“A long time ago when it was serene and beautiful”
Museum’s elders speakers series is a trip through history.
Jayko Pitseolak looks warily into the crowd gathered at Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit.
It’s a blustery night in mid December, and about 20 people have gathered for the museum’s elders speakers series. Pitseolak, 76, is the second of six elders from the community to recount stories and memories in front of the museum’s camera. The tape will become a living history of Iqaluit and its people.
Originally from Cape Dorset, Pitseolak and her family moved to Iqaluit by dogteam in 1955, when Pitseolak was 30.
“I don’t really know about white people,” she says through a interpreter. “I’ve never been around white people since I was a little girl.”
Growing up, the only qallunaat Pitseolak encountered were traders, missionaries or RCMP officers. So it’s understandable that she greets her audience with apprehension.
“My grandmother used to tell me stories about her life,” she begins. “Stories from a long time ago — before there were any white people. A long time ago, when it was serene and beautiful.”
The speakers series is a lesson in history for many of the people in the audience tonight. They listen intently through their headphones as children play at the back of the room among the museum’s glass cases.
“We used to eat meat only — freshly killed. There was no tea or tobacco. It was a beautiful part of life,” she says. “Our boats were made from sealskins only. We paddled with wooden oars and used walrus intestines for sails.”
She tells the crowd how her family travelled to northern Quebec, crossing the rough waters periodically to seek out new hunting grounds and visit with friends.
“While I was a young girl, it was my most joyous trip — we’d go on a boat and look for duck eggs. We’d go by boat to the land and pick up eggs from a duck’s nest.”
It’s a disconnected series of memories, but it is an honest, illuminating account of growing up on the land.
“Very few people lived in canvas tents when I was a child,” Pitseolak says from her seat on the well-lit stage. “We used sealskin in Cape Dorset.”
She takes a package from her purse and unfolds it to reveal a set of needles and some sinew thread. She squints slightly and threads the needle. “That’s how my mother used to make tents in springtime,” she says.
An audience member asks how many sealskins it takes to make a tent. “Any number of skins,” Pitseolak replies. “It depends on the size of the tent. Some of the tents were small and some were big — just like the houses here.”
“In the fall, they would move into igloos,” she adds. “Even though I was a young girl, I would pretend to make igloos. I made an igloo at age 14 while the men were chasing a polar bear. My mother asked for shelter and I made one for her.” A broad grin expands across her face.
“In Cape Dorset, they would build a huge igloo and the whole camp would go there and celebrate Christmas. They were celebrating at Christmas-time even though they weren’t aware of Christmas.”
Later, when she lived in Iqaluit, she explains, the community would hold a similar feast. “Men would have a large knife and play music with it. They didn’t use drums. The women wore rabbit-mitts with bird feathers and they would move their hands. The women would be singing. It was beautiful,” she says.
“There would be men and women dancing — women moving in one direction, men moving in the other direction. The men would kiss a woman they liked. The women would not shy away — if they walked away, the men would say, ‘Shy woman, shy woman.” Pitseolak smiles as she recalls the image.
“In the winter, I’d go with the men who were going hunting, even though I didn’t have warm enough clothing. I went fox hunting with the other fellows before I had a husband.”
Someone in the audience asks about her husband and Pitseolak laughs. “We were not allowed to flirt or chase men,” she says. “I thought I’d never meet men. I knew that men liked me, but I wasn’t allowed to flirt. But when they gave me one, I was really scared. I wasn’t sure what to do — I did not know the man, how he behaves, his character. I did not know him at all.”
Eventually, she explains, she came to know her husband. They had eight children, though only four are still living. She points to a man at the back of the audience. “How old are you?” she asks. “Forty-four,” he replies. She nods. “One is 44.”
She closes her eyes and leans her head back. “When I was 37, my husband died. He was 41. I was young at the time. I didn’t realize I was young.” She tells the audience that all her living children are over the age of 37.
“When I was a young woman, I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing. I wasn’t smart, but I would try hard. After having children, I was trying my best. Even now, I am trying my best,” she says.
“We were poor. We’d be hungry sometimes, but nowadays it’s very easy for us — living in wooden houses,” she says. “I never grew up in with wooden houses and I think that’s why my house isn’t very tidy.” The crowd laughs at her joke.
In another part of the museum, refreshments have been set out. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate and panetone bread with butter and jam are set out along a large table. On the floor over on the other side of the room is a cardboard mat set with muktuk, a long, frozen Arctic char, and an icy red ball of frozen meat.
Inside the museum’s main room, Pitseolak tells the crowd that her favourite foods have always been frozen foods. “The food would stick to our lips when we were putting it in our mouths because it was so cold,” she says. “I’d enjoy it — especially in winter.”
These days, she still loves the cold weather. “In November, I love it when the beach is icy,” she says. “Especially in January, even though it’s really cold.” She explains how she likes to go for walks along the beach — “as long as I’m not hungry.”
The next session of the museum’s elders speakers series will be held on Jan. 19. Akaka Sataa will be the speaker. The museum hopes to have three men and three women speak during the series, though subsequent speakers have not been confirmed.
Tonight’s event has clearly been a hit. The crowd is slow to disperse, and Pitseolak sits, watching from her perch.
“I want to tell my life experiences,” she says, “but I don’t remember them all.”