Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut August 02, 2018 - 2:30 pm

Once-forbidden Inuit songs to be heard in Iqaluit public performance

"When the Christian missionaries started coming in, Inuit were not allowed to sing the pisiit any more"

COURTNEY EDGAR
Pakak Innuksuk, an Inuit drummer, will be one of the instructors at Qaggiavuut's course on traditional Inuit pisiit songs that were banned for decades by missionaries. Students from across Nunavut will learn eight Inuktitut songs from eight elders from Monday to Friday and will perform the first public pisiit concert in 50 years next Thursday. (PHOTO COURTESY OF QAGGIAVUUT)
Pakak Innuksuk, an Inuit drummer, will be one of the instructors at Qaggiavuut's course on traditional Inuit pisiit songs that were banned for decades by missionaries. Students from across Nunavut will learn eight Inuktitut songs from eight elders from Monday to Friday and will perform the first public pisiit concert in 50 years next Thursday. (PHOTO COURTESY OF QAGGIAVUUT)

Updated on Friday, Aug. 3 at 9:40 a.m.

When Rhoda Ungalaq was growing up, sometimes a man would sing pisiit under his breath, in a whisper, just loud enough for her to hear. As a child, she did not particularly like the songs, but Ungalaq realizes now that was mostly because she just did not understand them.

The lyrics of these story-like songs would use unusual versions of Inuktitut words, which she found confusing as a child, such as “nagjulikjuaq”, which means “the one with the big antlers,” instead of “tuktu.” They were spiritual songs about life—hunting, animals, hardships—using poetic language.

“It is singing a language we don’t use every day. They’re very hard to understand because you have to know the story. And these songs are not written, it is all by memory,” Ungalaq said.

Now, for what would be the first time in 50 years, traditional Inuit pisiit―or songs―will be performed in Iqaluit for the public.

This concert, to be held on August 9 at the Iqaluit soup kitchen, will close off a four-day master course in spiritual Inuit song, organized by the Qaggiavuut Society. This short program will be taught completely in Inuktitut, with 34 lessons and eight elders teaching their own chosen pisiit. Susan Aglukark will lead the choir rehearsals.

“When the Christian missionaries started coming in, Inuit were not allowed to sing the pisiit any more,” said Ungalaq, who helped plan the course and will be a participant.

Elders from various communities across Nunavut will teach these songs and Qaggiavuut plans to film each one as they talk about the pisiit they chose and what it means to them. Qaggiavuut is also creating an iPad app for students to learn about pisiit.

This way, the ancient art form can live on.

Although the students from communities in Nunavut other than Iqaluit have already been selected, program registration remains open for applicants who are currently living in Iqaluit. Qaggiavuut will accept students right up until class starts on Monday. All you need to do is give them a call or show up at the Qaggiavuut office.

They just ask is that if you do have an interest in taking the course, which is free of charge, you must commit to attending the whole program. It runs from Monday, Aug. 6, until Friday, Aug. 10, all day, and is open to all ages.

Ellen Hamilton, who organized the pisiit project, suggests that prospective students ask their employers if they can take a professional development leave from work for this training.

“It is an intensive course in Inuktitut and Inuit traditional knowledge,” Hamilton explained.

Qaggiavuut will also offer financial support and childcare support for those interested in taking the free course but who might otherwise be discouraged from doing so, if it involved taking unpaid leave or getting a babysitter.

Because the pisiit course will only be taught in Inuktitut with no English translation, Hamilton warns that students must have a grasp of Inuktitut or be patient enough to try to immerse themselves independently into the five days of lessons.

The students’ final performance will be a reflection of what they learned over the program―the final pisiit concert held at the soup kitchen on Thursday.

Since Ungalaq’s confusion about pisiit in her youth, she later went on to research these traditional songs and write a thesis on the subject during her teacher training.

Now she is happy that this course will be taught in Iqaluit, long after the public singing of pisiit was discouraged by missionaries eager to assimilate Inuit.

