Sheila Watt-Cloutier

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    Sheila Watt-Cloutier.

    Champion of Inuit Culture Protecting the Arctic, saving the world

     Excerpt from Jamie Bastedo’s Protectors of the Planet

    “My earliest memories are traveling by dog team with my family to go hunting and ice‐fishing. I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled. I would view the vast expanses of Arctic sky and feel the crunching of the snow and the ice below me as our dogs carried us safely across the frozen land.

    “My family was my mother, my grandmother, my two brothers, and my sister. In those days, most families lived in outpost camps outside of the community in igluvijait or igloos in the winter, and tents in the summer. We stayed a little closer to town because I was raised by single women.” 

    This unusual family make-up could have been a big challenge for Sheila, growing up in a traditional culture where most people “lived by the ways of snow and ice” and depended on an elder male hunter for food. Luckily, her mother Daisy and grandmother Jeannie — the “Watt women”— were amazingly resourceful, both on the land and in the community, serving as inspiring role models for Sheila. 

    “My family lived very traditionally, eating what we call ‘country food,’ hunting, and fishing. We traveled only by dog team. My mother and grandmother taught me traditional women’s skills, like working with animals to prepare food and clothing. My brothers always led the dog teams. At the end of each day, we would have remarkable food to eat together. We spoke nothing but Inuktitut during those first ten years. When in town, we lived in a little house that had no electricity, no running water.” 

    “That your mother built, right?” I ask. 

    “Absolutely. My mother, as a single woman, with the help of my oldest brother, was able to build our home. She was ahead of her time, for sure. Very capable, strong, and dignified. We knew that it was rare for Inuit to build their own homes, much less an Inuk woman. It spoke to my mother’s feistiness and confidence. She was determined to live independently in her own house. It was sort of matchbox-size but it was cozy. It became a place of security, comfort, and peace. So that’s my humble beginnings.” 

    “You write that your mother had a fiercely independent spirit. Do you think that rubbed off on you?” 

    Sheila Watt-Cloutier.

    “Oh, yes, there’s no doubt. It comes out in the way I live and work and think independently. I’ll always voice what I feel needs to be voiced, no matter what you think, as long as I know it’s true. That comes from my mother. My brother says I can be very stubborn, just like her.” 

    Sheila, her mother (L), and auntie (with her hand in the bucket) take a break while out berry-picking.

    “I usually ask others in this book, ‘How did your interest in nature begin?’ But in your case, Sheila, you were literally born into it!” 

    Sheila laughs. “As Inuit you are born into nature because you’re out there constantly. Nature fed and taught us every day. Everything was about the pursuit of food in nature. And so, nature meant everything to us. 

    “We had to know if the weather was good enough to travel, the condition of the ice and snow, if the animals were close enough. And it wasn’t only about eating animals, but also using their by-products, especially furs. We’d always be sewing and preparing furs to make boots or coats or whatever was needed to stay warm out there. Everything we did every day was about the animals. The land, the water, all of nature was our supermarket.” 

    “You describe in your book how hunting is so important in shaping character in young people, cultivating good qualities like patience and boldness and tenacity. Do you see that in your own growth?” 

    “Certainly that was true during the first ten years of my life, where nature and culture taught me directly. But I also witnessed their teachings in the hunters around me. For example, watching my brothers prepare the dog sled for the hunt, how meticulous and focused they had to be, to make sure everything was in the right place. All that took incredible patience to get ready for long trips to hunt caribou or go fishing. 

    “I learned the same way from my mother and grand mother — by observation. Especially how to prepare food from the land — what we call country food. This work demanded that we stay focused and patient to prepare things that literally kept us alive. Those lessons have never left me.” 

    “It sounds like hunting was absolutely critical to your education and character development as a child. How do you talk about this with southern audiences who might have problems with a hunting-based culture?” 

    “I try to get people to understand that a way of life based on harvesting animals is not a confirmation of death but an affirmation of life. It’s about life giving life. I teach that to children who have been conditioned to think the blood associated with harvesting animals is somehow awful or bad. I teach that it is, in fact, a natural and wonderful thing when life gives life. 

