“Neco, can you carve this turkey? Let’s get eating soon!” I ask, more like tell, my husband who is finishing up his Thanksgiving tasks. Eventually, he lays the perfectly browned stuffed turkey we bought at Fancy Meats beside the cherished country food on our dining room floor, alongside the sharp knives and ului (the plural form for ulu, an Inuit women’s knife) we’ve placed on flattened pieces of cardboard.
That’s how Inuit feast. No plates. No forks. Sitting next to and across from one another, slicing pieces of the Inuit niqai (Inuit country food) including frozen caribou meat, boiled seal meat, boiled caribou ribs and caribou tongue. There’s also maktaaq (beluga whale) and arctic char. At this Thanksgiving feast, there are about 30 guests, people from all walks of life, and we’re ecstatic, because there is also dry caribou meat and dry arctic char, or pipsi.
Neco axes chunks of caribou meat for the women – that’s just courtesy – making it easier to cut into smaller pieces with their ului. There’s sushi-style bowls of soya sauce for dipping. And salt for sprinkling.
This fall marks our sixth year living in Yellowknife. We had planned on staying for two. We left our home in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to further our careers; Neco is a journeyman power lineman and I am a journalist. It’s been working out… mostly. The education system is more challenging for our children and there are more organized activities for them to do. I can get my nails done, a good haircut, a coffee from McDonald’s and even wine with a nice dinner at a restaurant.
But, like most Inuit here, we’ve had to make adjustments.
Our house is in Range Lake, a paved neighbourhood with sidewalks that looks nothing like the treeless, rugged tundra and the windy shores of Hudson’s Bay that make up Kangiqliniq, or Rankin Inlet. Once inside though, when we’re feasting on country food, we feel closer to our Inuit roots.
When we lived in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, my husband hunted for us. Since moving here, he hasn’t been able to hunt caribou because of the territorial government’s ban, so we fill our freezers courtesy of other hunters back home. It’s one of the reasons we constantly wrestle with the idea of moving back to Nunavut, so Neco can hunt like his father does and like his grandfather did before him. Another reason is family. We always feel the tug from them to move back. My mom lives there and same with Neco’s parents, the Towtongies. Yes, as in Cathy Towtongie. His mother is the president at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization that administers the land claim agreement. In some ways, Yellowknife still doesn’t feel permanent.
At the end of every feast, it is time for tea. Our friend Angela Hovak Johnston made fried bannock and she’s brought a bowl full. Anyone who has tasted Angela’s bannock knows it’s like dessert. It’s a skill she learned from living a traditional life, having spent her first seven years in a cabin in Umingmaktok (Bay Chimo), now an abandoned outpost camp in Bathurst Inlet, the place she most calls “home.”
“Living in the outpost camp, I loved it,” she says. “Living off the land, a very physical way of life, but then when we got sent to school, then we got used to that town-living, easy-living. You get all the taste buds ‘cause you tried new stuff, so you crave all the new stuff. But when we were living in Bay Chimo you didn’t really have all those cravings, and you were good with one big meal a day; with some berries here and there, but basically living on water and tea.”
Those fond early childhood memories turned sour when Angela was faced with a different form of survival: life at a residential school in Cambridge Bay that included abuse, even sexual abuse.
“That was hard, it was hard because it was a bunch of us little kids living in a hostel with hostel parents,” she says.
She worked through those horrors by breaking the silence around them. As a performing artist, she throat-sings and recorded an album in 2006 as a way to heal from the abuse at residential school. To see her today, Angela is a happy, healthy, courageous 40-year-old woman who sews beautiful creations such as seal skin mitts, parkas and kamiit, traditional Inuit boots – skills she learned from her mother and aunts who gave her lots of encouragement.
She and her husband have three sons. They’ve been in Yellowknife six years now. You may have seen her. She has traditional Inuit tattoos on her face and hands. The “V” on her forehead was a common design back in the days before contact with white people. There are lines on her face and hands that represent her sons. There are also symbols of traditional Inuit tools used for seal and caribou hunting.
Angela decided to get the traditional tattoos when she was living in Nova Scotia, where her husband, Mike, is from, and where they lived before moving to Yellowknife. Prior to that, they met in Kugluktuk where he was teaching.
She tested the markings by first penciling them in with eyeliner and going out in public.
“When I first got my tattoos on my face when we were living in Nova Scotia, people would ask my why I did that to my pretty face. But when I came here to Yellowknife, I had no questions. I didn’t have to question myself. And when I go home (to Kugluktuk), people remember their grandmothers or great-grandmothers and share a story about them. They’re thankful that I am carrying on this tradition.”
And that’s one of the reasons why she likes living in Yellowknife. People are accepting of the diversity of cultures.
The Johnston’s don’t visit Kugluktuk much because of the high cost of travel. But because Yellowknife is the hub for the Western Arctic, family and friends come often, either for medical care or while passing through on their way to southern destinations. Even so, she misses seeing elders around town. When her youngest son Bailey, now in Grade 6, finishes school, their plans are to move back to Kugluktuk where her husband will teach and she will be able to get back into fishing derbies and picking berries and learning different sewing techniques from her elders.
