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

But who can foresee Nunavut's future even five years ahead? It's an experiment, full of vigor and nobility, the government resolutely, democratically local, with its ten departments housed in ten widely spread Arctic towns. And Premier Okalik is an Inuit leader, as bright and optimistic as the territory. No doubt he and the other young politicians will grow old; perhaps they'll fall into nepotism and inertia until the political landscape freezes like the laundry on a clothesline covered with Easter snow. But for now he seems committed.

On Nunavut Day, the elders gathered in the hangar bays cheered Okalik—he was their young man, homegrown. But precisely because he was theirs, they didn't have to stand on ceremony, and so their kids ran loudly in and out. Perhaps Okalik won the election because he exemplified the pragmatic modesty and moderation that has always served Inuit so well, the genial humility that had his colleagues in the territorial negotiations introducing one another's speeches with aw-shucks humor, insisting that at the beginning they didn't even know what a land claim was. Now, when Okalik came to the podium, he declared, "We have achieved our goal through negotiations without civil disobedience....We hope we can contribute to the prosperity and diversity of Canada."

Here was no separatist poison, no threat to the sovereignty of the country at large. Nunavut remained Canadian—with a difference, of course. At the conclusion of the inaugural ceremony, they sang the national anthem, but this rendition of "O Canada" must have startled Prime Minister Chrétien and the other federal politicians, for the Inuit decorated its melody at beginning and end with an ancient ayah song, performed by three women.

Nunavut remains her own place, an extended family even after all the decades of damage, the community a superorganism that tries to warm all in its bosom. But can the fresh new super-superorganism truly give itself to all Inuit? Almost 60 percent of the Nunavummiut are under 25 years of age. And the alteration of almost every aspect of material culture has occurred so rapidly that the elders and the kids riding their bikes in the April snow almost constitute two separate societies. Sometimes I think that the old huntress and the girl who kicked me had more in common with me than with one another.

At her house in resolute, Elisapi's mother, Annie, takes a hunk of frozen raw caribou or seal from the freezer, sets it down on cardboard on the kitchen floor, and chops off splinters of meat with a hatchet. Annie says her favorite boarders are those who eat her "country food," and she always smiles at me because I fall to with relish.
At community feasts, the Inuit drag in whole animal carcasses, and tear out raw intestines with their teeth; so the fact that I'll eat almost anything helped endear me to Annie, one linchpin of her culture being the sharing of home-killed meat. When by happy chance I found Annie and Elisapi living in Iqaluit not long after Nunavut Day, my hair was long and Annie liked that too, because it made me look like a native. She told me this with Elisapi's help, because she cannot speak English.

For the people of Annie's generation, Nunavut is above all a vindication, a gift, a balm to wounded pride. Annie is entering her second childhood. Elisapi and the other sisters will take care of her. She's too frail to sew kamiks anymore. She'll never use a computer. She's already home. She'll die safe from the unimaginable changes now looming over Nunavut.

For Annie, and for so many Inuit, men and women alike, to be oneself is to hunt. Everybody hunts for survival: People raised on that basis know how to share, how to kill, and how to handle firearms responsibly. I once went out on a walrus hunt and watched a seven-year-old boy instructing his five-year-old brother in gun safety, with no adults in attendance except me. On that same hunt, I saw a seal killed with three shots and a walrus with one.

Many tourists from down south simply don't possess such attributes, but if the new territory of Nunavut gets what it wants, there will be more white hunters, more white visitors out on the land. The outfitters in Nunavut will soon be swimming in business, I imagine. They will take birdwatchers and whale-lovers out to stalk their prey with binoculars, telephoto lenses, and watercolor brushes. They'll learn to pamper the ones who forgot their warm clothes. They'll learn that legal liability hangs over them at all times. They'll be treated to cries of amazed disgust when somebody from a city sees a hunter butchering a bloody seal on an icy gravel beach. It's all for the good, I suppose, as long as local people make money. Over time, Nunavut will be receiving a diminishing income from the federal government, so why shouldn't tourism make up the shortfall?

