A mother’s courageous struggle to save her children, a daughter’s fight to overcome the pain
Elisapee Karetak crouches against a boulder on the bank of Iqaluit’s Sylvia Grinnell River, looking past the film crew and camera in front of her. She focuses her eyes instead on the tundra in the distance.
She takes a deep breath. Then, the Inuktitut words gush out of her and she breathes life into a dark tale that her own mother and Inuit elders have kept hidden for more than 30 years.
The story recounts the relocation of Inuit in the interior of the Kivalliq region, the devastating starvation that followed, the murder of Karetak’s father and her mother’s struggle to keep her starving children alive. It is the heart of Kikkik, a documentary the crew is filming in Iqaluit.
The camera is rolling and Karetak, a 45-year-old originally from Arviat, is ready to unravel the emotional tale.
“This is a story of my people, the Ihalmiut, and what happened to us after the first contact with the white people and their government,” Karetak says in Inuktitut.
On this windy, chilly day at Sylvia Grinnell Park, Karetak and the small crew — a producer, director and camera operator — are shooting scenes for the film, which Karetak took great pains to write.
But this isn’t the first version of the film. In 2000 Karetak, along with Montreal-based filmmaker Ole Gjerstad, produced a one-hour story, also called Kikkik, told entirely in English.
Karetak felt it was time to tell the story in Inuktitut. The first version was English-only because it was made for a southern television station.
Now, Karetak and Gjerstad have teamed up again, this time to create an two-hour version of the film in Inuktitut. They’ll use footage from the original Kikkik, plus new scenes shot with elders who survived the relocation and starvation of the 1950s.
“The first film was made for a southern audience,” Karetak says in an interview. “This is more of an Inuit film told from an Inuit perspective. I always like to say we tell stories differently.”
Sitting in her living room, children running around, her husband grilling meat for a family get-together, Karetak talks about how the newer, longer version of Kikkik is personally more satisfying.
“There’s more connection to the story,” she says. “We interviewed elders who were involved. I feel it’s more complete now.”
Gjerstad, munching on a piece of smoked char, jumps in: “Here in the Arctic, people have the patience and the attention span to listen to the story.”
The story is about Karetak’s mother, Kikkik, and her harrowing experience at Henik Lake in the winter of 1958. The federal government had relocated Kikkik’s family and the other Ihalmiut from Ennadai Lake to Henik Lake. But the caribou were scarce there and starvation soon set in.
Ootek, a man who was delusional from hunger, shot and killed Kikkik’s husband, Hallauk. Ootek then came after Kikkik and her children. The scared mother stabbed him to death to protect her family.
She then set out on a trek across the Barrens to seek help — carrying one-and-a-half-year-old Elisapee on her back, two more daughters and a son in tow behind her.
They hadn’t eaten for days and Kikkik struggled to carry all the children. She knew they wouldn’t all survive, so she dug a hole in the snow and left two girls behind.
Elisapee, riding in her mother’s amauti, continued on the trek. An RCMP plane spotted them, brought them to safety and found the abandoned girls. Only one had survived.
Kikkik then found herself charged with the murder of Ootek and causing the death of one of her daughters.
The film recreates the murder, the trek and the trial in 1958 — in which Kikkik was found not guilty.
It’s a story Kikkik took to her grave. Her three surviving children didn’t learn of it until they read the tale in Farley Mowat’s 1959 book The Desperate People.
“I guess the elders and my mother wanted to protect me from that,” Karetak says.
The new film focuses on Kikkik’s hardships, but takes a deeper look at the devastation government officials inflicted on Inuit in the 1950s.
“It happened all over Nunavut and Nunavik. And for some reason people are not talking about it. I think this will open the door,” Karetak says.
Working through the pain
Out on the land near Sylvia Grinnell River, Karetak practices her lines with director Martin Kreelak, an Inuit filmmaker from Baker Lake.
Kreelak takes a peek through the camera lens. “OK, quiet on the set,” he shouts. He takes a look at the vast tundra surrounding them and says with a laugh, “If this is a set.”
Karetak says her lines in Inuktitut, taking deep breaths between takes, and then reads them in English. With funding from APTN and Telefilm Canada, Gjerstad has enough money to make Inuktitut, English and French versions of the film. Kikkik will air on APTN this fall.
For Karetak, working twice on the film was heart-wrenching. “The whole film was difficult, not only the writing of it, because at the time I was struggling with depression,” Karetak says, tears welling in her eyes.
By uncovering the past and confronting some of the federal government officials who relocated the Ihalmiut, Karetak worked through her pain.
“I’ve dealt with the depression. Well, I should say I dealt with the anger. I don’t want to live with anger in my life,” she says.