Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk appointed to Order of Canada

Nunavik elder honoured for achievements in literature, education


Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk of Kangiqsujuaq, one of Nunavik’s most well-known and respected elders, received yet another award for her life’s work last week, as Governor General Adrienne Clarkson announced her appointment to the Order of Canada.

Throughout her life, Mitiarjuk, 72, has been committed to sharing her knowledge and preserving Inuit culture.

Mitiarjuk, a member of Nunavik’s Inuttitut Language Commission and long-time consultant with the Kativik School Board, has already received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award as well as an honorary degree from McGill University.

As a young woman in Kangiqsujuaq, then known as Wakeham Bay, Mitiarjuk taught missionaries Inuttitut and, in return, she learned how to write syllabic script.

Her novel, Sanaaq, Canada’s first work of fiction in syllabics, was started during the early 1950s, when the Oblate missionary Robert Lechat encouraged Mitiarjuk to write about daily life.

At night, in her igloo or tent, Mitiarjuk began to write, crafting characters and situations as she went along.

Sanaaq, which was published last year in a French-language translation by the publishing house Editions Stanké, is about the life of a young woman called Sanaaq and her family, and takes place during the years when Qallunaat were first coming into northern Quebec as traders and missionaries.

In her book, Mitiarjuk recalls those early encounters with Qallunaat in a chapter called “The arrival of the white people.”

“They say Qallunaat are very friendly, so don’t be scared. They say they are doctors,” says one character in Sanaaq. “Qumaq isn’t intimidated by them at all because they have all kinds of gifts.”

In Sanaaq, there’s a confrontation between the Anglican and Catholic missionaries who are fighting for the souls of Inuit.

“It would be better to follow iksigarjuaq [the Catholic missionary], thinks Qumaq. Even if my parents oppose this, no matter, they can’t change my mind,” Mitiarjuk writes in another excerpt from Sanaaq.

Mitiarjuk continued working on Sanaaq with Father Joseph Meeus, and then with anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, who first came to Kangiqsujuaq in 1961.

While the film Atanarjuat focuses on the masculine point of view, Sanaaq looks at Inuit life from a feminine perspective.

In the second part of Sanaaq, which she completed during the mid-1960s with Saladin d’Anglure, Mitiarjuk referred to such subjects as family violence and sexual relations between Inuit and Qallunaat.

“When we read Sanaaq we’re hit by the stability and peacefulness of the life that’s described … that’s a very strong point of Inuit social life,” said Saladin d’Anglure in a release on his translation of Sanaaq. “Still, there are occasionally very grave conflicts, usually because of the limited choice of potential mates and overwhelming ambition of certain people who try to abuse their force and power.”

In addition to her work on Sanaaq, Mitiarjuk helped translate the Catholic prayer book from one Inuttitut dialect to another.

She’s also written 22 books that have served as teaching tools, overseen teacher training and helped develop Inuttitut-language curriculum for the Kativik School Board.

“I can live with Qallunaat,” Mitiarjuk said in 1997, with the assistance of an interpreter, at a meeting for new KSB teachers in Kangiqsujuaq. “We used to live on Nottingham Island where there was a weather station. I saw I could learn from Qallunaat even though they were from a different culture.”

During that get-together, Mitiarjuk shared some of her lessons from life.

“As a child, I was taught a lot of things, how to survive, about what kinds of animals to eat, what to do in severe cold – that if you eat country food, it will keep you warm even if it’s cold,” she said.

“Now, we have store-bought food and houses, but if we had to, we could survive in an igloo. To survive, you have to eat. Now, we have to earn our living. We didn’t expect this new way of living. It’s brought alcohol and drugs.

“Back then, we would pass the time by playing with the bones of seals. There were rules to follow. It was not the cold that kept us inside, but the stormy weather.

“Today, there is still a lot to learn on the land. Each community is different. Some places have different dangers, for instance, where not to go.”

Mitiarjuk counselled newcomers to get out and learn about their communities.

“Both cultures can work together … don’t give up. If you’re in a hard situation, don’t ever give up, you’ll die, just as if you were out on the land.”

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