Today only about 8,000 tourists a year come to Nunavut, most of them dogsledders, hunters, and wildlife watchers bound for the remote interior or for Baffin Island, and its belugas and killer whales. The adventurous few climb Mount Thor or Mount Asgard, or sea kayak the fjords of Baffin Island. But if it weren't for the shiny glints of increased tourism and development, why were corporate Canada's congratulations on the birth of Nunavut so loud?

Elisapi and Joe were hoping to rent out their house to the rich tourists who undertake expeditions to the North Pole. Elisapi had come to Iqaluit, in fact, to enroll as a communications student. She wanted to go into public relations or journalism. Since public relations is generally employed by businesses and governments rather than by aboriginal hunters, her new career seemed fairly certain, however indirectly, to further "develop" the land.

In that sense Elisapi reminded me of the carver's wife I met in Apex; the woman liked Nunavut, she said, because there would soon be more jobs. According to recent national census and provincial labor figures, 40 percent of the Inuit residents of Nunavut, and 9 percent of the other residents, do not "participate in the labor force (wage economy)." Moreover, the remote Nunavummiut must pay between two and three times more for basic goods and services than southern Canadians do. So the carver's wife was worried about being left out in the economic cold. But she also hungered for solitude, preferring Apex to Iqaluit because it was quieter. Like Annie, she'd been born in a hunting camp.

There was a term for these new Nunavummiut: weekend hunters. Their philosophy was to let the new life come and to benefit from it while living the old life as long as they could. But as new careers and tourism push the caribou back, where will their land be? It made me worry about the next 20 years. I said as much to Elisapi's sister Laila, but she cut me off. "Don't worry about us," she said with an angry smile. "We'll survive."

And why shouldn't Elisapi learn to shape the world's understanding of Inuit? Other people have. One sardonic old Inuit joke used to run that the average Inuit family comprises 6.5 individuals: a husband, a wife, 3.5 children, and a nosy anthropologist from down south.

"Objectivity" may be lost, but much else will be gained, when Elisapi replaces the anthropologist. And if her public relations contribute to the development of Nunavut, who am I to say that's a bad thing? And as Nunavut increasingly caters to tourists, wouldn't it be excellent, given that many of those caterers will doubtless be capital-rich entrepreneurs from Toronto or Sydney or Los Angeles, if Elisapi could make her percentage? As Inuit culture becomes a commodity, can't Elisapi sell it better than I can?

But what is Inuit culture? Endless hunting for the sake of prowess, the sharing of killed food, a knowledge of Inuktitut, sexual easiness and earthiness, old stories, a reserved smile, tenderness with children and confidence in them, respect for family, cheerfulness in the face of physical discomfort, ayah songs and throat-songs, animal-skin clothes? I can buy the garments; can I buy the rest?

If in the future they open resorts in Nunavut, remember solitude, and let someone else patronize them. If you must go, expect discomfort, inconvenience, and high prices. If you possess less experience than you will need to survive on your own, by all means find a local outfitter who can help you, and be guided by his advice. Above all, if you visit Nunavut, take care that your actions don't transform the region into a mirror image of the place you left.


For the next three months, Elisapi, with her two sons and Annie, was going to be staying at her daughter Eunice's place, an immaculate house (too much so for Elisapi's taste) with snow-white wall-to-wall carpet. In a corner niche I saw a group photograph, taken by a social worker back in 1955, of Annie and her family waiting to be relocated to Resolute, sitting forlornly on the rocks of Inukjuak.

I'd met Eunice once or twice in Resolute, the first time when she was about 13. She drew for me a picture of a polar bear stalking a baby seal on an Arctic midnight. When I got home I mailed her some colored pencils. She moved down to Iqaluit a few years later, and now, at 24, she has two daughters and is a famous throat-singer whose albums are sold to strangers across the Atlantic. She had performed in traditional dress at the Nunavut gala. She'd already been to Hawaii three times.

Fifteen minutes after I arrived, Eunice said she'd see me around. Her husband had just bought a new snowmobile; they were going for a ride out on the land. This was not rudeness on her part, but the habitual casualness of the Nunavummiut, who come and go as they wish. Eunice told me what I already knew, that I was welcome to stay for as long as I pleased, and indeed I visited with her relatives for another two hours before I went on my way.

