The book of Gjoa

A respected anthropologist reflects on life among the Utku, 40 years into a lifelong project to write a dictionary of the dialect



GJOA HAVEN — It was 1960 when Jean Briggs first came North. As a 31-year-old anthropologist, she was filled with grand ideas about the Arctic and eager to find a more exciting world than the dull Boston suburb where she grew up.

In the year and a half she spent at Back River, just south of Gjoa Haven along Chantry Inlet, she discovered perhaps as much about herself as the Utkuhiksalingmiut, or Utku, she came to meet.

Some 40 years later, Briggs, now 73, settles into an airplane seat aboard a cramped twin-engine plane taking her to Gjoa Haven for a month-long visit with her adoptive family. She kicks at the plastic shopping bag at her feet (containing tomatoes, an egg and a few other staples), taking off her tall rubber boots and putting on a pair of Western Arctic moccasins.

As the plane idles on the runway, she opens a brown file folder, taking out typed pages of Inuktitut words and word fragments in the Utku dialect. What she began in 1960 has become a lifelong project for the retired Memorial University professor. Her research has evolved into a dictionary of the dialect, the only one of its kind. The work is even more daunting, considering Briggs still speaks little Inuktitut and has no linguistic training.

Since the late 1990s, she has travelled to the region about once a year to check the words she collected decades ago on small slips of paper stored in her back pocket. When it is finally published, the dictionary will list words in syllabics and Roman orthography, with English definitions. Somebody else in some other lifetime can take on the job of translating the definitions into Inuktitut, she says.

Exactly when the book will be published is a prickly subject. “Before I die,” is the best answer she can muster. She seems almost offended by the question. But then, it’s not the final product that has significance for her; it’s the journey, the memories.

Never in Anger

The eldest daughter of a Swedenborgian minister and his wife, the daughter of the head of the Swedenborgian church, Briggs was perhaps destined for spiritual pursuit. The faith, based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, is a sect of Christianity that holds that people are spirits with material bodies and that the Bible is a reflection of our own journeys.

It is not surprising, then, that she travelled to Back River to learn about shamanism. She had heard that the region was untouched by Christianity and the Utku one of the last few aboriginal groups to practise traditional beliefs.

But when she arrived, she found that the people had been very recently Christianized. “There were no shamans that people would admit to,” she says.

Instead, she spent her time in the camp learning about Utku ways, how to scrape a caribou skin, how to jig for fish – and how to behave. It is with this last lesson she had the greatest trouble.

As a result of a misunderstanding, she was ostracized by the Utku for about three months. She wrote about the experience in her PhD thesis, which was published in 1970 as Never in Anger.

“I wrote about children, who are not yet socialized, so they need to be controlled, and a woman who was sub-normal mentally and she wasn’t well liked, and me, who was untrained from the get-go and also unbearable to have around,” she says.

The book brought her national attention and is still used as a teaching aid in university courses on social control and behaviour. In writing it, she discovered that she was the anthropological experiment.

“I got myself into serious difficulties by being the wrong sort of person. I had this romantic notion that I might prove to be more appropriately cast for the Inuit world than for my own, but I was wrong,” she says.

“In many ways, I was more Western than I realized. But you don’t realize these things until you experience a contrast. I was too volatile. If I was unhappy about something, I was a little withdrawn. If I was annoyed, I snapped or I would cry. I let my unhappiness show. So they withdrew and were uneasy about me. I wasn’t fun to be with.”

As she tells the story, she sits on a lopsided couch in Gjoa Haven, in the living room of her adoptive mother, Rosie Kigeak. Old wounds have long been mended.

Qallunaaq daughter

Rosie and her late husband, Kigeak, adopted Briggs as a daughter to ease her transition into Utku lifestyle. They took her into their igloo and gave her the place of an eldest daughter, even though she didn’t have the skills or knowledge to fulfill the duties of such a role.

Kigeak, though not the elder of the small group of Utku who camped along Chantry Inlet, was a leader of both hunting trips and spiritual affairs. He was also a domineering man whose strong will interfered with Briggs’ own will, and whose ideas of a woman’s duties conflicted with her sense of feminism.

But he became one of Briggs’ most valued resources in learning the skills and language she had travelled to the Arctic to learn.

The couple were living examples of the language for Briggs. “She and her husband were marvelous actors and very clever teachers so I learned the basic words quite quickly,” she says, motioning to Rosie, who is crouched on the kitchen floor before a piece of caribou meat.

A broad smile spreads across her face. “I still speak very badly, but I understand. When she speaks to me, I understand almost everything.”

For that reason, Rosie is Briggs’ main resource these days. The two spend often seven hours a day checking words, their meanings and definitions, in tape-recorded discussions.

She writes in Never in Anger: “Together they acted out words while Inuttiaq [Kigeak’s pseudonym in the book] asked me, “What are we doing?’ When I confessed ignorance he would tell me the answer, speaking slowly and clearly, paring all superfluous elements from the word and repeating with infinite patience until I had written down some semi-intelligible variant of what he had told me: ‘He is jumping/spitting/burping/lying with his feet toward the door/wrinkling his nose,’ and so on.”

Child-rearing and play

The information gathered from this latest trip will be added to a database Briggs created in 1992 after spending several months at a hunting camp called Qipisa, near Pangnirtung. She wrote her second book, Inuit Morality Play, about what she describes as “the most sophisticated childrearing I have ever come across.”

The book chronicles the emotional education of a three-year-old girl in a series of anecdotes. “I began to look around with new eyes and I discovered that these peace-promoting people trained their children to be peaceful by giving them pebbles and telling them to hit people. Oww, isn’t that fun?” she says, bringing her hand to her head to soothe an imaginary blow.

“I discovered that not only did they teach peaceful behaviour by pretending to encourage the opposite, they taught all other values that way too, teaching generosity by giving a piece of candy to a five-year-old and saying, ‘Eat it all yourself.’ A five-year-old is already savvy and she knows she’s supposed to give most of it, if not all of it, to her three-year-old sister, so she does and they say, ‘Look at that, she gave it. How generous she is.’”

The experience at Qipisa also provided material for subsequent courses she taught at Memorial about play and emotions, culture and personality.

During the years she was teaching, she travelled often to Qipisa, but not to Gjoa Haven then, in 1992, she went to Baker Lake to serve as a witness in a court case.

She was called as an expert on Inuit customs concerning the treatment of small children. There, she encountered Utku relatives who contacted her adoptive mother. “She called back and said, ‘Tell her to call collect,’” Briggs recalls.

She spent the summer with the family, camping near Simpson Strait. It was a time for reconnecting, not for work. “It was wonderful to see all the people who were children when I left and now parents and grandparents,” she says.

When she returned to Gjoa Haven from the camp, she began work on the dictionary in earnest. She had collected about 10,000 words at that point. Now she has more than 30,000.

Still, she’s modest about her accomplishments, acting as if she’s only just begun.

But she relies, as always on the words of her thesis supervisor, who wrote to her in the depths of her despair in Back River, saying: “The fact that you are confused shows that you are a good anthropologist. You can oversimplify when you come home if necessary.”

She smiles. “I’ve said the same thing to all my graduate students ever since. It was wonderful.”

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