In 1987, I interviewed Leah Nuturak, a 104-year-old Inuk woman from Pangnirtung on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. She must have been born in 1883 or so.
She sat on her bed in a residence. A bedspread lay across the bed, donated by the Canadian Coast Guard. A bowl of raw seal brains lay on the bedside table. That was going to be her lunch.
Her face was deeply lined, her eyes watery, her expression gentle and full of kindness.
For me, listening to Leah Nuturak was like getting inside a time machine, and traveling to another era. An interpreter translated.
She told me about all the changes the Inuit had experienced during her lifetime, going from the Stone Age to the Space Age within a few decades. She remembered the first time she saw airplanes. I guess this would have been in the 1920s, when she was already forty or so, because by then Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier had made several expeditions to Baffin Island on behalf of the Canadian government.
Leah Nuturak was camping along the shores of Cumberland Sound. This meant taking family supplies with a dog-team and qamutiik (dog-sled) down the coast, to the southeast, where there was good fishing, and you could hunt for seal, beluga whale and walrus.
“When the time came I started hearing a noise. I thought it came from the ground. I was standing right next to the tent. I started calling my husband, because I thought it was a bee, and I was scared of bees! I couldn’t kill a bee! When I was shouting to my husband, that’s when I saw the two planes. I went hiding among big ice blocks on the beach.”
She knew all about dog-sledding, igloo-building, raising children, making implements from stone and bone and pieces of iron; she knew about fishing and hunting, skinning and cleaning animals with an ulu or woman’s knife, the passage of the seasons. This was her life.
She regretted the way dogs had been rounded up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after the Second World War, and slaughtered. This broke the bond between the Inuit and the land and sea, between the traditional way of life and an uncertain new of life. People then settled in communities, which offered advantages like access to health care and education, but also came with a price: a weakening of Inuit identity.
“Just now I am losing my eyesight, and I’m following things, listening to the radio and reading in Inuktitut. I am very happy about all these changes, because there was nothing of this sort before. But I see young people losing the language, speaking only English, doing things the modern way. It was intriguing when television came to our community. It was entertaining. It replaced a lot of the normal activities we had in the communities, like visiting, playing together, sharing meals, story-telling, working together. The streets were deserted.
“I sometimes tell young people they should not forget who we are as a people. I don’t like it when they abandon the old ways, the good country food we eat, because they get only store-bought food which is not as nourishing.”