Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press. 2015
Reviewed by Lawrence Millman
Mini Aodla Freeman is the granddaughter of Weetalltuk, a legendary Inuit boat-builder, guide, and map-maker who remained a healthy member of his own culture despite hanging out for lengthy periods of time with qallunaat (white people). Whatever genes Weetalltuk possessed that allowed him to inhabit two dramatically different ways of life, he seems to have passed them along to his granddaughter. Her book Life Among the Qallunaat could just as readily been called Life Among Both the Qallunaat and My Fellow Inuit.
Mini, whose surname comes from her marriage to Canadian anthropologist Milton Freeman, was born in 1936 on Cape Hope Island in James Bay. She grew up thinking of qallunaat as being no less exotic than those qallunaat regarded the Inuit. The first portion of the book describes her experiences in Ottawa, where she’d been sent as a translator. A man she meets tells her that he’d just learned how to drive. She think that’s odd, because she knew how to hitch a dog team when she was five years old. Restaurants astonish her: why do their occupants eat with cutlery rather than with their hands, as her people do? She loves riding street cars, but doesn’t know how to request a stop, so she often ends up at the end of the line. Asked what she thought about the Vietnam War, she writes: “I did not know what to say because I had never known war.”
Her backstory comes next. Her two grandfathers, her wisdom-filled grandmother, her nose-rubbing father, her occasionally naughty brother — all are put within the seasonal context that defined Inuit life for millennia. Hardly more than a toddler, she fetches water and firewood (Cape Hope Island is below the tree line); she also sews and chews skins. In the mornings, her grandmother will often say to her, “Mini, you will bear unhealthy children if you stay in bed any longer. Get out and look at the world.”
Her way of life changed when she was sent to a residential school in Old Factory, Quebec, and then to another one in Moose Factory, Ontario. Both of these schools were included in the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, whereby thousands of former students were compensated for the indignities that they had suffered at these schools. A few examples of indignities: girls were sexually abused; boys were forced to masturbate in front of a priest or minister; and children were required to eat their own vomit.
When Life Among the Qallunaat was first published in 1978, half of its print run was seized by the Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs on the assumption that the author had badmouthed residential schools. Yet her account of her experiences in these schools is surprisingly mild. Yes, she was obliged to attend early morning religious services as well as wash vast amounts of laundry, but her ability to regard such activities as examples of qallunaat exoticism probably saved her from suffering more than she did. Her inherent sense of whimsy may have saved her as well. Consider what she refers to as “my novelty.” This is her first menstrual period, and since no one had given her advance notice of it, she seems to delight in imagining what it might be.
Apparently, Mini wrote Life Among the Qallunaat directly on her typewriter, with no early, middle, or late drafts. Thus her memoir has a quite spontaneous feel to it. But her spontaneity is of the quiet sort. Rather than pointing an accustory finger at, for example, a haughty nun, she steps back and regards that nun as a highly unusual species. The result is a significant addition to Canadian indigenous literature and, what’s more, a splendid read.