‘Puzzle piece of Inuit history’: Duo launches translation project of historic letters

Correspondence from the 1960s and 70s share what Inuit elders believed needed to be done to preserve Inuit culture

Inuk activist and politician Tagak Curley, left, and assistant professor Lydia Schoeppner are working to translate a series of letters written in an older form of Inuktitut syllabics. In the letters, elders share what needs to be done to help Inuit language, identity and culture survive. (Photos courtesy of Tagak Curley, Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

By Madalyn Howitt

When Tagak Curley reads through the dozens of letters that Inuit elders wrote him in the 1960s and 70s, he says he’s moved by all the wisdom they contain.

“It’s an understatement to say how important they were to me,” said the well-known politician and activist, who lives in Rankin Inlet. 

When Curley was in his 20s, he was worried that Inuit were beginning to lose their identity and language to colonialism, he said. 

So he travelled throughout Nunavut and asked Inuit elders to write to him about how Inuit culture could survive “in this generation of assimilation,” he said. 

“We were getting to the point in my personal view that if we don’t do something about it we’re going to die, the culture of the Inuit as our forefathers experienced it and lived it for thousands of years, it was going to end.”

Curley has held on to the letters for five decades, and now, translating them into English is the focus of a new research project at Menno Simons College at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. 

He is leading the project alongside Lydia Schoeppner, who teaches at Menno Simons.

The project, called “Uppinaq–Letters from Nunavut: Inuit Culture Loss and Survival in the 1960s and 1970s,” will involve the translation of more than 30 letters that were handwritten in an older form of Inuktitut syllabics than the standardized version most speakers use today. 

It’s the content of those letters that the project is really trying to preserve and make accessible for future generations, said Schoeppner, whose doctoral dissertation focused on the work of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and helped her connect with Inuit leaders like Curley. 

The letters were also one of the factors that led to the forming of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization that works to protect and advocate for the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada that Curley himself helped found, Schoeppner explained. 

“Those letters were basically the community mandate that was needed in order for the Inuit leaders to create an organization. Hearing from others, knowing that it’s a critical situation and yes, we need an organization and yes, we need a collective voice,” she said. 

“That’s why the letters are so important, because they are a puzzle piece of Canadian history, a puzzle piece of Indigenous Canadian history and a puzzle piece of Inuit history.”

The Uppinaq–Letters project was funded by a $10,000 grant from Nunavut’s Culture and Heritage department. Assisting the project is student Stacy Paniyuk from the Indigenous Summer Scholars Program at the University of Winnipeg and Bernadette Dean, who is taking the lead on translating the letters. 

“[She] is really very dedicated and she has a language and ability to understand different dialects from different regions,” Curley said of Dean.

The translations are expected to take somewhere around six months, and once completed, the team hopes to organize, catalog, and possibly even publish them as a book. 

Schoeppner said the experience of reading through the letters has been moving.

“It’s very different to look at those letters and to read those personal accounts and to see the actual handwritten letters than reading about the history of the Arctic in an academic piece that’s oftentimes very detached and very condensed and very generalized,” she said.

“These are like personal accounts of individuals who lived through that.”

For Curley, the letters represent the tireless work done by Inuit elders and activists to keep their culture alive. 

“We had to fight like hell to establish our identity and our rights and we have in some measure, I think, achieved that,” Curley said. 

“We couldn’t do it all at once collectively, but that’s why these letters are important. We need to hear from our group of elders, the wise people.”

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(1) Comment:

  1. Posted by Monica Connolly on

    What an excellent idea! Anyone interested in supporting Inuit culture today will benefit from the wisdom of those who were elders when Tagak was a young activist.
    I was working at Nunatsiaq News back then, and the big difference I remember in syllabics was that they were usually handwritten instead of typed, and many people did not use medials and finals (the small raised letters that indicate multiple consonants mid-word, or final consonants in a word. It would be useful if the final version of the project included photocopies of the originals, and typed versions with modern Inuktitut spelling, as well as the translations; if a print version is too expensive, computerized versions of the originals could be available.
    Any way it’s done, the advice of elders of half a century ago should indeed be made available.

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