Elders Welcome Celebratory Feast
November/December 2011 by Norman Hallendy
Among the various expressions of welcome to feasts, games and gatherings, tunngasugitti (pl) is not only an expression of welcome, it is also an expression of praise and respect. It is a fitting welcome to those who come from faraway to join in a celebration. Somewhere throughout the communities in Canada’s Arctic a celebration may be taking place this very moment.
Festivities range from celebrating the return of the sun in mid January to the winter games played at Christmas. Feasts are an essential part of most celebrations and continue to be communal efforts of both men and women. Even children play a part in the preparations and are included in the festivities.
The word for a celebration in Inuktitut is Nalliuniqsiurniq. An ancient celebration would be expressed as Uvatsiarualuk nalliuniqsiurniviniq. Both expressions are in Kinngarmiutitut, the Cape Dorset (South Baffin) dialect. If one were to ask an Elder as to when the tradition of celebrations first began, the answer might well be, tuniqtaqaliqtillugu, the time of the earliest humans, the Tunniit.
There are ancient places throughout the Arctic, which were revered as the sites of important communal activities including games, feasts and celebrations such as Tivajuut, which was a feast and celebration of life. Such festivities played an important role in the social lives of people living in various camps in a particular region. Two such places in the Sikusiilaq (Foxe Peninsula) region are Igaqjuaq and Akitsiraqvik where to this day lush carpets of vegetation are nourished by the remains of feasts that took place decades ago.
Re-established in 1992, recent Elders’ celebrations were like movable feasts. Air travel made it possible for them to gather in places of their choosing throughout Nunavut and Nunavik. Just such a gathering of over 150 Elders took place in Kinngait (Cape Dorset) during the week of August 15, 2011.
They came from Iqaluit, Kimmirut, Coral Harbour, Repulse Bay, Puvirnituq, Inukjuak, Kuujjuaq, Kangirsuk, Kinngait, even the quaint little southern village named Carp, (just west of Ottawa). Relatives and friends enthusiastically greeted the arrival of Elders from Nunavut and Nunavik at the little airport in Dorset, giving one the sense of a great family coming together. Everyone was whisked off on anything that had wheels to someone’s home where they lived for the time they were in Dorset. Each day they would gather in the gymnasium of Sam Pudlat School where the indoor events were held for the next five days.
Every day began with the coordinators from the various communities meeting to determine the day’s activities and make adjustments as necessary to the program. The opening ceremony began with a prayer of thanks for the safe arrival of all who were gathered. The host then addressed all of us with a question: “Is there anything that anyone wishes to say to us now?”
Anyone there, should they so choose, had the opportunity to stand before all those gathered there to state whatever was on their mind. Then the granting of permission followed. “Anyone now has the permission to ask any person here, any question they have on their mind.”
These two simple acts are very meaningful. First it allowed any individual, regardless of age or social standing, to have their say in the presence of the gathering. Second, it allowed every individual regardless of age to ask any Elder a question. Keep in mind that there was a time when it was improper to question an Elder without his or her permission.
Having observed these traditions and listened to the words of Dorset’s Mayor Cary Merritt and MLA Fred Schell, the various community groups were then summoned to present themselves. The crowd loudly cheered as each group stood up. Added to this enthusiastic recognition was a group of youngsters who were delighted by the attention given them. Individuals from Kinngait, particularly those who worked hard to organize this gathering of over 150 Elders from eight different communities, were asked to stand and be congratulated by all. They included: Annie Manning Lampron, Qupirrrualuk Palluq, Arnasuk Qaqjuraaqjuk, Eqalluq Qatsiya, Simigak Suvega, and Zeke Ejetsiaq.
An outsider might think that a gathering of a huge group of Elders in the latter years of their life, some assisted with walkers, canes or wheelchairs, might be a little quiet, somewhat laid back, if not entirely languid. I’ve got news. It was a great happening of performances, story telling, games, craft fair, fashion show, and, of course, feasting.
A craft sale was held where beautifully crafted jewellery, headgear, ulus, boots and gloves as well as seal and wolf pelts were on display. So were food delights such as mouthwatering cloudberries and delicious bannock. The tables were laden not with trinkets from the south but with a wide assortment of handicrafts of quality and style made in the homes of the Elders.
Another important event was the cause of joy and laughter. Comedy and fun at celebrations are as old as any Elder can remember. The tradition of comedy was referred to as Ijuqsaartuq. There were the duelling songs as well as short plays with silly themes usually poking good-natured fun at some event or person. The performances were often the creation of an imaginative person with an extravagant sense of humour. There was no serious ridicule, just an abundance of fun causing people to laugh and shout remarks to the performers. Five Elders dressed in “The World’s Smallest Clothing” delivered the most hilarious performance at the celebration. They paraded in front of over a hundred Elders often gasping for their breath between bouts of uncontrollable laughter.
