Zacharias Kunuk explores Inuit shamanism in short animated film

Acclaimed Nunavut filmmaker’s latest production to make North American debut at Toronto International Film Festival

Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice is a short animated film by acclaimed Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. (Screenshot courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In the 1980s, an Inuit elder told filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk a story about a young woman who was learning shamanism from her grandmother.

Three years ago, the acclaimed Nunavut filmmaker began turning the story into a short animated film, which will make its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Zacharias Kunuk says his latest film project aims to reclaim Inuit pre-Christian spirituality. (File photo)

Kunuk says that Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice was a result of needing to tell the story — as it was “stuck in my head” — and wanting to begin the conversation on reclaiming Inuit spirituality while experimenting with a different form of storytelling — animation.

“In the last 100 years, Christianity bulldozed Inuit culture and shamanism, and part of this assimilation process was to ban storytelling and ayaya singing,” he said. “That wasn’t what my sermon was at the church when I was growing up.”

In the film, a sick man breaks a taboo and needs to be healed by a shaman. The young woman and her grandmother travel to the underworld, or “the one below,” to find the answers to the man’s sickness.

“In the olden days, long before Europeans ever came, [shamans] were the only source of doctors who tried to heal the sick,” he said.

It illustrates a part of Inuit culture that was “hidden” by colonialism, he said.

“Inuit believe in the three goddesses: the sea goddess, the land goddess and the sky goddess. In Christianity, you don’t talk about this. But Inuit, for 4,000 years, believed in them. So it’s gotta be still there; it is there, [it has] never changed.”

Kunuk worked with animators from Toronto; he said he had to fly south to teach them about Inuit culture so the animation was true to his region, Amittuq, which includes Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Igloolik, Hall Beach and Naujaat.

“I had to mentor them and it was fun,” he said, adding that he had to show them what a dog harness looked like. “It was fun learning what they can do. It’s amazing.”

Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice has already debuted in Europe, winning an award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France this summer.

The film, starring Madeline Ivalu, Lucy Tulugarjuk and Jacky Qrunnut, will be screened at TIFF on Sept. 10.

The film is another accomplishment for Kunuk, who, at 63 years old, says he may not be able to tell many more stories like this one.

“At my old age … I’m going to be done,” he said. “And when I’m gone, someone has to keep making these. So I’m just showing people how there are different ways of doing film.

“There’s a lot more shaman stories than this. This is just one little one.”

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(15) Comments:

  1. Posted by Northern Inuit on

    I cannot wait to watch this one, we will miss your stories like this.

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  2. Posted by M Center on

    Well done Mr. Kunuk. You’re young, jk, but you’re reaching Senior Age and great to see continued sharing of Culture. As usual your work behind the lens and bring the Culture to the Screen is needed. You have a gift. Thanks for sharing it.

    Would love to see the other Inuit Aspects of Cultural Practices and Spirituality with Earth, Water, animals and body. The Sedna and Kiviuq Stories to be next would be wonderful.

    Congratulations to all that participated. Congratulations to the Actors and Thank you.

  3. Posted by frank on

    I am an inuk, myself, and proud to be an inuk, not to put shame in any other race, by the way, but I grew up understanding and believing in Christ, and pretty sure I will not change (again, not putting petty in anybody) but even though i am happy that Zach is able to show and express his gift, I am offended to see what he stated about Christainity. if he were to say “100 years ago, when Christianity was introduced to inuit” rather than using the word “BULLDOZED”, which in my opinion, he is against christianity. but then again, i have no right to saying its wrong, but the word he used is wrong which i am pretty sure offends more than just myself.

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    • Posted by inuk woman on

      i am an inuk 60s scoop survivor. i grew up with alot of white supremacy around me. i wanted to know why i was so hated by white canada. i went to university to find out. i learned christianity was the reason. Have you read the discovery doctrine by pope nicholas in 1490s. he said us indigenous were not even humans. white christians were to enslave or murder us and take everything from us. Thats what they did. It became law in canada. the white government still uses it to justify stealing native land.
      you are free to be christian. but i thought you should know why white christians abuses us so badly. i dont forgive.

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    • Posted by MONICA A CONNOLLY on

      When I arrived in the Eastern Arctic in 1971, Christianity had been around close to 100 years, so I can say little about its arrival. But at that time there seemed to be a lot of pressure on local people to regard anything non-Christian, be it shamanism, or Judaism or Baha’i, as a work of the devil. Sad, and so unnecessary. Whether or not you describe that attitude as “bulldozing”, the senior archbishop of the Canadian Anglican Church saw fit to apologize for it in 2019. (https://www.anglican.ca/news/an-apology-for-spiritual-harm/30024511/)

      • Posted by Lobie Dosser (Rankin Inlet ) on

        Well put Monica, and I agree with you. It was good the church apologized to the people
        who were concerned !
        I think we will be waiting a long time before shamans and Inuit abusers will be apologizing
        to their victims ?
        Why should they not ? High time they did the bloody hypocrites !
        Us Inuit people are always complaining , and demanding apologies from other cultures
        and races and we sin just as much as anyone.
        GOD BLESS US .

