Winter 2021 / Quest
Tracks to the Past
Battered by wind, at first glance the landscape of Diana Island looks inhospitable and scrubbed bare. Yet every few steps our guide, Jusipi Kulula, points out another berry or plant that helps sustain his people. Cloudberry, crowberry, and Labrador tea make up a colorful carpet that drapes this uninhabited island, off the northeast coast of Canada’s Ungava Peninsula, which is bounded by the Hudson Strait south of Baffin Island.
Picking a berry, I hold it up and ask if it’s ripe. “Try it,” Kulula says. “That’s the way you learn.”
It explodes in my mouth with a sour, vegetal memory: my mother saying almost the same words when I asked about the ripeness of an early season salmonberry, as a child on Vancouver Island. “Taste it, then you’ll remember.”
There’s a comfortable ease in walking with Kulula. A sturdy hunter, with black hair going to gray, he is also the town mayor of nearby Quaqtaq. As we watch the huge, shaggy musk ox mow their way across the rocky island, I fall into familiar outdoor rhythms parallel to his.
“Taste it, then you’ll remember.”
Along with the grass, roots, and seeds that make up the diet of the musk ox, the berries and other vegetation combine into an unexpected abundance. These are the parts of the North I have been raised to venerate: the rugged beauty of the vast landscape, the wonder of the wildlife, and the gentle strength of Inuit.
Searching the landscape, I find answers to questions I can’t articulate: These bones mean there’s a predator; this is where a musk ox bled; this is the trail the wolf took, dragging its meal.
We follow and find a den.
Not every story line here is as straightforward to track. The tundra also bore witness to things we’ve tried to forget: the attempted destruction of a culture, the brutality of colonial racism, and the poverty it left behind.
I once asked my mother where she learned about the land. From the time I was small all the things in the woods were like messages. Scat was dissected to see who was eating what. Tracks of footprints and broken branches were invitations to pursue. Medicine was collected.
“My grandfather taught me,” she said.
An old family photograph, circa 1887, shows my mother’s grandfather, Charlie, standing in front of a rustic one-room schoolhouse along with 20 other kids. From what I can tell, more than half the children are Tseshaht, a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation found on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Also in the picture is Charlie’s aunt Maggie. Similar in age to Charlie, she is the daughter of his grandfather’s second marriage. Maggie’s mother is Puunnii, a highborn Tseshaht healer who was also known as Polly.
Born sometime around 1845, Puunnii grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island. A child when the future of her people became entangled in the arrival of colonizers, she spent her youth learning medicine and trading goods up and down the coast. She married Charlie’s grandfather (also named Charlie) later in life, after she and her teen son had learned farming from him and shared the techniques with the Tseshaht community.
When their daughter was born, they called her Maggie Lauder, after the elder Charlie’s hometown and a young beauty immortalized in an old Scottish folk song. Though they were a generation apart, Maggie and the younger Charlie stayed close, even taking their families berry-picking together — for a time.
“It makes us proud when we show you who we are,” Kulula says to me as we make our way down to the rugged beach, where boats are waiting to take us from Diana Island back to Quaqtaq.
Once on the water, Kulula follows the contours of the island and then heads across the wide bay. Behind us, the musk ox continue their relentless grazing along a grassy ridge. Out on the blue sea are icebergs and beluga. The motor makes it difficult to talk, but occasionally Kulula shouts a few words and points at the coast. Each time he points I look out, eager to see a polar bear.
Instead, he shares a bit of culture — pointing out where his people hunt, where the good fishing spots are, where soapstone and eiderdown are collected. He points to where there are archeological Inuit ruins: stone mounds built in an earlier time, whose purpose no one can recall.
By the time Charlie was a grandfather in the 1950s, he took my mother and other kids in the family to gather bark, roots, and berries like kinnikinnick and salal. One of the girls, Diane (whose name I share), and my mum would play all summer in Sprout River. Sometimes they’d play “cowboys and Indians.” Mum says Diane liked being the cowboy, and she “liked the feathers and paint.”
