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Inuit knowledge: the compass to a brighter future


by Teevi Mackay

It is disheartening to see Inuit youth struggling today. Many youth in the North feel hopeless and powerless. This is not the case for all, but the pain of many is evident today with the high rate of suicide among Inuit. Healing is fundamentally needed. Healing through talking to others — with elders equipped with an abundance of Inuit knowledge — about what is bothering you is so important and can be of great benefit.

Abraham Eetak is a young Inuk who bridges Inuit knowledge and the modern world. An Arviat Inuk, he was raised by Angie and Mark Eetak, both renowned artists who passed on a lot of traditional Inuit knowledge to their children. Abraham, a musician and a carver, clearly inherited those traits. He records his own music in Inuktitut where he even uses old Inuktitut words rarely used today.

“We are floating between two worlds — the traditional way and the modern way — but we are both struggling with each of them. We are no expert in any as we are disconnected from our elders. Let’s say I went back in time during the 1920s and met with one of my ancestors; it would probably be hard to understand each other,” says Eetak of today’s rapidly changing Inuit culture.

I believe today’s imbalance is caused by a loss of identity and deep rooted pain among Inuit. The sources of these ailments can be traced to colonialism beginning with exploration and also whaling in the 19th century, exacerbated in the mid-20th century with tremendous and destructive cultural and social changes, including the terrible residential school trauma, which has left many with buried pain, many of whom are unaware of it. I believe that youth should really learn more about this terrible era in order for them to fully understand where their parents or grandparents are coming from as it has left generational effects.

My aunt once told me that when one suffers with emotional pain, their worldview is tunnelled — in other words, they are unable to focus on the world around them — just their pain. Healing is a fundamental necessity for Inuit to open their minds and take full advantage of the many opportunities we have today.

Once healing is achieved, then I believe that Inuit should use traditional Inuit knowledge to help guide them in today’s world. I have learned from Janet Tamalik McGrath recently about the late Mariano Aupilarjuk’s teaching, through my work at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Aupilarjuk was a highly respected Inuit elder who taught that we should balance the Inuit way with the modern day, while privileging Inuit knowledge in order to help guide us in this new world order.

After learning about this concept, I have become very intrigued by the power of Inuit knowledge and how it can help you live a better life.

It is profoundly rich in wisdom. My mother says that there is a sea of Inuit knowledge and I have only just scratched the surface. I find this incredibly interesting and encouraging. For example, I recently learned how rich pisirq, traditional ajaja songs (poems), are. When I was quite young I loved pisirq so much that my mom gave me a pendant of a drum dancer. I recently learned that pisirq are songs about experiences and lessons learned in life that are then communicated to help others.

This is quite powerful as an extraordinary spiritual knowledge transfer practice of Inuit.

My current journey of learning more about Inuit knowledge has been an enlightening experience; however, it has also given me a sense of heartache because it is vanishing quickly with the passing of our beloved elders.

Today: Creating meaningful partnerships
We are living in a modern world with increased connections with the South and the need for a mutual understanding of both cultures is fundamentally important. Globally, the Arctic is in the spotlight and this interconnectedness is more apparent today than ever before.

I believe there is so much we can learn from other cultures and so much they can learn from Inuit but we must take the time to sit down and share with one another. Open-minded and engaged dialogue is therefore needed so we can reach a holistic balance. I met many Southern scientists at the 2012 ArcticNet Scientific Meeting in Vancouver last December. Many were genuinely interested and open-minded young researchers who work in the Arctic. Refreshingly, many see the importance and true value of Inuit knowledge to a point where they incorporate it into their research. This made me realize that real and meaningful partnerships are possible between Inuit and Southerners.

One of them was Vincent L’Hérault, a young non-Inuk who recognizes and is genuinely interested in the intellectual culture (Inuit knowledge) of Inuit. L’Hérault is a biologist who does extensive work with Nunavut Inuit, where he documented Inuit knowledge with hunters and elders in his completed Masters project and in his current Ph.D. work.

When we first met in Vancouver he talked about a new not-for-profit organization, ARCTIConnexion, launched in January 2012 housed within the Université du Québec à Rimouski. L’Hérault told me that the idea to start ARCTIConnexion began as a result of his own experience with Inuit. Interactions between himself, other Southern researchers and young Inuit from Pond Inlet at a workshop at Laval University in 2011 also provided inspiration for the initiative. He was deeply astounded and impressed by these young Inuit because of their strength, self-confidence and open-mindedness.

L’Hérault remembers, “A lot of barriers were broken that day when a group of young Inuit connected with Southern researchers. The Inuit were hungry for more education while researchers reciprocated that interest catalyzing a powerful synergy. We then saw the potential for quality, meaningful partnerships between Inuit and Southern researchers.”

