Canada's arctic Inuit rekindle sun ceremony; Customs being revived on eve of self-government of Nunavut territory


IGLOOLIK, Northwest Territories -- The time when the sun disappears and day becomes night is known as "the great darkness" by the people who have lived on this island of ice high in the Canadian arctic for over 4,000 years.

Stars shine at midday, and though violet bands brighten the immense sky for brief periods around what would be high noon in Toronto, 1,950 miles south, the sun does not appear at all for seven weeks.

The day the sun finally emerges from the horizon was once the most important day of the year for Igloolik's Eskimos, who now prefer to be known as Inuit.

"The first person who saw the sun would rush back to the sod houses or igloos to tell everyone," Rosie Iqalliyuq, a 96-year-old elder, said through a translator. A great igloo would be built. Soapstone lamps that had provided the only illumination during the long night would be ceremoniously extinguished, she remembered, and relighted from a single wick.

Then the outsiders came from the south with their crosses and their schools and their strange notions about chopping up the day into small pieces called minutes, and the celebrations stopped. Eventually, with electric lights, alarm clocks and calendars, "the great darkness" meant almost nothing.

It was one more loss in the cultural collision between north and south that over the last century has stripped the people of the arctic of much of their tradition and culture.

But a few years ago people here began systematic interviews with elders like Iqalliyuq (pronounced EE-kwal-ee-juk). Their vivid memories suddenly made all that had been lost very clear. A few leaders set their jaws and decided to reverse the current.

So on Saturday night, with the temperature outside low enough to turn a human's breath to crystals of ice, about 400 people gathered to watch three elders light traditional soapstone lamps filled with lumps of pink seal blubber.

Then, in a moment taken from the old times, children who had seen the new sun came in to blow out the flames. There was complete darkness for a minute. When the elderly women relighted the wicks, faces carved by the cold briefly glowed with the light that represented new life.

This is the seventh year since the sun ceremony was rekindled in this isolated hamlet of 1,200 people about 1,200 miles from the North Pole. It is an especially important year because on April 1, 770,000 square miles of ice and snow in the eastern portion of Canada's arctic will become a separate territory named Nunavut that will be governed by more than 25,000 Inuit who live here.

While reviving ceremonies like this fosters a growing confidence among the people, there is no pretense that they can go back to the way things used to be.

"It's not real, what they do today," Iqalliyuq said. She sat cross-legged on her bed, with an Arctic trout thawing out on a nearby hamper and "The Simpsons" on the television. But she believes the sun ceremony "will make people remember what it used to mean."

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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