Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Hands' Measure

The Hands’ Measure: Essays Honouring Leah Aksaajuq Otak’s Contribution to Arctic Science.

Edited by John MacDonald and Nancy Wachowich

Iqaluit: Nunavut Arctic College Media, 2018. 391 pages.

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

The Hands’ Measure, as its subtitle makes clear, is a book honouring the contributions of the late Leah Aksaajuq Otak of Igloolik, Nunavut. It is not a biography of Leah, but rather a collection of essays by Northern scholars – or scholars interested in the North – who have been inspired by Leah, her work, and her enthusiasm.

A few of the essays – those by John MacDonald (Stories and Representations: Two Centuries of Narrating Amitturmiut History; Leah Aksaajuq Otak: A Life in Language; and Reflections on a Flag), Sylvie LeBlanc (Our Old Sod House), Nancy Wachowich (Leah Aksaajuq Otak: The Measure of a Stitch and the Art of Translation), Noah Richler (Sunrise, Stories, and Snowhouses: A Conversation with Leah Otak), and  J.C.H. King (Inuit Lives and Arctic Legacies: Leah Otak, Edward Parry, and Igloolik)– talk the most about Leah as a person, her interests, and her life history, including her education and her work. These are the most personal contributions. 

Two others by Inuit contributors – Eva Aariak (A Stitch in Time: Inuktut, Sewing, and Self-Discovery), and George Qulaut (Capturing Souls: Beginnings of Oral History Work in Igloolik) – address two of the subjects most dear to Leah – language and its proper usage (in Eva’s essay) and oral history (in George’s chapter). 

Two contributions treat the Igloolik Oral History Project as a resource and discuss its practical applications (Jack Hicks – “Once in a While”: The Igloolik Oral History Project as a Resource with Which to Understand Suicidal Behaviour in Historic Inuit Society; and Sheena Kennedy Dalseg – Reclaiming the Past and Reimagining the Future: The Igloolik Oral History Project, Education, and Community Development).

Still others relate less, or not at all, to Leah directly, but are Igloolik-centric in their research and discussions. These are the contributions by Claudio Aporta (Living, Travelling, Sharing: How the Land Permeates the Town through Stories), Willem Rasing (Encounters: Reflections on Anthropology and Cultural Brokers), and Susan Rowley (Ujakkat: Iglulingmiut Geology).

Some contributions are general in their scope, but are inspired by Leah’s work and enthusiasm. These are chapters by Hugh Brody (The People’s Land: The Film), Louis-Jacques Dorais (A Marriage in Nunavik), Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad (Restoring an Ancestral Legacy: Museum Collections, Inuit Clothing, and Communities), and Birgit Pauksztat (“Tass’ Nuann’!”: Tradition, Sports, and Friendship at the Kayak Club Nuuk).

Leah Otak believed that the emphasis of the Igloolik Oral History Project, in which she was a participant for many years, should be on the proper use of language. In the words of John MacDonald, “the information gathered in the interview was, to some extent, secondary to the quality and sophistication of the language used to convey the information.” Leah herself said, “Preserving oral histories is so important for future generations, because our language is changing fast. It’s beginning to be like English [in] structure…. But if people get interested, they can use the oral histories to learn – not just words but how [elders] would express themselves.”
Leah had a passion for word collecting. Like a true lexicographer, she obsessively wrote down new words she encountered wherever she was, and entered them in a vocabulary list she compiled once she was back home.

She was critical of the government’s approach to teaching Inuktitut. “In teacher training, no one monitors how Inuktitut is taught. No one is monitoring how well the teachers are speaking. The government solution comforts themselves – but it’s not Inuktitut…. Kids love to learn their language … but we’re not providing them with good quality education.”

Leah constantly showed empathy for the elders of Nunavut’s communities. Speaking of the old days of camp life, she juxtaposed it with the supposedly easier life in northern settlements today, a life, ironically, in which elders watch the rapid erosion of their culture and language and love grandchildren with whom they increasingly do not share a language. Leah claimed that “for the elders it wasn’t a struggle at all, not like they are struggling today.”