Davidee Qaumariaq plans to move back to Iqaluit after finishing an apprenticeship at Polar Tech
Similarly, 24-year-old Davidee Qaumariaq plans on moving back to his home in Iqaluit after he earns his ticket as a small engine mechanic. He came to Yellowknife last November to visit his girlfriend and landed an apprenticeship opportunity with Polar Tech a month later. He works on snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, outboard motors and Harleys. Davidee is entering into his first year of the apprenticeship this fall in Quebec, and that comes with studying online.
“I really want to commit to this because any other job that I had in Iqaluit, I haven’t had a good opportunity, so when my boss said ‘I’ll apprentice you,’ I said ‘alright.’ And he said, ‘You gonna stay?’ And I said ‘Yep.’”
His family in Iqaluit is OK with that decision because he’s been able to go home a number of times for visits. His buddies in Iqaluit are also mechanics so he gets to show off his new skills.
“You use computers to work on your sleds. Every time I went home I brought a computer with me and showed my buddies all this. It felt good knowing I knew more than they did because before it was always they knew more than I did. I’ve grown in being a much better mechanic, just from this job.”
While Davidee keeps his eye on the prize – talking about starting his own business in Nunavut when all is done – homesickness kicks in every now and then. Not speaking Inuktitut every day is another change.
“I spoke a lot of Inuktitut when I was in Iqaluit and I never do it here. Our neighbours are Inuit, at first we weren’t too sure but one day they had a bunch of people over and a bunch of kids were playing outside and a little girl starts yelling, ‘Anaanaa! Anaana!’ (Mom, Mom) and then my girlfriend freaked out saying, ‘They’re Inuk!’”
An avid hunter and snowmobile racer, he misses hunting in Nunavut the most; preying on seals, whales, caribou, fish and geese. He’s still waiting to catch his first polar bear. His instincts make him want to kill ptarmigan when he sees them around on Yellowknife’s snowy streets.
His employer and co-workers make living in Yellowknife easier by giving him the time off to go home, and lending him their boats to go fishing. He’s not a fan of portaging but he does get out on the lakes where he’s seen bears and wolves, and he’s getting used to the trees.
Apart from the high cost of living, Davidee likes what Yellowknife has to offer. There are more activities, such as bowling and driving out of the city to Rae for soft ice cream – things you can’t do on Baffin Island. Plus, Yellowknife has a “northern feel” to it because there are so many aboriginal people.
The 2011 Statistics Canada National Household Survey shows four in 10 Inuit live in large, urban centres. Yellowknife is tied with Ottawa for having the fourth largest Inuit population at 735. Edmonton is first, with 1, 115 Inuit, followed by Montreal with 900. St. John’s has 680.
Not all of Yellowknife’s 735 Inuit migrated here from elsewhere. Tiffany Ayalik was born and raised in the capital. Her father is from Kugluktuk, and her mom is from Ontario. Her mother is the one who taught Tiffany and her siblings about Inuit culture, including how to build an igloo and how to hunt and skin a caribou, having been in the North for over 30 years. Ayalik is amazed, and grateful, for that.
“Anything that I did learn about my Inuit culture came from my white mom from Ontario who did her best to try and immerse me and my siblings in a culture that isn’t hers, but that she felt is really important for us to learn about,” she says. “So I just have such mad respect for my mom for doing that. She’s always told me and my siblings that we’re in a very gifted situation, that we can take the best of both worlds.”
I discovered I have a lot in common with Tiffany. Both our grandmothers were born in igloos. Both our moms raised us and our siblings as a single parent. And we both come from blended cultures. And, like me, she doesn’t speak Inuktitut fluently, yet she starred in a play called Night, a story about youth suicide – a problem all too common across the North – that is performed solely in her father’s native language.
“It’s one of those things where it was extremely daunting at first, and I was very intimidated, but I just thought to myself, stop being a baby,” she recalls. “You had people speaking Inuktitut in your house all the time, you know more than you think you know, your ear knows it and your mouth knows it, but you just haven’t been taught it. So those weren’t foreign sounds to me, it would be different if it was a Swahili play or something.”
Martha Kyak from Pond Inlet translated her lines and recorded them so that Tiffany could memorize from repetition… listening over and over… and over and over.
She remains close to her grandmother and her aunts in Kugluktuk, going there every year with her mom to teach the techniques of paddling a canoe and kayak. And she offers storytelling workshops. As much as she loves Nunavut, Tiffany doesn’t plan on living there. Her heart is with her man who lives in Greenland. A successful actor himself, she beams when she talks about Greenland’s triumphs in keeping a strong Inuit culture, in part because it had a gentler colonization period compared to Nunavut’s.
“We’ve been through so much and still despite that we have a tenacity and a vivacious energy to survive and despite the effen cold winters and brutal conditions, we’re still here. Nice try, government! We’re still here, we’re still annoying!” she says with a laugh.
Like Angela, Tiffany has been using the arts to help struggling kids make sense of their changing worlds. The 27-year-old throat-singer wants to use her voice, skills and talents to address serious issues like abuse and suicide and to battle negativity. She likes pushing boundaries, but says she tries to be respectful at the same time.
My family and I try to be respectful too; respectful of the fact we are living on Dene land.
And we take it one day at a time. Well, more like one year at a time. My husband and I tell each other: It doesn’t matter where we are, as long as we’re together, we’re home.
Our time with other Inuit who are also “just visiting” Yellowknife, times like when we feast together at Thanksgiving, are crucial to staying connected to our culture.
I survey the remnants of our Thanksgiving meal after our guests have left. Every scrap of country food has disappeared from the spread. No one even touched the turkey.