We Are More Than A Language
We are together, the Elder and I. I am the one driving us to our venue. A place where she will speak, and I will be sure she is comfortable. It’s a cold winter night, and the darkened streets have yet to be plowed. We are forging our way through talking about how it would be easier to have a dog team instead of the ’92 Chevy to get us to our destination.
She is speaking her memories to me, memories that are more than sixty years old. Life was simpler then, and moving around in snow did not require plowed streets. The dog team would pull them to where they were going without waiting for street lights to change to green. I know she is right, even though I’ve never been on a sled pulled by huskies. We will eat dinner with the committee members tonight, people who have a fascination for her. I watched them watch her every move, how her head tilts when she smiles, and how her eyes become the size of paper cuts when she laughs. They all know to speak louder because of her deafness. I smile because I know she is not deaf. She is teaching them a lesson that they may never understand.
Don’t expect an Elder to answer a question immediately. Allow the words to disappear from the air between your mouth and her ears. Let the words spend some time inside of her and inside of you. Give more than a second or third thought to what you have asked. She is teaching you to be careful with what you say, especially if she asks you to repeat it. She is teaching you a response requires time. The Elder tries to understand you and the reason for your question. The Elder has to think of speaking in the words and way that you will understand best. She will speak her response only once in hopes of having her words stay inside of you. It may take you days or months before you understand her response. Know that her response will stay inside of you. Know that her words will strengthen you even on your very worse days.
Tonight, we will sit at a table overflowing with food and wine. She will not drink any alcohol, not because she is a snob but because she is an Elder. Her mind must be clear. We have already prayed for all the people who will be at the gathering. She prayed for safety, for honesty, for truth and love. She prayed for the committee to tackle their work in a way that would bring everlasting good. She prayed for all the Indigenous children who are here and for those who are waiting to arrive to benefit from their work. She is humble.
I know all these things about her because of our time together before the committee asked for her wisdom. We have spent time laughing together over things that I know nobody else would find funny or be able to understand. We have often shared many pots of tea and bowls of homemade chicken soup and bannock. I never refuse her invitations. Time with an Elder is time well spent. I have been vulnerable with her when we are alone and together in her kitchen. I’ve told her all the doubts that I carry about myself. She has always listened but never responded.
She has never said that I have to ‘stay the course’ or read a specific book that would contain all the answers to my endless questions. She does not tell me how to navigate this quest for self that I am on. She listens and listens and listens. The biggest gift she gives me is listening.
There are times when I hear her sigh as I repeat yet another thing about myself that non-Inuit point out to me. The ones who say that I can’t be what and who I say I am. The ones who watch me not with the same fascination that they watch her with. The ones looking for me to make one error or say one thing wrong about Inuit people. They are the ones who read and write books about the Inuit but are not Inuit. Those ones.
Identity is something we all struggle with. It is a lifelong quest, but for Indigenous people, identity requires proof. Evidence is required to say we are Inuit, First Nations or Métis. We have to be able to produce a card in the way that a driver’s license is used. We can get pulled over not by police but by everyone else and be asked to prove that we are what we say we are. We have to be able to provide that proof to government officials, pharmacists, dentists, professors, doctors, lawyers and the typical everyday person.
I have explained this to her as she sits next to me in a car that is grinding and howling at both of us. She never responds when I am finished with one of my lengthy rants. She only nods and passes me more bannock. There are times when I am sure she has not heard one word I’ve said. Her response is usually, “Here! Eat more!” I do as I am told, like a tiny child who just got caught doing something bad.
We finally arrive at our venue. The Elder is wearing her amauti and waits for me to help her out of the car. I cradle her elbows in my hands. She latches onto my elbows and lifts her tiny body into standing. She tucks her right arm into mine. We take a few steps forward when she stops. I look down at her, wondering if she is not feeling well.
“I have something to say to you. It is not many words, but you can spend time thinking about it tonight. You say you are not fluent in our language. You say that people don’t think you are a real Inuk because you can’t speak Inuktitut. Here is my question for you to think about. Is that all we are? A language?”
I nod my head to show I understand what she is asking. I know to wait to reply. I know only to acknowledge that she has given me a big task. A huge question that I have to wrestle with.
As the night wears on, I watch how warm and kind she is to those at the long table. I watch how they each approach her and talk with her. I watch how she does not yawn, even though I know she is exhausted. What I see in front of me is the answer to her question. She shows me how she is Inuit and all the lessons her ancestors taught her. I see her openness, kindness, patience, humour, grace, and goodness.
I can now answer her question with confidence. Inuit are more than a language.