by Bev Illauq
Arguably the most fundamental gifts Creator has given human kind is the Earth in all its fullness and the kindness that reflects Creator that is intrinsic to the human spirit. It is the Indigenous cultures I have been immersed in more or less since the age of four, that have so clearly manifested this truth in my life.
When I was four, I was privileged to see a room full of the amazing things that had been presented to the Anglican Bishop of the Arctic, Bishop Donald Ben Marsh, over the 40 years he had lived and travelled with Inuit and Dene and Cree families in Canada’s Arctic. Polar bear skins, a walrus skull complete with tusks, a spiralling narwhal tusk, sealskin rope and caribou kamiiks bespoke the Inuit culture, while beaver pelts, moose skin beaded gloves and a mounted wolverine bore witness the gifts given by Dene parishioners to ‘The Bishop’ who spoke their languages and helped heal their sick, and learned the ways of his dog team and snow-house building from his ‘Indigenous’ (a.k.a. Aboriginal or Native) friends and partners. These were simple and awe-inspiring signs of gifts shared, person to person, culture to culture – Gifts of earth and spirit given and Gifts of earth and spirit received. Kindness, gratitude, appreciation, solidarity, compassion – these were the words hanging back in the shadows of the room.
My first teaching position in Schefferville, P.Q., opened the doors of Matimakosh to me, the Naskapi reserve at the end of town. There, it was the welcome and friendship and the rich wisdom of these families of my students that I recognized as absolute gift to me, a twenty something teacher that was not only curious but in awe. I was awe-struck by their harmony with the land -they still camped for weeks at a time on the land, harvested caribou and fish and fox, and created and used items fabricated with animal parts and wood and knowledge steeped in generations of traditional community – and their generosity in sharing it with me. Gifts of culture given, and gifts of understanding and wisdom humbly received.
Working with Inuit students and the ‘fathers of Nunavut’ and their families who were living and working in Ottawa in the late 70’s and 80’s, and later in a position as editor of Inuktitut Magazine and a DIAND Cultural Development Officer, a door was opened to the amazing intricacies and subtleties of Inuit culture and language. As a recreation counsellor and tutor running programs out of Inuit House in Ottawa, the YMCA, and all kinds of other venues, I was often thanked by the Inuit living in Ottawa. But my appreciative gratitude was far too immense to give it voice, and my Inuktitut at that time, unfortunately, was far too little to really explore the depths of all the gifts of time, talk and treasure given to me then. Gifts were freely given and freely received, in friendship, by playing and learning, and eating and ‘surviving the city’ all together.
Because I had so patiently been given gifts of language and culture, and the beginnings of understanding of the ‘Indigenous world view’, by the Inuit in Ottawa, I was ready to ‘go north for a year’. In the end, I lived in Clyde River (Kangirtugaapik) on the east coast of Baffin Island for 19 years. Yes, it has been 30+ years of gifts given so very generously, and gifts received, haltingly and awkwardly at first, and now more ‘fluently’. I am still learning – now from my four Nunavut Beneficiary Inuit children, and the many, members of our extended Clyde family who ended up in Ottawa, either as patients at Larga, or as one of the more or less 4,000 Inuit residents of the city.
And I still realize that I will never be able to match the generosity, and the faithfulness to love and to truth, of the Indigenous people I continue to meet along my life’s journey.
In 2019, we are celebrating two very significant things: The 20th Anniversary of Nunavut becoming the newest Territory of Canada, and the International Year of Indigenous languages. In honour of these two events, I am offering a series of gifts, being held out to each reader of the NG Times. Let’s explore together the amazing richness of our Indigenous heritage as a country. I wonder, will we Non-Indigenous Canadians, with all of our good-heartedness, be humble and ‘good’ enough to receive these gifts of earth and spirit, so freely given?
Beverly Illauq BA, BEd. OCT, CTRTC, is a mother and grandmother in an Inuk family with First Nations family connections. Beverly and her family live in Kemptville, Ontario, and remain connected with the Ottawa Inuit community, and with their home community of Clyde River.
For more information on Inuit culture and history:
Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut, www.mqup.ca/uqalurait-products-9780773523418.php.
Seven Sacred Teachings: www.btgwinnipeg.ca/uploads/5/2/4/1/52412159/the_seven_sacred_teachings_.pdf.