Then school started. My mother went to the public school. Diane went to the Alberni Indian Residential School, one of more than 130 such boarding and day schools in Canada that forcibly removed more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their families over the course of a century and a half. Over Alberni’s 75 years or so of operation, at least 30 children died.
When reports from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out in 2015, the multiyear investigation into the residential school system showed that students were subjected to government experiments in malnourishment in the 1940s and 1950s. Those who spoke their language or practiced their culture were humiliated or beaten. The children were taught to abandon their culture.
Eventually my mother and Diane lost track of each other.
When I worked through the records recently, I found Diane’s last name was Lauder. I told my mum I thought they were cousins. “I think I knew that. We both had red hair,” she told me. “But I’d forgotten.”
Sometimes, when I ask Kulula a question about the land or his culture, his face grows sad and closed.
The children were taught to abandon their culture.
As outsiders attempted to destroy their culture for over 100 years, Inuit learned to hide their traditions from view — such as continuing to light the qulliq, a traditional oil lamp, as a symbol of resilience.
But the cultural genocide they endured was rampant and horrific. From 1957 to 1975, as many as 20,000 Canadian Inuit dogs, known in Inuktitut as qimmiit, died on Baffin Island, often at the hands of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers based in the eastern Arctic. Many Inuit have alleged that the killings, which drove the species to near extinction, were part of a systematic slaughter. Without dogs for transportation, Inuit would be forced to abandon their system of living off the land, traveling between summer and winter camps, and move into Western-style permanent communities instead. The plan was unstated and effective.
With the loss of the dogs went traditional hunting skills. The people became dependent on welfare and expensive store-bought food; today in far-north Nunavut, a single jar of peanut butter can cost nearly $10. Cultural skills, such as igloo building and boat construction, were at risk of being forgotten, too.
When my great-grandfather Charlie got married, his bride carried the racist ideals of her time. This woman, my great-grandmother, severed the family’s ties with Maggie, going so far as to burn photographs and other paperwork that validated our Indigenous connection. The two sides of the family stopped picking berries together. Along the way, some accounts obfuscated Puunnii’s role from wife to family housekeeper. Her legacy turned to ash.
Unexpectedly, Indigenous-led tourism emerged a few years ago as a path toward healing and remembering. A record number of international tourists began venturing to Canada’s far north in search of animal encounters, aurora viewing, and Inuit experiences. Before COVID-19, modern Indigenous tourism had grown into a nearly $1.9 billion (nearly $1.5 billion USD) industry.
Some visitors engaged in Western-style tourism — staying in luxury lodges owned by non-Inuit “southerners” and checking the box for Inuit culture with little more than a throat-singing performance at dinner. While some nations are comfortable with this, others are fiercely protective of their sacred traditions.
“If I had my way, we’d never perform our culture for tourists again,” Megan Humchitt, a Heiltsuk Tribal Council member, told me at the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in 2019. She was explaining her perspective on the difference between Indigenous-led tourism and traditional tourism. “Our culture is alive. Dressing up and reenacting a sacred ceremony just so tourists can take pictures takes us out of context. It tells visitors it’s okay to see us as decoration.”
Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, says that the most effective businesses are built around sharing culture — which goes hand in hand with revitalizing it. In many cases, this means revealing the process of relearning once-forgotten skills, languages, and traditions.
“It’s not Disney-fying us; it’s not making us like a petting zoo,” Henry told me. “It’s really just sharing who we are, on our own terms.”
One evening, I watch the sun set over the lunar landscape around Manarsulik Lake with two young Inuit women who have also come to see the remarkable meteor crater nearby. They tell stories about growing up in the North while sharing their dried arctic char, or pitsik, with us.
A short while later, with her infant daughter, Alannah, snuggled into her parka’s built-in baby pouch, called an amaut, Lydia and her partner Adamie begin playing the rhythmic vocal game known as throat-singing. The goal of the game is to evoke the tonal sounds found in daily life, such as the howl of wind over ice or the whir of sled dogs in motion. The singers playfully compete to outperform each other. The first one to stop — or laugh — loses.
