The Very Short History of Nunavut, continued

It may be cold, it may be impossibly vast and empty, but in its first hours of existence, Canada's newborn Inuit territory proves that there's nothing so liberating as home rule.

Jul 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

"I've already given you enough beer," the white waiter in Iqaluit's Komatik Restaurant told the Inuit grandmother and her toothless boyfriend. "So I'll just put your next beer in the fridge and give it to you next time."

At this, the boyfriend started crying out in Inuktitut, and the grandmother joined in, wailing, "How come you? How come?"

"You cannot drink them tonight because you don't need the beer," the waiter insisted. "You've had too much. That's the end of the conversation."

"Where's my beer?" the grandmother demanded. "Where's my goddamned beer?" She wore a T-shirt printed in memory of a friend who'd died. Her eyes were lights glaring on ice; her words were breath-steam in the night. She was 44 years old.

"If you keep this up," the waiter said, "there'll be trouble."

It was two nights after Nunavut Day. I'd seen her earlier that afternoon before she was drunk, a big, squat woman with cropped hair, upslanted eyes, and a downpouted mouth. She was pale and old; her arms were covered with cooking burns. One of her sisters had died of cancer, another of alcoholism, a brother in a car accident (the car ran over his head). The last brother had hanged himself "because he was crazy," she said.

Now, as the waiter refused to serve her and her boyfriend, I invited them back to my hotel, which stood almost within sight of the restaurant. The grandmother's boyfriend didn't want to come. He stayed on at the Komatik, wiggling his fingers, feebly bewildered.

So the grandmother and I walked and she whined and wept, because she was very cold. Her ancient parka didn't zip anymore, and the alcohol had only pretended to warm her, in much the same fashion that the low sun can gild a house's siding so that it glows and shines against the blue snow with spurious preciousness. I offered to let her wear my parka but she wouldn't. She kept crying: "Too cold! Ikkii!" She touched my hand and said: "You cold. Cold! You too cold! Ikkii! Better you eat like Inuk. Eat meat. Eat caribou, walrus, seal..."

Anytime I wanted her to smile, I only had to ask her what animals she liked to hunt. She'd reply: "Any kind!" and would commence counting off the different animals on her fingers, uttering the Inuktitut names. Earlier that evening, with the beer not yet raging in her, she remained a wise old huntress. Just as caribou are sometimes silhouetted against snow, especially on ridges and when they crouch down to graze, snowy-white-on-white, so her memories stood out or hid, browsing and drowsing within her, living their own life. She could scarcely read or write, but (or perhaps therefore) she could remember. And for her, animals were the most vividly numinous entities.

I said that I wanted to go hunting sometime with her or her family, at which she began to check me out very seriously and soberly, saying, "OK, Bill, you got the mitts, you got the coat; you can come hunting. Your pants gonna be cold, though." Not having planned on hunting again this trip, I'd left my windpants back in America.

We were outside then. It was 20 below zero. Later that night, I wandered wearily through one of Iqaluit's arcade malls, my hood thrown back, my parka unzipped, wearing my kamiks since I had no other shoes, my mitts dangling conveniently from strings at my sleeves. A slender young Inuit girl, high or crazed, began mocking me and eventually came running down the hall and punched me and kicked me, shrieking: "Where are you from, Daddy-o? What are you doing with all that fuckin' stupid gear?"

She herself was dressed like a southern California girl, and I wondered whether she had been among those serenely happy crowds on Nunavut Day, those people clapping grimy work gloves and sealskin mitts, while the fur ruffs of their parkas swirled in the wind. So angry and sad, did she care about Nunavut?

For her, the beauties of utility had given way to the beauties of fashion. Moreover, in so many young people's eyes, utility and fashion married one another in synthetic apparel. On a walk in Apex, I found myself promenading beside a young Anglo guy with dyed hair along the community's frozen shore, past rocks and trash cans protruding from the snow. He wore camouflage pants and a brand-name American parka. As we approached the frozen drifts on the frozen sea, with the wide, low domes of snow-islands ahead, he was telling me about one of his adventures over the winter. "We were fuckin' set up, man. We had fuckin' beer and the whole fuckin' nine yards. Then we got slammed with a 120-kilometer wind and, well, we lay down between our snowmobiles and we made it." He had no use for caribou-skin clothing, and neither did I.

In that mall, to be sure, I was ludicrously overdressed. My old huntress did not find me so. She was charitable and practical; she was gentle, open, giving. But later that night she was drunk; now she was crazy, too. A hundred years ago, she might have been better off—unless, of course, she'd starved to death. Now she could drink herself to death.

For her, perhaps, Nunavut had arrived too late; it would differ too painfully from her code of life. This new thing, Nunavut, is as beautiful as a woman's parka trimmed with strips of fur and strips of patterned cloth, as ugly as scraps of plastic dancing in an Arctic wind.

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