Houston tackles Inuit epic hero
“It’s the secret bible of the Inuit, and Kiviuq is a prophet”
Thick fog shrouded John Houston’s plane in Gjoa Haven when it occurred to him that he might have fallen into the story he was researching.
The Cape Dorset filmmaker had spent the past month touring Nunavut’s communities, interviewing about 50 elders to capture the mythical story of Kiviuq, an epic hero alive during the time of creation.
In the world of Kiviuq, nothing happens without a reason. After hearing the story told and retold, it was becoming difficult to separate myth from life.
For instance, when Kiviuq paddles his kayak across the waters and notices the surrounding landscape is no longer moving, he knows a goal must first be fulfilled. Carefully searching a nearby island, he finds a tiny lemming trapped in a puddle, calling for help. Once Kiviuq lifts the lemming to safety, he can continue on his way.
Houston also had an unfulfilled goal: he spent two days trying to interview one elder in Gjoa Haven, who had been too sick to speak. When he suggested to his crew, who were also immersed in the story, that they needed to interview him before the fog lifted, no one looked surprised.
“Everyone’s thinking, ‘of course.’”
He met the elder, who spoke of how Kivuiq found a goose wife, how a grizzly bear exploded and how fog first appeared in the world. When he finished, they raced back to their plane, half an hour late, to find out the plane had been delayed by exactly half an hour.
“This comes exactly out of the story.”
Kiviuq is a huge, sprawling tale that Houston says has never been fully told. Fragments of it exist in each of Nunavut’s communities, passed down over millennia.
Some elders who know the story have not told it for an entire lifetime — a legacy of missionaries who warned that Inuit traditions were devil worship.
One elder, Samson Quinangnaq from Baker Lake, spoke for seven hours while telling the tale. Part way through, he stared at Houston and asked, “You know what this story is about, don’t you?” Houston shook his head.
“He said, ‘It’s the secret Bible of the Inuit. Kiviuq was a prophet, and these stories are parables.’”
“Others said, that’s exactly what we’ve been thinking.”
Put another way, Houston says it’s a foundational tale of Inuit culture, an example of how people should live that’s almost forgotten.
When Houston visited a class in Chesterfield Inlet, not one student had heard of Kiviuq. The generation that does remember the story won’t be around much longer, which is why Houston said he’s determined to find the full story while he can.
He also says that Kivuiq is on par with Western epics like Homer’s The Odyssey, which should make it of interest to audiences outside Nunavut. “It has that kind of substance and depth and reach.”
“We have a story, as Canadians, sitting right here under our noses that has that power.”
Houston spent his childhood in the Cape Dorset print shop his father helped establish, where he watched how Inuit seamlessly collaborated and exchanged roles. His production will incorporate a similar fluidity, where elders will appear on stage and the line between storyteller and actor will become blurred. “They don’t just tell the story. They perform the story.”
The production will also include a troupe of Inuvialuit dancers from Cambridge Bay, performing in a style associated with the Western Arctic where a row of dancers mimic the movements of birds and animals. “It does spread into Nunavut, and we’ll use it.”
The $990,000 production will be filmed in Iqaluit this November. About 35 people are to be involved, with about half of that number composed of Inuit. The final product will be 90 minutes long and will broadcast on APTN.
“This will be an homage or tribute to the power of the Inuit oral tradition.”
Houston’s last documentary, “Diet of Souls,” has been nominated for two Gemini awards this year.