Getting ready for their ride, Eunice had slipped her younger daughter into the amauti, because it was one of those cold days when breath-steam rose high above everybody's hoods. I had asked Eunice what kind of fur she used for her hood's unfamiliar ruff, and she made a face: "I don't know," she had replied. "Some ugly kind. I should get it replaced." But Elisapi and Annie both knew what kind of animal it came from, and they immediately told her—or told me, I should say, because Eunice wasn't interested. The ruff was coyote, from way down south, like her carpet and her snowmobile.

I never got the chance to ask Eunice if she still hunted, and in a way it doesn't matter. Her strain of Inuitness, like her mother's, will survive even after that hypothetical day when all the shores of Baffin Island have reared up their apartment forests in mocking imitation of the trees that could never have lived here. Fluent in both English and Inuktitut, and deriving both recognition and cold cash from her culture, Eunice seems likely to thrive. Maybe someday she'll be the Voice of Nunavut, emerging from radios and loudspeakers like the muezzins of Pakistan calling people to prayer.

What Nunavut will Eunice live in then? Perhaps the land will be changed, developed. Perhaps she and Elisapi and their family will live in a city of skyscrapers. Perhaps every seal will be tagged by then, transmitting its location and vital signs to wildlife officials, and Eunice's throat-songs will comprise their own signals in a realm of signal, human and animal equal. Why not? Which is to say, who knows? This spring, Nunavut was a promise. Now Nunavut will become a mystery as socioeconomic forces weave their half-blind ravelings.

On the last night of my trip, I stood on a snow-ridge between Iqaluit and Apex, gazing up at the aurora borealis sprinkling itself across the sky like confectioner's sugar, mingling with the city's steam-trails and smoke-trails. After a while it began to ooze slowly downward like white fists and frozen white winds swirling between stars. Far away, the lonely headlight of a snowmobile rushed across
the land.

William T. Vollmann is a novelist whose books include The Atlas, Butterfly Stories, and The Rifles. He lives in Sacramento, California.


Adventures in culture for the icebound

Even if you are undaunted by the shifting pack ice, the trailless interior, or the uselessness of your compass at such high latitudes, the best way to see Nunavut is still with an outfitter using Inuit guides. Not only will they handle complicated logistics—permits, cold-weather gear, and charter flights—but they can also offer insights into indigenous Arctic culture: On a dogsled trip to the floe edge you might carve seal meat, cook it over a quiliq stove, and sleep in an igloo.

But tread lightly, cautions author William Vollmann. Respect Inuit elders, and be patient with discomfort, inconvenience, and high prices. "We are worried that tourism will dilute our culture," declares Roxann Hynes, travel counselor at Iqaluit-based Nunavut Tourism. "Fortunately, most visitors want to see our traditional way of life, and outfitters are catering to that."

The Facts: Iqaluit is the main hub for flights from the east; Yellowknife, from the west. In March, temperatures swing between 30 and minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit; by July, the average temperature is 46, and the sun dips below the horizon for fewer than five hours a day. Nunavut Tourism (800-491-7910; can recommend lodging in Iqaluit, and its Website offers an extensive roster of tour groups.

Outfitters: Between March and June, Seattle's Arctic Odysseys (206-325-1977) runs nine-day dogsled tours departing every week for Broughton Island, near the mazelike archipelago of Auyuittuq National Park. Inuit guides build igloos and fish through the sea-ice for cod. Cost is $3,850 per person, including the flight from Ottawa or Montreal. Whitney & Smith runs two 15-day sea-kayaking trips ($3,595, including airfare; 403-678-3052) a summer through the walrus- and beluga-filled fjords of northeast Ellesmere Island, where modern whale-rib houses mix with Paleo-Inuit ruins. The July and August trips promise a guide for every four clients. The Banff-based outfitter also offers backpacking trips through the glacial meadows of Ellesmere National Park, ranging from day hikes to two-week treks. For shorter jaunts from Iqaluit into Frobisher Bay, Inuit Sea Kayaking Adventures offers daily rentals (800-331-4684).


More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!