The Inuit way of life
The Inuit way of life in Nunavut is my life and identity. We learn our way of life through our grandparents and parents and also from the elders of the communities across Nunavut. Inuit children are told what’s right from wrong. We did not learn these from books or written laws but are taught through doing and from the words of our elders.
Our parents are our greatest teachers. These are unwritten laws but understood. We enjoyed learning new things brought to us by the visitors from the South. This was also fun and very different from the way we were taught and knew how to do it. The elders in the community were very much respected, especially by the children and younger people.
The elders talked about the people before them, Inuit giants and very small people that used to occupy the Inuit lands. They also talked about the travels by dog teams and by skin boats. To make a one-person qayarq, the women cleaned the seal skins, dried them, scraped and made them soft to make them easier to sew. Together the Inuit couples made qayarq (one) and qayait (more than one), better known as a kayak. The man-made the frame for the qayarq. When the frame is done, the wet seal skins, with which the fur has been removed, are put on the frame, and when there are enough skins, the women sew them together to cover the frame of the qayarq completely. The sewing is done swiftly so the skins can be sewn together before the skins dry. The skins are stretched as they sew, so when the skins are dry, the skins will be tight against the frame.
The Inuit men also made rope. The seal skin is scraped clean of any blubber and fur. The women prepare the skins, it’s kept wet, and then cut in circles with a man’s Inuit knife to create a long rope. The rope is then stretched across, made tight by tying each end of the rope with rocks, and then is stretched across the rocks and dried by the sun and the wind. When the skin rope is dried, the man softens the rope by twisting it using his hands to be made pliable. These ropes are used in qayait, ummiat, dog team rope to pull the sled, or any other way where a rope is needed. The Inuit also make boats using seal skins. These are made using the same technique as making a qayarq. These boats, which are called ummiaq in Inuktitut, are created so a family can travel together.
During the time we lived in our very traditional ways of Inuit life, we wore all-skin clothing. The clothing was made from the skins of a caribou, seal skin, and polar bear skins. The children’s clothing made with caribou skins was one piece, the top half and the bottom half sewn together. This outfit is called attarqtaarq, which translates to ‘one-piece outfit.’ Being a one-piece outfit, it protects the wind and the cold from getting into the bare skin. The boys and girls all wore the attarqtaarq while travelling by a dog team or playing outside, or doing chores.
There were no materials to buy from a store because there were no stores in the Arctic at that time. The mitts are often made of caribou skin and sometime sealskin. They are sewn together using a thread using a muscle from the caribou. The muscle is removed from the caribou and then cleaned of any meat residue or caribou fat. It is then placed on something flat for the caribou skin muscle to dry. When the muscle or sinew is dried, a strip is removed from the sinew and then used as thread. The thread is called ivvalu. Any skin is sewn together using a sinew thread. When there were no needles, the needles were made from ivory or caribou bone. The ivvalu is used for sewing together caribou skins, seal skins and polar bear skins. The skins are often hard for the needles to go through. The thimbles were made with seal skins. This is to protect the needle ends from piercing the sewer’s skin.
Besides using the skins for the Inuit tents, clothing and dog harnesses, the meat of these animals was used for food for both the Inuit and their dogs. Caribou meat is very healthy red meat. It is eaten frozen, boiled over a qullirq (seal oil lamp), and buried in a cache where the meat is lightly aged and by making them into dry jerky known as mipku. Many years ago, the only heat source for cooking meat or making hot water was the qullirq. We often ate frozen caribou meat. The women also place cut-up caribou in a pot and cook the meat slowly over a qullirq. The pots before the stores were built in Nunavut were often obtained from trading with sailors who may have come exploring these areas in the Arctic. The thin tin-type pots were treasured and well looked after by the Inuit. They were heat resistant. When the caribou meat was cooked, the families and visitors ate together and told stories. Whether eating frozen caribou or cooked caribou, this was a social time to be able to sit and tell stories to each other. The children listened to the stories.
The preparation of buried caribou meat cache was done during the early fall, when the sun was no longer hot, which might make the meat poisonous, botulism. At this time, the weather is no longer warm but not yet frozen. The caribou carcasses are cut apart by the limbs and buried in a gravelly area on the land. The meat is placed on gravel then rocks are placed on top of the meat. The meat becomes aged mildly from the weather. The man will go by the dog team to get the aged meat when meat is needed for food. It is delicious and a nice change from eating fresh meat most times. Quite often, the wolves will find the cache of meat and eat the meat. When the man came home with aged meat, we were always happy that the wolves had not feasted on our cached meat upon the hunter’s return.
The Inuit also dry the caribou meat during the early spring and during the summer. Dry caribou meat is not often used for immediate food consumption but rather to eat during the winter months. Food is often scarce during the winter months, and the caribou migration might not have come through the usual route of the community. The ice is thick, so collecting fresh fish becomes difficult. The caribou meat is cut into slabs and placed on rocks or on a skin rope to dry from the winds and by sunshine. When the meat is dry, the meat is put into skin bags, bags that are sewn together to pack things into. Towards the end of the summer, when the meat is dry, it can be stored in cache form like fresh caribou meat. It provides the Inuit with red meat throughout the winter. The eyes, the tongue and the brain of the caribou are a delicacy and are often saved for the children. None of the organs of the caribou are wasted. The Inuit cook the heart, the kidneys, the liver, and the stomach sac. These parts are very beneficial to the Inuit’s health.
Another traditional food the Inuit eat is plenty of fish and fish of many different kinds. The ocean provides us with char fish, and from the lakes, we get trout, land-locked char, and white fish. The cod are also caught, which become food for the husky dogs. The char spend their winter in the lakes. Then during the spring, when the rivers are running, the char go down the river to the ocean where they feed on the small shrimp which are found along the shallow parts of the ocean, closer to the land. The char run in schools along the shore and feed on the shrimp. In early September, the char return to where they came from, down the river they travelled during the spring, back to the lakes. By this time, the char are fat, and the belly parts are very oily. The men spend their springtime with a fish spear and spear the fish as they run by beneath the sea ice. The spear is called a kakivak. The kakivak is made with musk-ox horns, as the horns of the musk-ox are flexible. The kakivak has a long wooden pole where the fisherperson spears the char.
The char fish are made into dry fish, dried hung on ropes. The wind and the sun dry them. When the fish are not abundant during the winter months, the dry fish are eaten by the families and shared among other Inuit. The women save some fish heads, and at the end of the day, the heads are boiled in a big pot. Also, some fish meat is added to the pot. This is the big meal of the day, and often it is the only time the families and visitors eat that meal. There are always so many things to do that often during the day, and they only have time to drink tea with Bannock.
The traditional Inuit way of life was joyful, the parents made our chores joyful, and we were taught that the children had to do chores like fetching water, keeping the qullirq going, feeding the husky dogs, and being able to hand things to the parents as they worked.
The Inuit women also often went in groups to pick berries, go fishing, picking heather to make fire out on the land. The women often bring a kettle to make tea out on the land during the summer, making fire by burning leather between two rocks, with a kettle propped up between them. This is a social time for the children and the women. The men often get together to tell stories and perform drum dancing, and this is when they socialize. For the men and women, time to socialize was usually in the early evening sitting outside, as the sun never sets in the Arctic during the summer months.
My life was very happy growing up before we were introduced to the missionaries, the police, and the government. We were learning so many new things, some of us adapted easily, but also some Inuit stayed with the traditional way of life. However, even today, children are taught the traditional way of life that the Inuit lived. We survived for many years following our Inuit laws.