Women of the North
- Apphia Agalakti Awa (Author), Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak (Author), Sandra Pikujak Katsak (Author), and Nancy Wachowich (Author)
Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susanna Egan
The title of this remarkable work describes "a wind that blows across the land or ice, a strong wind that suddenly shifts its direction but still maintains its force." The wind, in this case, is the wind of change represented in life stories from one Inuit family—grandmother, mother, and daughter—from North Baffin Island. Nancy Wachowich’s sensitive and careful scholarship with these stories makes for a truly magnificent project, a powerful wind through this reader’s experience. Let me explain: the review copy of this book had been sitting on my desk, unopened, for a while (not uncommon); Canadian Literature wanted my review or return of their review copy (not unreasonable); I was leaving the country for a two-week holiday and decided to take this book for review as airplane reading (surely an unwise decision). Thirty hours later, deaf to the claims of safety procedures, flying altitude, weather information, time changes, transition at Heathrow, and, finally, exhaustion and intense heat, I lay on my bed in Jerusalem unable to sleep before (most regretfully) concluding my extended immersion in the Eastern High Arctic. Any book that can override such an incongruous series of reading situations must top my list of gifts for family and friends—as this one now does.
Wachowich’s introduction describes the processes of narration, recording, editing, and presenting that enabled 117 discrete stories to come together as life stories of three generations of women within one family. Apphia Agalakti Awa, born in 1931 in the Eastern High Arctic, spent the first forty years of her life "travelling with her family across tundra and sea ice between hunting camps, fishing spots, and trading posts." Her collection of stories is the longest of the three, providing vivid glimpses of a harsh nomadic life that is now history for her granddaughter Sandra, born in 1973 and thoroughly settled in Pond Inlet. The stories of Rhoda—Apphia’s daughter and Sandra’s mother—bridge the dramatic span between Apphia’s strenuous life and distinctive culture and Sandra’s diluted, southernised experience. Born in 1957 and raised on the land until she was sent to Igloolik at the age of eight for federal schooling, Rhoda reaches backward and forward in her understanding of life in the High Arctic. Together, the stories of these three women spell out the changes in family and cultural experience, childhood, community relationships, childbirth, and the skills involved in clothing and feeding the family. Their stories are not always chronological, but they are clearly linked and speak to each other, adding up to a rich and full narrative of one family’s life during seventy years of rapid change.
Nancy Wachowich met Apphia, Rhoda, and Sandra in 1991, when she spent three months in Pond Inlet doing fieldwork for her Master’s thesis in cultural anthropology. On completing her Master’s degree in 1992, Wachowich responded to an invitation from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples for three-generational life histories and spent further time in Pond Inlet, clearly becoming quite close to her three narrators. One remarkable and constant feature of this book is Wachowich’s entirely silent but attentive and participant presence throughout the stories. Her introduction provides clear and respectful context. Her editorial paraphernalia include a magnificent cluster of photographs to which I returned again and again as narrators and family relationships became increasingly clear, notes (of the really useful kind), glossary for Inuktitut terms, an index of names, a chronology that inserts events from the stories into the broader history of the High Arctic, a historical overview, a list of the stories, suggested readings, academic bibliography, and a fine index. Moving backwards and forwards through the text, I find Wachowich anticipating my needs and the needs of her storytellers to address a southern audience. Further, Wachowich is clearly present not only because she has carefully positioned herself at the start, but also because her narrators speak so easily and so intimately to an audience of whose sympathy they are sure. A white, southern academic, Wachowich is sensitive to differences of narration and reception of such stories over time, distinguishing among the narrative methods of grandmother, mother, and daughter. From her own listening position in a room in Pond Inlet, she conveys the gestures that called up the earliest context for Apphia’s stories: "Stories like these were told to the beat of women’s hands, cleaning and scraping skins in igloos, sod-houses, and skin tents. They were retold to the rhythm of sled runners scraping on snow during long spring trips on qamutiks. They were harmonized with the incessant buzz of mosquitoes during summer treks inland in search of caribou." The effects of settlement, of Qallunaat or white schooling, and of exposure to the media necessarily affect the kind of story to be told and the most appropriate style in which to tell it. Where Apphia’s stories are episodic and sometimes repetitious in their treatment of old adventures on the land, Rhoda has a clear sense of white policies, of DEW-line communities, of scientific experiments, and of Ottawa’s relations with the North, and Sandra moves into a meditative vein, outlining a troubled youth in which she does not seem sure of where she belongs or how best to identify herself.