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    • Posted by Clarissa on

      It is okay to use a term bulldozed if he wishes because that is exactly what had happened

  4. Posted by TRauhala on

    Shamanism and Christianity represent different places along an evolutionary spectrum of ideas, neither reveals the objective nature of the world, but mask a labyrinth of symbolic representations that project our deep psyche. People will be offended that I call this an ‘evolution’ and that this implies that Christianity is more advanced. Yet in a sense I think that it true; at a larger level monotheism in general was made possible within the context of greater technological and social complexity, while animism thrived within the smaller and less technologically advanced societies of our much longer, ancient past.

    So, religions, like any idea system, can be understood as a dynamic memeplex, where the success or prevalence of their cosmology is understood in relation to its functionality and efficacy in a given environment.

    Why did Christianity prevail over Shamanism? Some people are quick to argue that it was forced and imposed, but this explanation seems simplistic and incomplete to me. Could it be that Christianity offered a less complicated and more egalitarian reorganization of power than an increasingly obsolete and moribund Shamanic social order, where certain class privileges had conferred benefit that became less justified as a changed technological culture proved their obvious futility? To be very specific; what need was there for a complicated system of ritual and taboo around hunting when the introduction of the rifle radically changed the hunt itself, making success much easier and far less contingent on the finely honed skills and a bit of luck or ‘magic’?

    It’s reasonable enough to say Christianity ‘bulldozed’ Shamanism, but as the latter became a way of seeing the world that was less and less necessary or viable the ‘bulldozing’ was probably more like a quiet collapse under a strong wind. People flocked to Christianity because it offered a structure that conferred greater effectiveness and even explanatory power than shamanism, a system that had disintegrated in the path of technological change.

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    • Posted by mitzi on

      white christians colonized 85 percent of the world. they used violence. it was not more advanced. people were forcibly converted. christianity was weaponized. i spent five years of my life studying white christian history from the perspective of colonialism and the colonized.

      christians should have to learn the real history. acting out with a knee jerk reaction when people talk about the real history does not help.

      i would recommend the works of: edward said, stuart hall, bell hooks, and also look up the discovery doctrine. that will give you insight into the real history of christianity.

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      • Posted by TRauhala on

        I’m not an apologist for Christianity, it is a relic we need to move beyond. My point is this, Christian cosmology superseded Shamanism because it appeared to offer something more useful and effective for navigating the natural world, probably by its proxy to technological change that made the need for a complex system of magic and ritual obsolete by comparison.

        As for white Christians colonizing 85% of the world, I’d love to see a breakdown of that number. But either way, what do you think made them succeed? Could it be, technology? I think that was. A major part of it, although I don’t want to be reductive, I think my point stands.
        That said, I am not sure what your point actually is? Maybe you think colonization is a uniquely ‘white’ thing? If so you need to read a lot more history yourself.

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    • Posted by Bangers & Mash on

      From the same place he gets modern technology, film making criteria, quality lenses and
      movie cameras, and air travel grants ;
      From hard working Christian & Canadian taxpayers, money and information !

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  5. Posted by Gung Ho & Mars on

    I agree with you Mitzi, but I would like to add that for the last 10,000 years or so the people
    of Planet Earth, wherever they are, have been Colonising, Conquering, Enslaving, and in
    general beating ten colours of crap out of each other. It is what we do !
    I include : Ancient Indigenous Cultures, Israelis, Christians, Moslems, Mongols, Africans,
    Incas, Aztecs, Asian, and Polynesians. (Sorry if I missed anyone ).
    A lot of this chaos was happening before white people ever thought about empires !
    They were too busy roughing up each other in their own countries.
    If their is a complete religion in the world it is warfare & violence, we are all of the same
    earthly basic cult.

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  6. Posted by Stop romanticizing on

    I also think a lot of people were relieved to abandon Shamanism for other reasons than a waning sense of utility, many were probably glad to be rid of the abusive, arbitrary rule of those who used their prestige to secure sexual favours and resources for their families.

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    • Posted by Let the truth be told ! ( Kitikmeot ) on

      What you say is very true. Statements like this are long overdue !!!
      Why won’t our elected leaders support us on this cause of incest and abuse by our own
      shamans and relatives ?
      Of course stories of Residential school should be told and compensation paid to survivors,
      but the same should apply to abuses by our own Inuit people.

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