Thursday, April 3, 2008

Inuit Literature: Unearthing Margaret’s Diamonds

Most people know my mother-in-law as the nice elderly lady who sells homemade bread and exquisitely embroidered and beaded mukluks, at the farmer’s market. We, her family, know her as a woman with a unique heritage, who has always been a force to be reckoned with. She moved south to the Fort St John, from Tuktoyaktuk, at a time when the Alaska Highway was little more than a dirt trail, and the trip from Fort St John to Fort Nelson took more than a day, instead of only four hours. But, what would you expect from an Inuvialuit woman who is the eldest of 17 children, frequently hunted caribou with her father (when other children her age would have been playing with building blocks), and was responsible for her own dog sled team, by the age of eight. (And you thought your mother-in-law left a lot to live up to?)

Whenever we read A Promise is a Promise by Robert Munsch and Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, Allashua’s bold defiance, conjures images of my mother-in-law, as a child. When Margaret was a very young girl, her grandmother would warn her against whistling to the Northern Lights, lest they come down to carry her away. The Northern Lights can dip quite low, and I am sure that Margaret enjoyed seemingly provoking them, just as Allashua provoked the Qallupilluit. It is not difficult to imagine Margaret, her face framed with the fur of her parka, standing rebelliously; lobbing hunks of frozen dog poop, the prescribed defense to ward off the evil blue/green tentacles, until they retreated.

Our family’s immense love for books has opened the door for countless discussions with Margaret. While Inuit literature has been a magnificent catalyst, even stories that simply take place in the Territories have produced some good yarns, from Margaret. One day, after listening to, yes, more Robert Munsch stories (we love his use of Northern settings), my mother-in-law shared a story with us, which involved her own triumph over a craaaa-zy adult world. While the other children of her community were scared to leave their families to attend residential school, Margaret, ever adventuresome, was more than eager. However, residential school was not a welcoming place for a strong willed child. When a box of assorted stockings arrived at the school, one of the nun’s seized the opportunity to tame Margaret. Each of the pupils were handed one pair of new stockings. After the box had been emptied, they marveled over the blue, grey, or black tights they had been given. As for Margaret- she found herself the very unhappy owner of a pair of bright red stockings. She was horrified. As she was much taller than the other girls, fitting in had already been a challenge. The other children took one look at her bright crimson calves, and began calling her “fatty legs”. But, Margaret’s spirit was far from broken. While boiling the laundry one day (which was her appointed job), she decided to put an end to the humiliation. She waited, until she was alone, slipped off the hated red stockings and threw them into the fire beneath the laundry vat. Soon, they were reduced to a dark wisp of smoke. The nuns made threats, and tore the school apart, but Margret’s lips were sealed. She never told a single soul. I guess her secret is out now.

If it were not for the several remarkable works of Inuit literature, by authors such as Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak and Alootook Ipellie, many of Margaret’s stories would have been lost, to our family. My Arctic 1, 2, 3 has evoked tales of hunting and berry picking (Margaret loves berry picking), while The Inuit Thought of It has left my children with a plethora of questions for their grandmother. (The children are looking forward to our next craft day when we will be making Inuit sunglasses by cutting two slits in a piece of scrap cardboard.)
It is important, to me, that my children grow up with a strong sense of pride in themselves. In order to have that, they must have an understanding of who they are, and of their unique heritage (their grandmother has actually given each of them a special name in Inuit). Books on Inuit culture have not only encouraged Margaret to share her exceptional past with our children, but have also helped my husband develop a respect for the culture in which his mother was reared, and find delight in our children’s fascination with it.

I challenge everyone to take a moment from their busy lives, to share a culturally themed book with a child, coax a story from a relative, or record an anecdote from their own unique past, or, perhaps, one that an elder may have told them. When we explore and share different cultures, gems are exposed. I know we look forward to unearthing many more of Margaret’s fascinating little diamonds.

Mommy C


Claire Eamer said...

Nice tribute to your mother-in-law, Mommy C. Most of the Inuvialuit I have met have been tough and inventive, just like her. What a great heritage for your kids!

Claire Eamer

Kim Wheedleton said...

Fantastic post! I really enjoy reading about a person's heritage, and I learned a lot from this.

Mommy C said...

Thank you for your comment. My mother-in-law is quite a lady. I feel very blessed that my children have such a strong role model. I am also thankful that her Inuvialuit heritage has provided them with a unique identity. If you should be heading south anytime, you will have to stop in and meet her. We're not far off the Alaska Hwy.

I am glad you enjoyed the post and were able to learn something from it. I learn something new everytime I read "Bugs and Bunnies" ...mostly new ways to spit tea through my nose, as I laugh.