    “When an animal is harvested with respect, gratitude, and connection, there is this remarkable bond when I have its blood on my hands. It is very much like gardens in the south when you have soil on your hands. Whether blood from an animal or soil from the Earth, it’s all the source of life. It’s all one. 

    “That’s the picture I share — that it can be a very beautiful and joyful experience to be a hunter and really appreciate the food nature gives us. As a child, I absorbed that joy countless times. Ultimately, I learned that it was not just about feeding your body, but also feeding your soul. That is so important. 

    “Those things that touched me in my youth still connect me with my mother, my grandmother, my sister, and my aunts, all of whom have since passed away. Because we shared those experiences — harvesting, preparing, and sharing country food together—now, whenever I have my hands in animal blood, I find myself profoundly grieving their loss. But I also feel deeply connected to them because those experiences connected all of us to each other, to our culture, to nature, and to the animals that feed us physically and spiritually. 

    “And so, country foods remain a central part of where I’ve come from, who I am, and what I cherish.” 

    “Besides hunting and preparing country foods, what were other favorite activities you enjoyed as a kid?” 

    “Our family hunting and fishing trips were an important part of my early childhood, but they represented only a fraction of the time I spent outdoors. For the children of Kuujjuaq, the great northern landscape was our playground. In the summer, we explored the natural world, picking berries, looking for birds’ nests, and playing on the hillsides surrounding our town. In the winter, we would sometimes slide down those same hills on sealskins.” 

    “What kind of berries would you pick?” 

    Living “by the ways of snow and ice” on a traditional Inuit qamutiik.

    “It starts off with the aqpiks, or cloudberries, then blueberries, blackberries, and arctic cranberries. Like hunting, it’s the connection to each other that was the best part—and still is today when I do it. We’re not just out there picking berries. We’re talking, visiting, taking a break with tea and bannock. Every scoop of berries brings you back to that connection with the land, with each other, and with spirit. It literally grounds you and helps clear your head of all kinds of silly nonsense. That’s very special. And so, berry picking has always been sacred to me. It’s an amazing experience for Inuit women and children to share together. 

    “It’s those sorts of connections that I remember most from my days as a kid. Growing up in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture is a kind of magic. Those early experiences on the land shaped me completely, until I was sent away at the age of ten.” 

    Reprinted with permission from Red Deer Press. 

    TRAILBLAZER TIPS 

    Learn from Indigenous cultures 

    Learn how the deep connection Indigenous cultures still have with the natural environment gives them a unique view on the impacts of climate change and possible solutions for the wider world. 

    Get out on the land 

    In our swirling, hurting, fast-changing world, it’s all the more important to take time and get out on the land to reconnect yourself with what’s real, what’s important, and what’s possible. 

    Find the human face 

    Like Arctic climate change, there is a human face behind most environmental issues. Don’t bog down in strictly physical or scientific details. Look to the people most impacted for solutions. 

    Don’t “silo” issues 

    Issues related to health, culture, or environment can’t be “siloed” or looked at in isolation if we want to rise above them. They should be understood and tackled as an interconnected whole. 

    Tell people what you’re for 

    I have always engaged in the politics of influence rather than the politics of protest. I will march for something but not against. Act in ways that bring people together, not split them apart. 

    Find your voice 

    Don’t let any institution or politics unfairly restrict your thoughts, words, or actions. Find your independent voice and use it freely to express what you feel is true and needs to be voiced. 

    Lead from love, not fear 

    When faced with seemingly impossible obstacles, don’t give up. Beware of the paralyzing power of fear. Find strength in the long-term value of your work and the loving connections it builds. 

    Don’t “other one another” 

    When it comes to climate change, it’s too easy to “other one another” and think it’s somebody else’s problem. Whether living in the north or south, it’s a shared challenge for us all to work on. 

    Learn what you can give 

    I never tell young people exactly what to do. It’s different for everyone, yet we all have something to offer. Learn what you can give. Your own wisdom will kick in and the right action will follow. 

    Reprinted with permission from Red Deer Press. 

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