallendy with Osuitok Ipeelie, his mentor of 40 years. Courtesy of Norman Hallendy

Hallendy recognized that the elders’ words often contained the essence of what they described. Their words were part of the knowledge of a way of life on the land that was disappearing. Their words were incredible cultural insights into the framework of how the old people thought. Hallendy says he saw these words as artifacts, and began to collect them.

During the Inuit Language Commission held in Inukjuak in May 1984, Elder Davidee Niviaxie said, “The most urgent thing where action must be taken immediately is to save our disappearing language.” Niviaxie went on to say that 1,034 words were no longer used in everyday language because they didn’t describe the contemporary reality of people’s daily life, and had disappeared.

At work entering lists of archaic words and expressions into his semantic field database. Courtesy of Norman Hallendy

Like Niviaxie, Hallendy realized how important these vanishing words are. With assistance from several young women in Cape Dorset and other communities, Hallendy recorded the words and expressions the elders used to describe the world around them. The women transcribed the words in Inuktitut and English, using the Roman alphabet and syllabics. Hallendy input this information into his database, which has become an in-depth Inuktitut semantic field.

“It’s unique,” says Dr. William Fitzhugh, Curator of Archaeology and Director of the Arctic Studies Center, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, about Hallendy’s semantic field. “No one else has gathered this kind of data.” He says, “Ethno­logists, going back to Franz Boas2 didn’t collect this stuff. Norman did a great service by recording those things, the names of sites and so forth, and mapping them over the landscape.”

One of the important aspects of what Hallendy learned through the elders was about the Inuksuit (Inukshuk — singular), now considered icons of the North that were built around the south Baffin region. From the elders, he gleaned an understanding of what they meant, what they were built for, and how they were used.

Hallendy with his early interpreter, Leetia Parr, 1970. Courtesy of Norman Hallendy

Fitzhugh says, “With the Inuksuit, archaeologists said, ‘maybe they’re markers or directional pieces.’ But nobody asked or bothered to find out. The archaeologists were running around looking for tools or settlements.” By talking to the Inuit about these mysterious rock structures, Fitzhugh says Hallendy reveals the importance of the language and is a “pioneer” in an area that no one else had bothered to explore.

Hallendy calls it invisible archaeology.

“How can you look at Inuksuit, stones set in formation, and understand them? You can’t know what they were for if you don’t know the language,” says Hallendy. His learning the Inuktitut language intimately was key to understanding the Inuit elders’ culture.

An Intimate Wilderness: Arctic Voices in a Land of Vast Horizons, Hallendy’s latest book is a memoir of his travels North, and a tribute to the elders whose words and knowledge he has immortalized in his semantic field.

Season Osborne