After this special encounter, he began the work of creating ARCTIConnexion with his colleagues, aiming to help Inuit and non-Inuit work together for mutual benefits. On one side, ARCTIConnexion aims to build Inuit capacity through developing local educational opportunities in the North. For example, last March in Pond Inlet, L’Hérault met with Inuit students and the hamlet council to create an environmental research training program designed for Inuit called ilikausitigivat (learning a new way), an Inuktitut term suggested by the young Inuit.

Ilikausitigivat would aim to explore the scientific way in depth while still encouraging students to practice the Inuit way in their own community. I know that learning in your own communities is a fundamental right, especially in Canada but Inuit unfortunately do not always have the same educational opportunities as Southerners.

ARCTIConnexion also aims to educate Southerners about the Inuit way. L’Hérault explains, “We work like interpreters between Inuit and researchers and we wish them to engage in meaningful dialogue, so both parties can learn new perspectives and work together toward a balanced future. Through this work, I’ve learned that we need to focus on serving others.”

I believe it is important to recognize this type of calibre among Southerners, one that allows them to see the holistic intellectual culture of Inuit while bridging it with Southern ideologies — a genuine exchange for mutual benefit. Fundamentally acknowledging and using Inuit knowledge to help guide our work today would make the difference needed for young people, as Aupilarjuk taught and a sentiment I believe should be fully recognized.

I had a deeply meaningful experience as I took part in one of L’Hérault’s ARCTIConnexion Southern projects. Last June, in Quebec City, I guided a photo exhibition dedicated to showcasing Inuit knowledge.

The exhibition, titled ‘Inuit Tautunga Iyimut: through the eyes of Inuit,’ took a year to coordinate and was the result of several years of L’Hérault’s work in the North. The exhibition was a collaboration with the Town of Québec City that kindly provided the venue — a historic, patrimonial gallery and museum. L’Hérault was impressively committed to ensuring the photos reflected Inuit perspectives with the purpose of informing and educating Southerners about Inuit.

A Nunavut-specific photo contest launched on Facebook last year gave Inuit the opportunity to illustrate Inuit knowledge through photos, many of which were used in the exhibition. This type of work, I believe, is a great example of creating an Inuit-Southern partnership through art.

As I guided about 50 keenly interested Southerners through the exhibition, I felt a great sense of cultural pride and was especially thankful and relieved that all the education I had attained in the last five years prepared me well for that day. I talked for three hours about the Inuit way of life: our knowledge, culture, and the challenges we face today.

More broadly, my life growing up in the North was the overarching theme and served as a compass for how I communicated who I was to them, because that is a unique experience only I can communicate as an Inuk from Nunavut. I also talked about Inuit knowledge and how it can help lead Inuit today.

It was exhausting to speak for those three hours to say the very least. It was my first time having to speak for such a long period of time. Also Inuit, by nature, can be quietly humble about who we are and we do not always readily or naturally share our sacred cultural personal identity. I set this reservation aside that day; partly because I have learned that if you really care about others then you will put them first and not yourself.

For preparation purposes, before leading the exhibition I told myself that I was there to teach Southerners about Inuit, a pressure that I tried my best to live up to. I was also there as a representative of Inuit with the duty to inform Southerners about who we are, where we come from and where we need to go.

Throughout the exhibition I also had a great sense of gratefulness to those in attendance because I knew they were genuinely interested in being there that day, a fact that made it easier for me to sincerely engage with them and share my experience, mostly through personal stories.

Our Future
My grandmother says that if young people have a balance of learning and practicing Inuit knowledge as well as mastering how the world works today, then they can become very successful leaders. This echoes Aupilarjuk’s teaching that I mentioned earlier. I believe this type of philosophy is transferable to anyone because I think Inuit knowledge is a gift to better, quality living if honed and adhered to.

Elders who were born on the land and grew up traditionally are sadly passing on and the need to document their Inuit knowledge is becoming crucial. I would like to encourage people to document Inuit knowledge (through audio or video conversational recordings) in your own communities while learning more about how this valuable knowledge can help guide you today.

In the words of Mariano Aupilarjuk: “[N]ow that we have Nunavut, if we do not treat each other with kindness, and if we have animosity, and if we are not considerate of one another, and if we fight one another or ignore the needs of one another we will certainly fail.” I believe that the kindness I showed to those who attended the Inuit photo exhibition made for a very meaningful and engaged afternoon.

I know they appreciated my honesty and my willingness to teach them about Inuit as best I could, considering we were in a Southern city. This type of exchange, I believe, is vitally important for the North’s future, as understanding breaks down barriers.

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