There was of course throat singing by two Elders, followed by two young girls who delighted everyone. Included in the performances was the appearance of an old witch. Her antics caused outbursts of laughter from the Elders and sheer terror from some of the children.
One of the most impressive cultural displays was when mostly the women paraded before us in their stunningly beautiful amautiit women’s parkas. At the turn of the century the beads (sapangat) used to adorn an amauti were considered as precious stones only available at great cost from the Hudson Bay traders. On this day we beheld garments of such beauty that any gallery or museum anywhere in the world might covet.
Though the event we had the pleasure to experience was loosely referred to as a fashion show, it was really a remarkable display of art, emerging from endless hours of beadwork, skill, dexterity, imagination and patience. Interestingly, the dominant motif on the beaded women’s amautiit was taqalikitaaq: the mysterious and beautiful butterfly.
By Thursday the fog had lifted, the sun returned and a glorious day for games ensued. The day began with a unique version of baseball. No basemen were required. If the batter had good enough eyesight to hit the ball and the Elder could bend down to pick it up he just hurled it with all his strength at the batter amid howls of laughter.
True, baseball is a relative newcomer to the Inuit sports field, but it is said that a version of soccer was played as far back as any Elder can remember. The soccer played during this celebration was played with a ball stuffed with moss and covered with sealskin as in the old manner.
One can find an illustration by the artist Jamasie in the Cape Dorset drawing archives depicting this version of kickball supposedly being played by the Tunniit. However, on this day the teams were made up of players from Nunavik and Nunavut. Some Elders still remember games played between the “People of the other side” (Nunavik) and the Sikusiilarmiut of Nunavut when the only travel across the Hudson Strait was by umiaq and later by supply ship.
At this event, while the Elders celebrated, two lovely weddings also took place. The first was that of Natsivak Atsiaq, the bride, and Pitseolak Qimipik, the groom. Their wedding was held in the community’s tiny Anglican church. Concluding the ceremony was my old friend, Naudla Osuitok, strumming lively foot tapping Inuit songs on his guitar. The second wedding was that of Margaret Hutchings and Ekidlua Teevee. Visiting minister Simeonie Pitsiulak, from Kimmirut, conducted both ceremonies. It was a delightful surprise to see the members of both wedding parties dressed in gowns and suits with curious ravens who are permanent residents of Kinngait looking down upon the whole affair. There were, of course, the obligatory receptions where both families provided the food followed by the presentation of gifts to the bride and groom. It seemed as if an entire younger generation had entered the digital age taking pictures throughout both ceremonies.
With a little less formality a huge feast was held outdoors at Aupaluqtuq the following day. Pieces of cardboard were spread out upon the rocks and laden with wholesome country food. There was caribou, seal, bowhead maktaaq, Arctic char, even a little igannuq (fermented walrus meat) for the discreet palate. One had the choice of food raw, dried, boiled or stewed. The feast was a huge collaborative effort, just as all feasts were long into the past.
Some Elders claim that they can tell where an animal came from by its taste and even what season it was taken. People brought food to this feast from their respective communities: maktaaq came from Iqaluit, caribou from Kuujjuaq and Naujaat, seal from Kinngait, and the most delicious scallops in the world, I believe, came from Salliq.
The place where the feast was held was at one of the ancient feasting places in Sikusiilaq. One can find all manner of reminders of the past nearby. There are stone fox traps, meat caches, hunting blinds, stone dwellings and various other features created 300 to 1,000 years ago by the Tunniit, the Thule ancestors of the Inuit of today. The joy, laughter and companionship experienced during feasts at this place have lasted not for just a day but for generations. Aupallukpok refers to the colour red. Aupaluqtuq is the place in Kinngait noted for its red granite.
Before closing, the Elders were asked to vote where the next gathering would be held; they wisely chose a little hamlet in Nunavik whose population was only 174 in 2006. Its name is Aupaluk, referring to the reddish soil throughout the area. Aupaluk was a traditional camp blessed with rich hunting sites of caribou, marine animals, fish and wild fowl. The present day site was entirely designed by its Inuit inhabitants. It is the place where their ancestors had hunted for generations. The life of the Aupalummiut is still closely related to traditional activities thus making the choice for the next Elders gathering quite special.
Attending the Elder’s gathering in Kinngait not merely as an observer but as an invited Elder meant a great deal to me. It not only put me in touch with Elders from other communities but rekindled sweet memories of the Elders of Kinngait with whom I travelled with for over 45 years. Some were my mentors who taught me everything I know about the land and life in traditional times.
Although this gathering was over, it reminded me of another time sitting beside friends and the sea with the fragrant smoke from burning Arctic heather beneath a black bubbling teapot filling the air. Lia was tending the fires. Close by were pots in which snow geese were boiling in a rich delicious broth. Fresh bannock was shared along with our chatter, laughs and memories of good times. As if all these pleasures were not enough, an island seemed to rise up from the sea before us. It was a bowhead whale on its way to some distant place.