Adventure stories revive Inuit myths for modern kids

Bilingual book breathes life into ancient spook tales



Imagine Inuit kids gripping a copy of the latest book about evil, red-eyed shapeshifting spirits, instead of tales of American superheroes, like Spiderman or the Hulk.

Sound far-fetched?

That’s the scenario that a dedicated bunch of artists and teachers are trying to make real, in their efforts to get Nunavut’s youth excited about traditional Inuit stories.

The group consists of a handful of volunteers based in Iqaluit called the Nunavut Bilingual Education Society, which has been making teaching material for the territory over the past three years.

This year’s release of Taiksumani (“Long ago”), an illustrated book of Inuit myths and legends, is their biggest coup in their quest to make learning “cool” with young Nunavummiut.

Neil Christopher, a teacher from Nunavut Arctic College who served as writer/researcher for the project, said the group made the book because they believe Inuit legends could interest local youth as much as the superheroes found in mainstream U.S. comic books and Hollywood blockbuster films.

“Basically, we want to promote interest in old stories,” he said. “We wanted to show kids just how exciting some of the traditional stories were.”

Taiksumani, a slick, 120-page book printed in English and Inuktitut, comes from more than a year of research, involving reading old texts and interviewing elders from Iqaluit and Resolute Bay.

Christopher and co-researcher Celina Kalluk, of Resolute Bay, focused on two particular creatures in Inuit legends, Mahaha the Tickler and the Ijirait, menacing shapeshifters who terrorize anyone lost on the land.

The two then created whole new stories for the characters, in order to “bring them to life in a modern context for kids,” Christopher said.

The result is powerful, and entertaining for almost any age group.

The first half of the book tells the tale of a nine-year-old girl named Aulaja, who meets a vicious, sharp-toothed demon called Mahaha.

The creature captures Aulaja, who wandered too far from her snow house, against her father’s wishes. He starts to tickle her to death, when her brave dog, Siku, jumps into the scene and wrestles with the supernatural being.

The second half of the book is more brutal. Two brothers go on a long winter hunt that seems destined to be spoiled by the younger brother’s disrespect for the land.

After eerie hints that ghosts are watching them, the brothers are separated and end up in a clash with the ijirait, spirits transformed into blood-thirsty polar bears.

Babah Kalluk, the book’s illustrator, said stories about the creatures used to “scare the bejeezuz” out of him when he was growing up in Resolute. In turn, he would listen to his elders, and not go out on the ice or land where he wasn’t allowed.

Kalluk, 24, said the stories taught him different values that he feels are missing in kids today.

“I don’t think they grow up with the stories,” he said. “I think it’s a loss of heritage, culture.”

“[The book]’s important to me because I feel kids need to know more about what Inuit worked with.”

Beyond Inuit traditional values, the group also hopes the eye-catching publication will boost Inuktitut learning.

Louise Flaherty, who proofread the book to ensure the quality of the translation, said the publication will be a good resource for Inuktitut teachers around Nunavut.

Flaherty said she got involved in the project because she used to teach Inuktitut in primary school in Iqaluit, and found there weren’t enough support materials to teach the language.

Based on other Inuktitut texts she’s seen, Flaherty said parents and adults shouldn’t be turned off by the quasi-comic book format of the book.

In fact, Flaherty says the flashy superhero touch of the book gives it extra appeal.

“It’s something that will get the kids’ attention,” she said. “I have no problem with that.”

For now, Taiksumani is not for sale, but has been distributed to schools and libraries around the territory, along with bilingual black and white posters showing other creatures in the pantheon of Inuit legends.

Taiksumani, which was financed by the Government of Nunavut and Heritage Canada, was also made possible by translator Uvinik Qamaniq, and designer Tony Romito. The group plans to follow the book with a short film about Mahaha, and perhaps a series of comic books.

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