It’s important that Qaggiavuut is working hard to preserve these songs for the generations to come, she said.

“When people make songs, they do healing. When they go through hardships and put it into songs they feel much better. You have to let it out through songs,” Ungalaq said.

Correction

An earlier version of this story stated that Rhoda Ungalaq heard her father sing pisiit as a child. In fact, it was someone else’s father. As well, the story originally stated that Ungalaq would be teaching at the workshop, when that is not the case.

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(9) Comments:

#1. Posted by Thomassie Mangiok on August 02, 2018

Thank you, I hope we in Nunavik follow these courageous Inuit.

We need to acknowledge our identity. This is a great way to appreciate and explore our language, history and culture.

#2. Posted by concerned on August 03, 2018

It looks like it finally went full circle, back to the old beat? Christianity is no better than shamanism, both believe in deity’s.

#3. Posted by Hannah Q on August 03, 2018

Here in Gjoa Haven they were teaching Young People Pihiqs (ingiungniqmik) but it was held during working hours,(a few years back) I was really wishing to attend because I love the pihiq’s they sing in our area.
My husband David explains to me what they mean, he learned from his Late Grandmother and today from his Dad.
One of my boys knows most of the songs, my favourite is one of my Ittuq Hadlari’s Pihiq naming all the places he travelled in Gjoa Haven/Taluqruaq area,My Mom in Taluqruaq once told me that even the lil Kindergarten students know how to sing one of his Pihiqs, Ayainayuk.
Now to teach the Art of Drum Dancing of long ago, not how they Drum Dance today, it sucks watching it on TV.

#4. Posted by Absurd on August 04, 2018

How absurd, the Churches forbidding people singing their own songs.
This is one more stunning act of colonialism that cannot be denied.
My heart goes out to people who, because of deep fear of those in authority had to deep-six their own songs!
We stepped with such a heavy foot in another people’s culture up here and scared the hel* out of people, everywhere we went.
Not great arctic citizens, are we?

#5. Posted by Inuk on August 04, 2018

Decolonization is great!

#6. Posted by iThink on August 06, 2018

#4 Who is this “we” of whom you speak when you say “we” aren’t great citizens?

Who is and who is not included in this broad categorization you’ve formed? As an atheist, can I be accused?

From my view the church has been injecting poison into western society since Constantine and continues to do so by paralysing its followers with fear and ignorance. This is definitely a form of mental slavery, and a useful tool toward colonization. No question.

Still, I wonder sometimes at what motivates people to make the massive inductive leaps such as you have, i.e. as in these blanket statements of culpability (read: white guilt).

Perhaps moralizing makes people feel somehow superior to their peers? Or, maybe it eases some other deep seated guilt they might feel over their own suppressed racism?

It is a demonstrably poor strategy, riddled with fallacies, either way

#7. Posted by Singer on August 07, 2018

Piita Iniq clarified that Christianity did not forbid the singing of these traditional songs.  Perhaps this story needs proper clarification.

#8. Posted by Sarimanaq on August 07, 2018

The pisiit were discouraged by Anglican missionaries in the Baffin. The Roman Catholics were more respectful towards Inuit. One must remember, Inuit were living in small family camps until the 1950s and 1960s. Some traditional songs and beliefs were passed down regardless of the church’s stern eye. Overall, pisiit were considered to be part of the old ways. Our parents and grandparents did not like listening to old Inuit singing the ayayaa singing on the radio.

Peter Irniq is from another area. Nunavut is huge and vast. Some traditions survived in each area. Not all ways were ways of everyone. Over generalization is happening more and more. Be open.

#9. Posted by Pagan on August 08, 2018

It was really more the English (Anglicans) who forbade such tradition. I remember elders drumming and singing at our catholic Mission after Sunday night services in the 70’s/08’s there are even photos in Igloolik.. Assimilation did not work for us.

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