'What's important is for us to leave children who know where they are from.'

The man who runs Baker's house of history


BAKER LAKE – Hugh Nateela is Baker Lake's new custodian of Inuit culture.

Nateela, who also works as a taxi driver in this hamlet of 1,500, took over the curator's job at the Baker Lake Inuit Heritage Centre about a month ago after veteran curator Winnie Owingayak retired.

"I figured this would be a good opportunity to learn about my history," he said. "I wanted to be able to help promote our heritage."

A museum portion of the centre contains numerous artifacts depicting the inland Inuit cultures that coalesced around Baker Lake after the establishment of an airstrip nearby in the 1950s.

As in many other Nunavut communities, the RCMP, the Hudson's Bay Co. and Christian missionaries soon followed, as well as Inuit from the nine separate groups who lived on the barrens, ranging from areas near Arviat to Chantrey Inlet and the shores of the Queen Maude Gulf.

Some of the pieces, like the caribou-skin tent and kayaks, were made by local volunteers, while others, including guns, tools and bone fragments, were found by hunters on the land.

Nateela said he tries to encourage local hunters to leave such items undisturbed, but admits they're better off housed in the heritage centre than in the hands of private collectors.

The centre, which opened in 1998, also serves as a hub for the local elders committee, and Nateela wants to use it as a way to transmit Inuit traditions to younger generations. Students from Baker Lake's schools already make visits, and Nateela hopes to start bringing youth and elders together for demonstrations of traditional skills.

"I know the older generation is concerned the younger generation is losing touch with their heritage," Nateela said. "We don't have so much of that one-on-one passing of knowledge anymore."

In the summer, the centre sees some tourists, including a growing number of paddlers who travel the Kazan and Thelon rivers each summer. The community has even built a place for paddlers to stay, complete with showers and places to camp.

And even a few of the booming number of transient workers drawn to Baker Lake by the fast-growing mining industry pass through, Nateela said.

That mining boom is forcing another period of transition for Inuit culture. While the jobs, money and infrastructure are welcomed both by governments and regular people, industrial working life is also putting the squeeze on traditional culture.

For example, Nateela said fathers working nine-to-five jobs get less time to pass on hunting skills to their sons, which is why school trips on the land are important.

"In this day and age, with so much going on, it's very easy to lose yourself in this world. What's important is for us to leave children who know where they are from."

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