Nancy Wachowich describes Leah as a translator, but a translator not only of words, but also of concepts, of ways of seeing the world; in that sense she was a bridge between cultures. “She found ways to translate Inuit and Western knowledge traditions, working across both sides of the cultural divide.” Through her work at the science research centre in Igloolik, she brought southern researchers together with the community and its elders. Wachowich refers to Leah’s work as “cultural documentation and cultural translation.”

Nunavut Arctic College Media has done an admirable job in putting together a quality trade paperback book. It’s a big book, 391 pages, well bound. My only criticism is that it would have benefited by the inclusion of a map.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I contributed one chapter to the volume (Inuit Oral History: Statements and Testimony in Criminal Investigations – The Case of the Killing of Robert Janes).

Saturday, October 24, 2020

What I Remember, What I Know

What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile

By Larry Audlaluk

Iqaluit: Inhabit Media, 2020

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

When I heard that Larry Audlaluk had written a memoir, I knew at once that I wanted to read it. I'd met Larry on a visit to Grise Fiord in 2017, and his account of his and his family's experience as High Arctic Exiles was an electrifying one. You could tell at once that he was a born storyteller, and I knew a book by him would be one worth reading.

For those who don't know the story, the High Arctic Exiles were a group of Inuit families, mostly from Inukjuak on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay, but also including two families from Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island, who were taken from their homes to be resettled in two places: Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island and a site on Ellesmere Island's Lindstrom Peninsula, a day's journey from the RCMP post at Craig Harbor (the final move to Grise Fiord came several years later). The families were persuaded by RCMP and other officials that their new homes would be places of abundance, with much game, and that the government would provide them with equipment, such as boats, that they needed to hunt.

Larry tells the story as only he can; although at the time of the relocation he was only two years old, he  experienced these years of exile as his years of childhood and growing up, always listening the stories of his parents and elders. Unbeknownst to these Inuit, they were pawns in a government scheme, dreamed up by bureaucrats who had little idea of how they lived. Following a 1939 court ruling that the Inuit, like First Nations people, were to be the responsibility of the government, Canada had begun to put into place a structure of "management" that often regarded the Inuit more as problems than as people. The fact that Inuit in Inukjuak and other areas further north along the Ungava Peninsula were accepting government assistance at a higher rate than had been anticipated led the government to believe they were becoming "dependent" and that the Ungava area was "overpopulated." Based on these assumptions, they decided that moving the Inuit much further north would solve these nonexistent problems; what's more, having permanent settlements north of Lancaster Sound would reinforce the Canadian presence in the Arctic islands, particularly Ellesmere.

The government also assumed, without any understanding of the type of game and other food sources available, that Inuit wold be able to quickly adjust to their new homes. The Inuit, told that they would be provided with boats and other equipment, packed lightly and were completely unprepared for their isolated new homesteads in a far colder and unfamiliar land. Their disappointment, and the terrible struggle to survive, took an immediate toll on Larry's father, Akeeaktashuk. He began to have fainting spells, and with the last of these, he literally fell down and died. Larry, writing as an adult, understands why, but as a child this loss, and the loss of so many others who had come trusting the promises of the Qallunaat, took an incomprehensible toll on his childhood.

Larry recounts this central story with extraordinary candor and feeling -- but what surprised me most in reading his book was how many other kinds of stories he had to tell. You sense at once what a spirited child, and a lively youth, he was -- every difficulty of life, from being sent to a TB hospital in Québec, to his experience with the residential school system, to the inevitable conflicting pulls that left him, as he puts it, "living in two worlds -- he faces with determination. There were some missteps -- as an older man looking back on the errors of his youth, he is forgiving -- and we his readers are inclined to forgive as well.