So Apphia, for example, simultaneously reminiscing and teaching, ends her episodes with such phrases as "that’s how it was," or "that’s what I was told," or "that’s what I remember." Her section of the book is complete when she says "This is the last tape, the last session, but I want to mention that there is no ending. I would say now that there is no ending to the stories from my life. That is all I have to say." Rhoda is more succinct than her mother. Studying to become a certified general accountant, she is also concerned to "make up for lost time" in terms of learning how to prepare the caribou, seal, and polar-bear skin clothing for her family that she herself had been embarrassed to wear in her teens. She clearly lives the divide between generations and is entirely aware of the effects of Qallunaat authority and influence on her family’s life. She has learned more from school than from her mother, though her parents did finally come off the land to be with their children in school. She sees herself as part of the generation that was assimilated. Finally, Sandra’s story seems focused southwards with a painful ambivalence not present in her grandmother and modified in her mother by adaptation and maturity. Sandra did not want to be a Christian because she "wanted to get back at the Qallunaat for saying all those bad things about Inuit back then. I didn’t like what I learned about the Qallunaat moving in and telling us what to believe in, telling us the old Inuit spirits were evil. It is like they tricked us into Christianity." However, her parents and grandparents are devout Christians and refuse to talk about the shamans. "Some people still believe that these spirits exist," she says. "Sometimes I wonder myself." However, her generation—Arctic exiles as they are called—is the first to experience drugs and suicides and the boredom of a very limited world in which wealth is part of the TV experience and poverty is measured in terms of material possessions. Apphia talks of tea, biscuits, clocks, calendars, cloth, and boots as luxuries and says she did not know the meaning of poverty until she and her husband came off the land. Sandra seems unaware of loss when she says matter-of-factly that her grandfather, who had supported his family on the land for decades, is now a garbage-truck driver.
Wachowich’s choice to leave in Inuktitut those words (such as qamutik or Qallunaat) that have been adopted into the English vocabulary of the North marks one cultural exchange that has enriched Canadian English. On the whole, however, both narration and annotation tell a sad story of the erosion of the North by the South. Historically, this erosion began with the whalers and the Hudson’s Bay trading posts. It continued through Ottawa’s concern to study and control the North and settle nomadic peoples in manageable communities. Through the stories, this erosion manifests itself in terms of information and in the concern expressed at various times by all three women about their relation to the Qallunaat and their need to keep the best of their Inuit values even as they adapt to change. Apphia’s earliest memories go back to the days when the shaman was powerful and include fear of the white priest. Despite her adoption of Christianity and her sense of time past, Apphia’s storytelling in the 1990s includes her apparently un-ironic understanding of the way things were: "In the old days there were many rules for women, many things that they were not supposed to do. If a woman ate raw meat while she was menstruating, starvation might come to the camp. Starvation was like that." Her sense of past conditions is complicated only by her sense of possible inadequacy—of her life and its explanations—in Qallunaat terms.
On the other hand, no small part of the expressiveness of these stories in each generation stems from the energy that comes with resilience. Wachowich’s list of "significant dates" reminds us that the rapid decline and eventual collapse in prices for Arctic fox furs began in 1945. One reason the elders do not speak more of the past is that those times were so hard. That Matthias Awa can leave behind the strenuous skills he has deployed until late in life and adopt a wage-based line of work in a settled community is impressive. Their daughter Rhoda, brought up, as she puts it, to be assimilated, was so angry with Qallunaat authority that she took Trudeau to task in a poster she drew as part of his welcome to Igloolik in 1970. Their son, James Arvaluk, named for Apphia’s father, presented the first of a series of land-claim proposals to the Canadian government in 1976; these led in due course to the establishment of the territory of Nunavut in 1999. Within the stories of these three women, we can identify the hardship and the cultural strength of an older way of life in the Arctic, the deference to white authority that led to assimilation, and the resilience of a culture that evolved in geographical conditions so harsh that even those who live in modern houses find they need to understand the properties of various skins and the skills involved in preparing them. Stories that spring from the page still keep time to the lives of the women who speak them.
As I came to an end, and the muezzin sounded in 35-degree heat, I noted how far these voices travel across time and changing experience and was reminded how vividly the personal narrative belongs in history. Even Sandra knows that she lives "just a breath away from the old life," and Rhoda’s observation,—"[t]hey are not just our stories"—holds true at every stage. This book will surely make a major contribution to the study and appreciation of Inuit culture past and present—and give pleasure as it does so.
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MLA: Egan, Susanna. Women of the North. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 151 - 154)
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