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Focus on Identity


By Teevi Mackay

Click here if  you wish to read this article in Inuktitut.

There is no doubt that the Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS) Training Program changed my life. The dedication and heart of the coordinators and instructors really made the difference for me when I took the program in 2008-2009. I learned about Inuit history, which was crucial for me to see the timeline of where Inuit came from, what they were capable of and how they changed the map of Canada forever. I was and still am in awe of Inuit and how they adapted to living in the Arctic. Subsequent learning of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and Inuit government relations showed me how Inuit were capable of adapting to changing times, in order to benefit the people of Nunavut.

The cultural learning components of NS included learning Inuktitut, gaining skills in making Inuit forms of art (drum making, ulu making, and sewing), and cultural performances. I embraced learning songs in Inuktitut and also throat singing. I had such a hard time at first learning how to drum dance which was very frustrating, but I was unaware that I am actually a left-handed drum dancer until a classmate told me to try it that way. If an NS student fully embraces the program, then they allow themselves to become better students, hirable in Nunavut, and also gives them the opportunity to embrace and appreciate Inuit history and culture.

A memorable experience during NS was when I learned how to throat sing. I performed at Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrations and I felt very connected to my Inuit heritage. The art of throat singing requires a great deal of focus and skill and it allows you to connect with your culture in a way that is near indescribable. I feel fortunate to have this as part of my Inuit heritage and I’m thankful that NS gave me the opportunity to explore this part of who I am.

I felt most proud of being Inuk when I shared my culture with the Maori of New Zealand. The cultural performing exchange ceremonies with the Maori were incredible and life changing. It was great to see such a strong, rich and vibrant Maori culture and honestly it really inspired me and made me want to learn from other Aboriginals around the world.

Currently, the Maori are experiencing their own language revival and I believe that is important to see, especially for the strengthening of the use of Inuktitut in the North. There is so much we can share and learn from other Indigenous peoples and by doing so you allow yourself to reflect upon your own culture and where it stands in comparison to other Indigenous cultures on an international level.

Learning about my culture as an Inuk meant the world to me. It was especially very important for me to learn about the powerful and very strong naming tradition that Inuit have practiced and continue to practice. I’m named after Tiivai (My parents wanted it spelled Teevi) after my great-grandmother who adopted my grandfather, Aimo Muckpaloo, who lives in Iqaluit today. Tiivai adopted my grandfather after his mother died after giving birth to him. My grandfather’s biological mother had been unwell before being relocated to Arctic Bay from Cape Dorset – before that she and my great grandfather had been relocated from Northern Quebec.

The living conditions in Arctic Bay were so dire at that time (during one winter they lived in a tent) that when she gave birth to my grandfather, she passed away. Tiivai then adopted my grandfather. Tiivai was unable to have children of her own and adopted a total of five children. At one point her husband became blind and she had to do all the hunting and shelter building herself. Inuit believe that you take on the traits of the person you are named after, so I definitely gain strength knowing that I am named after such an exceptional person. This is just a mere glimpse of what I learned about myself and my culture while studying at NS.

NS was such a special experience. It not only helped me build the necessary academic tools to excel in university, but it also provided the avenues to explore my identity as an Inuk from Nunavut. I believe in the importance of knowing yourself, your strengths, your qualities and who you are as an individual, which includes knowing your roots. NS is such a great bridging program to higher levels of education. Its benefits are rich in helping you realize your identity and to move forward in life with a strong foundation. Obviously I am Inuk, but I didn’t truly know what that meant until this program helped me discover it meant.

I also feel a strong connection to my Scottish heritage. My father moved to Arctic Bay from Glasgow, Scotland, when he was 17 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 2007, I brought my father’s ashes to Scotland, in order to lay him to rest in his homeland. Since then I have visited Glasgow twice to spend time with my grandmother, Isabelle, (my daughter is named after her) and my uncles.

My uncle, Nigel, works in radio in Scotland and it’s evident to me that he and I share an interest in this field. Last August I also learned that my grandmother wrote for newspapers when my father and his brothers were growing up. This encourages me, because now I know that my journalism studies come from a generational interest. I never met my Scottish grandfather, Donald Mackay, but I do know that he was incredibly brilliant, a member of Mensa — the international high IQ society — and was an impressive historian and professor.

It has been important to me to learn about my Scottish roots, so much so that I have made every effort to visit whenever possible. I have been given strength through gaining knowledge of both sides of my heritage. Both my Scottish grandparents were strong believers in attaining higher levels of education and when I visited my grandmother I have been encouraged by her to earn a degree, which has made all the difference for me.

I cannot stress the importance of learning about your own identity. Knowing yourself and where you come from is fundamental in gaining confidence in who you are. If you don’t have a full grasp of your identity then I believe it is difficult to move forward in your life. I know that I have more to learn, but at this point I feel comfortable with what I’ve learned about my heritage and I look forward to learning and embracing more of who I am.