FEATURES: Nunavut November 13, 2017 - 10:00 am

Drum-dance song book shares powerful tradition in western Nunavut

“These songs are like a window into all the strengths of our people”


CAMBRIDGE BAY—Drumming and singing filled Cambridge Bay’s Luke Novoligak Community Hall Oct. 18 after the official book launch of Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit or “Stories Told Through Drum-Dance Songs.”

Residents from communities around western Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region ringed the centre of the hall, where drummers rose up in turn to dance. Small children sometimes also joined in to dance to the beat.

To some, the voices of the departed even seemed to join in this celebration.

“There were more people than you actually saw in the group,” said Julia Ogina, who led the Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit book project for the Kitikmeot Inuit Association.

“We could hear the voices of the people who are gone, the people in the book. Even the singers acknowledged that we could hear them singing with us.”

The evening ended up being about much more than dance, more than songs, “more than what we see,” Ogina said in a recent interview in her office at the KIA, where she is program co-ordinator for elders, language and culture.

The book, published by Inhabit Media, which includes 10 Inuinnait songs and 10 Netsilik ones, is the result of more than 10 years of consultation with elders who went deep into their memories to retrieve the songs.

The process was empowering, Ogina said, because “these songs are like a window into all the strengths of our people.”

In writing down the songs, she and the others rediscovered old ways of speaking.

“When we started to pay attention to the songs, did community consultations, and [received] knowledge of elders and the terms that were used, there were so many terms that I couldn’t understand,” Ogina said.

For example, she said the singers used special words to refer to animals in their songs so that it wouldn’t appear that, as they sang, they were “gossiping” about the animals which were intimately linked to hunters and survival of the people.

That no wildlife was named at all in the songs was surprising at first to those involved in transcribing the songs, until they figured out what the words referred to.

Among the special words used in the songs: minngiriaq for iqaluk (fish), and ussulik, qayulik or unnguaqliqtun for nattiq (seal).

These words, and others, are all listed in the back of book, which has only its introduction translated into English.

In recording the songs, Ogina said they also learned that songs were “very specific” and revealed much about the person who wrote them.

Ogina recounted a song that talks about a hunter at a seal breathing hole.

“I haven’t moved
I haven’t moved
I’m fishing at the fishing hole, because the fish didn’t bite my hook.”

As she said the words to this song, Ogina closed her eyes, which filled with tears, and then she stopped for a moment to recover before continuing to speak.

“You can feel how people experienced starvation because you can tell this came from a hunter,” she said.

“I never really understood how that was to experience that until we started to get into the songwriting and what kind of emotions they would have gone through: They were very, very powerful people.”

For Ogina, Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit is also a beginning for more understanding, spanning the region’s dialects—from Ulukhaktok, Ogina’s hometown which is now in the Northwest Territories, to Taloyoak and Kugaaruk at the eastern edge of the Kitikmeot region.

Now elders are feeling more free to talk, she said, about those songs and their knowledge which, for many years, were repressed.

“Once they start sharing their stories, it comes back,” she said.

But elders have told her that they feel an urgency to meet again, as they did for two days in Cambridge Bay after the KIA’s October annual general meeting, because when there are no more singers, they fear that the drum-dancing tradition will die.

That was the realization which drove the collection of songs for Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit and continues to encourage more work on amassing the songs.

Ogina’s goal is that 500 copies of the book will be distributed throughout the Kitikmeot region where they can provide a tool for elders and youth to talk.

It’s all about engagement in a powerful tradition, she said.

For now, there’s no CD of the songs to accompany the texts in Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit.

So, if you don’t know the songs, and you want to know more, you have to find someone to help you, she said.

In Cambridge Bay, Ogina remains active passing on songs and drum dancing through the Inuinnait drummers and dancers group, which meets weekly and performs at many community events.