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You Are Indigenous No Matter Where You Stand

I’ve heard it too often, a young Indigenous person who tells me that they don’t qualify as being Indigenous. After all, look at their skin and eye colour. They only know a smattering of Indigenous words. They don’t know anything about tradition or ceremony. They can’t apply for a Nunavut beneficiary card because they live in the south. Did our ancestors look at each other and size one another that way? Is Inuitness something to be measured?  

When my sons were small, I had a spot on a kitchen wall that they would stand against on their birthdays. I would put another mark on the wall and then measure how much they had grown over the last year. Is that how we, as Inuit people measure one another? For as old as I am now, I will say my authenticity is on trial every day. It is as though, as an Inuit person, I must fit into someone else’s idea of what an Inuit person is.  

One year I am attending an Inuit Christmas party. It was something that I helped plan. I am so pleased to see the number of Inuit who have arrived with their children. There is good food and candy and small toys for the little ones. We are to have an afternoon of playing games together and then eating. A non-Inuit city councilman has brought his family with him. The party was open to anyone who wanted to attend. It is a beautiful gathering. 

My non-Inuit girlfriend and her husband arrive, and I seat them at a table. I tell them I will get them some tea and baked treats, but my girlfriend says she will do that and I should sit and relax. I am left alone with her husband, who I have just met. Within thirty seconds, he looks at me and says, “Your dad was white, right?” I asked him to repeat what he said because I couldn’t believe what I heard. He repeats, and I look at him at say, “Do you know what my dad was? He was an excellent hunter.” My girlfriend returns to the table, and her husband says not one word. I leave the table, feigning an excuse for having to help with the party. 

I did not like that man. I did not like his question because it implied I was not the real deal. My authenticity was on trial on a Sunday afternoon at what should have been a happy event. I was at a crossroads, a place that was all too familiar. I did not lie. My father was an excellent hunter, and my mother was happiest when she was fishing. We were a family that picked berries and fished every year. My father brought home ducks and geese and deer and moose. Northern cousins sent us caribou when we lived in Winnipeg for one year. Domesticated beef and chicken were eaten during late spring and summer when the freezer was emptied of all the land food. I always think that my parents never stopped being trappers. Every fall, we would be loaded into the station wagon. Then the long drive to the nearest city where we would buy huge sacks of flour and sugar. It was the only time in a year when we could get store-bought clothes. Our lives revolved around seasons.  

All of that upbringing happened south of sixty. My folks left Churchill just before I was born. Leaving there did not mean leaving hunting and fishing behind. Leaving there did not mean putting away Inuit Quajimajatuqangit (IQ), the Inuit ways of knowing and being. These ways were what our mother taught us. She taught us to be respectful, serve others, be welcoming, and share what we had. I believe the difference in how she taught us was through how she lived her life. She did not sit us down like students in a classroom and write IQ on a blackboard. She did not lecture or force us to learn any task within a certain amount of time. She never told me I had to come into the kitchen to work with her. I knew I was expected to do that on my own, and when I got frustrated or bored with a task, she did not browbeat me into learning. It was ok if I walked away and then learned that same task another day.  

It was a chilly fall night, and newspapers were lying on the basement floor. My father and one of my brothers arrived home after hunting geese. The dead birds are placed onto the newspaper. My mom is plucking the feathers and down off their bodies. I watch her until she pats the floor next to her. She places a goose in front of me and nods with her chin, signalling me to watch her and then start to pluck the goose myself. I am nervous, but I do not resist. I start to pull the down from the chest of the goose. Mom shakes her head no and clasps my forefinger and thumb into a pinching position. 

“Like this,” she says. I start to pinch the down off the goose and fall into a good rhythm. All is fine until the lice from the bird start to run up my arms. I scream and say, “I can’t do this!” Mom tells me that the lice won’t hurt me and encourages me to continue my task. I start to cry. She says quietly, “It’s ok. You can go upstairs.” I raced up those stairs and into the kitchen, turned on the cold water tap and watched the lice swirl into the drain. I never plucked a goose again but learned to fillet fish like an expert.  

What I am trying to get to in this writing is that for those Inuit who lives in the south or out of the country, take the time to examine how you were taught as a child. Take the time to start to learn Inuktitut. Take the time to stand tall in who you are, no matter where you live.  

The Inuit population is just over 75,000 in Canada, and I believe many do not identify as Inuit. These are the Inuit who have agreed to the colonial measures that our ancestors never judged anyone by. I have often heard younger Inuit say that their parents or grandparents never taught them how to be Inuit or speak Inuktitut, but that responsibility is not solely theirs. As Inuit seeking your sense of self, you must take up that hunt. You must track and find what it is you are looking for. I ask that no matter where you live in the world or what your career is, you stand proud and confidently say, “I am Inuit.”


  [1] For a basic understanding of Inuit values see Inuit Quajimajatuqangit at: https://leapintothevoidwithme.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/principles-of-inuit-qaujimajatuqangit/ 

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