As they sing and laugh, I’m told that for decades throat-singing was banned by missionaries. In residential schools it was a punishable offense. The ban wasn’t lifted until the 1980s.
Cuddled in the amaut, listening to her parents giggle and sing, baby Alannah is part of a new generation of Inuit children who are free to grow up in the warm embrace of their ancestral culture.
While driving out of Quaqtaq, I point out a white goat moving along the side of a cliff. Grinning, Kulula parks, shoulders his gun for safety, and takes us out over the rocks, moving us forward until the goat morphs into a polar bear.
Watching the bear, Kulula tells us about its behavior and the role polar bears play in his culture. One bear, which can grow to 10 feet, can be shared among an entire community. Their hide can be used to make warm winter pants, called qarlikajaak.
Though Inuit still hunt the polar bear as part of a subsistence lifestyle — and sometimes in self-defense — the financial value of polar bears to tourism has become clear. Even so, typical bear tours require infrastructure, whether elevated tour buses or gated observation decks, that Inuit communities can’t afford — a paradox laid bare in a 2019 study about adventure tourism in the Canadian Arctic. “Problematically,” the report states, “there is little about polar bear viewing tours that reflect the living conditions of indigenous people, or the relationship they have with polar bears.”
As we stand shoulder to shoulder watching the young bear, Kulula looks as awed as I feel. He keeps looking at the photos I take and asks me to email him my pictures.
When it catches our scent, despite the distance, the bear stretches to standing, letting us know we’re spotted. We continue to creep forward and pass the carcass of a musk ox. Kulula says the bear probably won’t be hungry based on that, so we can move even closer. We watch him watching us until we all have our fill, and the bear curls up for a nap.
Once again, our futures are entangled. This time, visitors have the option of truly understanding who our Indigenous hosts are.
Back in the truck, we head the other way along the road.
Suddenly, Kulula brakes, and he and his cousin Bobby rush out of the trucks — unexpectedly running across the rubbled tundra after wildly flapping Canadian geese. When geese are teenagers, I come to find out, their flight feathers aren’t strong enough for flight if it’s too windy. But their meat is delicious: They have been feeding on summer berries and young plants.
Returning, Bobby holds a dead goose in his hands. To catch it, he knelt on it until it expelled its final breath. It could be my final meal in the North, Kulula says. But another passenger explains that she’d like to take the goose home. Her daughter is Inuk and is busy learning her culture. They would ask someone to teach them how to pluck and prepare it.
I always thought my knowledge of the forest came from my great-great-great grandfather. Each time I knew to pick a berry or identified a plant, I envisioned a linear path of information, passed through generations.
But when I found the schoolhouse picture of Charlie and Maggie, I learned my family had overlooked Puunnii. Her fame as a midwife, farmer, trader, and leader — the highborn healer who gracefully straddled eras and cultures — was forgotten.
Worse, she had been intentionally removed from our story. Now, piece by piece, some of us are rekindling her memory.
When I pick berries with my daughter and teach her what I remember about how the land sustains us, we evoke Puunnii and say her name. At the same time, in the North, I imagine Kulula calling on his ancestors, known and unknown, as he teaches his grandchildren who they are.
Facebook shows me images of Kulula and his family navigating across the landscape, collecting eiderdown and soapstone or fishing for char, safeguarding against the loss of these cherished skills, together. Teaching children and visitors about Inuit culture isn’t just about sharing traditions, I realize; it’s about remembering and honoring our roots.
All the while, Indigenous tourism providers across Canada are waiting for the time when it’s safe for outsiders to return. Once again, our futures are entangled. This time, visitors have the option of truly understanding who our Indigenous hosts are.
We’ll have the chance to slow down and explore; to ask questions and follow meandering clues; to taste the berries that carpet those magical landscapes; and to fully experience the culture. That’s the truest way to learn — and to make sure we don’t ever forget.
Diane Selkirk is a traveler who believes the best moments come when you toss away the bucket list and follow your own curiosity to adventure.
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