If those interested in the modern history of the Inuit people of eastern Canada were to read just one book on the subject, Larry Audlaluk's What I Remember, What I Know, should be it. His life is representative of the experience of so many Inuit of his generation, and his tenacity, forthrightness, and hard-earned wisdom illuminate not only this past, but show the way to a better future to come. 

My only criticism -- and it is very slight -- of the book is that the publisher decided to eschew notes, and that the list of place and personal names doesn't always reference the standard forms, so that readers hearing (for instance) of Inujjuak may not realize that this is the same as Inukjuak. Nevertheless, Larry's voice rings clear and strong throughout, never more so than in the last line of the book: "We are here to stay."

Monday, January 6, 2020

Adventures in Polar Reading

Adventures in Polar Reading: The Book Cultures of High Latitudes

by David H. Stam, with Deirdre C. Stam

New York: The Grolier Club, $40.00

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Anyone with more than a passing interest in books and polar expeditions will have long been familiar with the extraordinary work of David H. Stam. He has reconstructed the catalogues of some of the world's most remote libraries, those located aboard the ships, or in the encampments, of polar expeditions. Along the way, he has also probed the social and psychological value of such remote reading, including the appetite for print which led many expeditions to produce their own books and periodicals. If we are what we read, then it would seem that explorers -- once their reference reading is set aside -- seem to have taken particular pleasure in fiction; among their most frequently cherished volumes have been Dickens's Bleak House, Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (a fact which surely would have gratified its author, who as a child was fascinated with Arctic explorers).

Adventures in Polar Reading is, in physical form, an embodied curriculum vitæ of Stam's work over these past two decades, arranged so as to bring us along in his venturesome company, and partake of the pleasure of discoveries made along the way. It begins with a short recursus of Stam's fascination with his subject, sprinkled with witty asides and reflections that set the tone for what's to come. We then commence with an early reflection of his on the function of reading among historical expeditions, on the "silent friends" whose presence proved such a comfort to those denied any human company beyond their own. This flows quite perfectly into a chapter on the libraries of such expeditions; between the two, we learn of Robert Bartlett's fondness for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and how Julius Payer reveled in his library, which included Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, and "a whole tribe of romances, which were read with never-ending delight." Most poignantly, we learn that Dr. Edward Wilson (one of Scott's comrades who died with him) was reading and re-reading Tennyson's In Memoriam while on their southern march, remarking that "it makes me feel that if the end comes to me here or hereabout there will be no great time for Ory to sorrow. All will be as it is meant to be."1

In another, perhaps retroactively more sombre moment, we eavesdrop on the survivors of the Greely expedition, who in coming upon a small cache of lemons wrapped in newspapers, savored the news even more than the lemons, carefully unwrapping each one and flattening and drying the paper. In his diary, second-in-command David Brainard described the scene: "The first of a series of very pleasant entertainments took place to-night. The scraps of newspapers were read aloud for fifteen minutes by Rice [the expedition's photographer who died later on the journey] just after dinner. This will be repeated every night until all are read."

Stam's chapters are sprinkled with such revelatory gems, even as they advance the theme of polar reading in all its aspects: the battered books of Fort Conger, poignantly damaged not by Arctic conditions but by a leaky library roof in Peary's Maine estate; an accounting of the role of newspapers and periodicals in polar reading, and a detailed accounting of the "Seaman's Friend Society" and their pre-assembled libraries of self-improvement and religious tracts in duodecimo. Two of the best-known and most substantial expedition libraries then receive extensive treatment: that of Admiral Byrd at "Little America" in Antarctica, and that of Shackleton's Endurance. The volume concludes with a touching Quo Vadis? -- whither then? -- in which Stam surveys the array of thematic and research topics yet to be fully explored by polar librarians and researchers.

As is to be expected in a volume published under the auspices of the Grolier Club in New York City, Adventures in Polar Reading is a strikingly handsome volume, sturdily bound in cloth boards, and copiously illustrated. No collection of Arctic or Antarctic books worth its salt -- or, perhaps I should say, worth its ice -- should be without it.

1 Ory was Oriana, Wilson's wife.