Star student, educational reformer spark cultural fire in Canadian Inuit village


BROUGHTON ISLAND, Northwest Territories -- It can be lonely at the top, even in a tiny village where everyone knows everyone else.

Kayrene Nookiguak, 21, is the schoolroom star in this remote hamlet of 450 Inuit -- as those often known as Eskimos prefer to be called. Not only is she the first to make it through high school, she is also the first to go to a university, 1,600 miles away in the south.

This was indeed a feat, considering that in grade school here, Ms. Nookiguak and the other children spoke only Inuktitut, and the teachers spoke only English.

"Most of the time, we didn't understand the teacher," Ms. Nookiguak recalls. "We always just said yes or no."

Today, Ms. Nookiguak has mastered English, but her years in the white-dominated school system -- some spent in far-off boarding schools -- have taken their toll on her ability to make out what her own people are saying when she comes home for summer break.

Out for a stroll in the warm 24-hour sunshine, Ms. Nookiguak comes upon Joanasie Ilkalik, a retired hunter sitting at the door of his backyard shed, carving a brooch from a caribou antler.

Mr. Ilkalik asks the young woman to pull a splinter from his thumb; as she does, the two fall to talking. Ms. Nookiguak hangs on closely to each Inuktitut word.

"It's a shame that the young people are relying on store-bought food and that they don't like to go hunting anymore," Mr. Ilkalik says. "If they don't go out on the land, they'll never find out how to hunt animals."

The younger generation is in two worlds -- but they're more like the white people now.

"And," he adds, with a sharp look at the village's best and brightest, "you're one of them."

Here in the eastern Canadian Arctic, in a land where next to nothing grows, all the talk these days is about roots.

After years in a white-led school system, the Inuit -- who total 25,000 in Canada -- fear they are losing all sense of who they are -- and gaining little in exchange by way of advancement opportunities.

All around them, the Inuit see signs that their culture is breaking down. Once a society of nomadic hunters, proud of their ability to survive in the world's most hostile climate, they now live a sedentary life in villages. They have access to few jobs, depend heavily on welfare benefits and cope with rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide and family violence far higher than the averages for southern white Canadians.

Even the rare Inuit success stories like Ms. Nookiguak's -- the few who have managed to "make it" in the south -- say their lives would be richer if they hadn't lost touch with their northern roots.

And so, a leadership of educated, committed young Inuit has emerged, determined to set a cultural fire in the ice and snow. They are the first to hold teaching certificates, and one of their main tools is the classroom, where instruction is being offered not just in reading, writing and math, but also in hunting, snow "reading," traditional land-and-sea navigation, shelter building, hide tanning and the like.

"One of our major goals is to reflect the culture of the community in our schools," says Leena Evic-Twerdin, one of Canada's first Inuit school principals.

As it happens, the regional school board is attempting one of the most ambitious bilingual and bicultural programs in Canada. Thanks to the pioneering generation of Inuit teachers, cash-strapped schools here have set a goal that would be challenging even in the big-bucks tax districts of Vancouver or Toronto: Complete bilingual education for all Inuit students.

True bilingual education is still a long way off -- there is much griping about a lack of funds -- but already the school board has set up its own textbook publishing program, creating the first line of schoolbooks in Inuktitut.

The Inuit teachers' determined cultural homecoming may ultimately prove too little, too late; even if they succeed in reviving the old ways and instilling a sense of northern pride, there is little they can do to change the economic realities of the Arctic, where there will never be enough jobs to go around.

Still, they say, school reform is their best hope of rejuvenating their ravaged society.

On a hilltop outside the town of Iqaluit, overlooking chaotic neighborhoods of prefab houses and circuitous streets, stands the Joamie School, named for a revered local elder. At first glance, Joamie looks like any other grade school: Kids' art projects brighten the hallways, murmured conversations float through open classroom doors and bells ring to mark the end of each period.

But soon the differences start to jump out. Signs around the building are written in geometric syllabic script -- Inuktitut is never written in the Roman alphabet. Those voices drifting out of the classrooms are as likely to be speaking in Inuktitut as in English.

And out on the playground there is a low structure, a wooden frame packed with moss for insulation and covered with protective canvas. Inside it, there are no desks or chairs, just low platforms thickly piled with bedding. Heat and light are supplied by the "qulliq," a traditional lamp burning rendered seal blubber.

The building is a "qarmak," a traditional sod house; it is an essential part of Joamie School's assertion of cultural self-dominion.

Principal Evic-Twerdin arrived at Joamie School two years ago, fresh from Montreal's prestigious McGill University, with a master's thesis that asked why so many native studies programs fail. Her research convinced her that too many schools set up "traditional culture" classes as afterthoughts to the standard white curriculum -- nice guilt-fueled ideas with little planning, few clear goals and no textbooks in the native students' first language.

Some native culture classes are so poorly thought out, she says, that the schools don't even allot space for them; teachers are left passing on the ancient ways in corridors and vestibules. Such programs can't help but send native students the unspoken message that their history is worth little more than lip service, and that all that will ever really cut it in Canada are the ways of the white man, she adds.

Ms. Evic-Twerdin was determined not to let this happen at Joamie School. She decided to build a separate building for the cultural classes.

Inside the qarmak, the teachers hardly talk at all, preferring to make tools and traditional garments -- wooden frames for stretching sealskin boots, for instance, as well as spears, seal hooks or elbow-length fur mitts. The children watch and imitate them. This is how "education" took place in Canada before the arrival of the Europeans, historians say: The elders went about their daily routines; the children watched and copied.

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