Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Igloo Living

My husband and I moved to the arctic in 1998. I had worked summers in the sub-arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba and studied Canada's indigenous cultures as I pursued my first university degree. After receiving our second degrees, which were in education, and after completing our teaching practicum in the arctic town of Arviat, teaching in the arctic seemed a logical next step! Besides, the pay was good, teaching job sat the time were a bit scarce in the south, and we had student loans to pay! These were the practical reasons but the excitement of immersing ourselves in a different culture is what truly called us to the north!
Of course in 1998 the Inuit no longer lived in the snow houses they are famous for. Snow houses or Iglus {meaning house} as we know them were not just the stuff of history. Today the Inuit continue to keep the Iglu building tradition alive, building them as temporary shelter during winter hunting trips or building them closer to town as part of a heritage or school program. It was through one of these programs that I was first able to venture into an Iglu.
I remember vividly my first time entering an Iglu. It was in Arviat, Nunavut in 1998. I can replay each moment in my memory, scent the feral smell of caribou hide, and feel the chill of the arctic air evaporate with the heat of a stove. I travelled by komatik {a traditional Inuit sled} and skidoo amidst a gaggle of school children with shining, tanned, grinning faces, noses dripping, eyes alight with rediscovery and pride. Approaching the white dome rising as a hill on the horizon contrasting the flat tundra landscape, it seemed as though I had been transported back in time to a place foreign yet familiar. Its simplicity complex, its basic natural form a call to the origins of all humanity. A thrill of the anticipation of ultimate peace with the world tightened my chest.
Inside we were met by the smiling weather worn visages of elders, women whose eyes told stories. The traditional seal oil lamp {the kullik} was replaced by a small wood stove, the stovepipe disappearing out the domed ceiling now slightly blackened, surmounted by a large stewing pot of brewing tea. Women sat sewing upon the sleeping platform thick with caribou hides. I was joyously welcomed with tea in a styrofoam cup which I must admit was somewhat unappealing. Over laden with sugar, escaped caribou hairs floated on its surface. I accepted the tea not wishing to be rude and carefully sipped the tea straining it through tightly closed lips. The ladies and children laughed. I hoped their jovial behaviour was not directed at my awkward foreignness. I was an anthropologist as well as a teacher in training I was supposed to blend in was I not! On the hard packed snow floor of the Iglu upon a piece of cardboard, lay half a caribou carcass, its meat frozen and rich red. The women took turns with their half-moon knives {ulus} cutting away bite-sized chunks of the bounty of frozen, raw flesh and popping it into their mouths most delicately. I was offered a piece from a chuckling elderly Inuit lady. She sensed my timidity and countered it with a smile of good humour. I forced the meat into my mouth attempting to present an air of worldliness and nonchalance. I was pleasantly surprised at the luxury of its taste. The frozen meat, fresh from the land and frozen by the arctic winter elements, melted in my mouth and satisfied a very base human hunger. I have had caribou many times since, cooked in so many ways but never have I again experienced a taste so close to nature.

Amazingly, the Inuit are not so far removed from life in an Iglu. While living in Kuggaaruk {Pelly Bay, Nunavut} many spoke of leaving their Iglus on the shore to go to school in the morning. This was only as far back as the 1960s. The Inuit have leaped from life on the unrelenting tundra into an age of phones, computers and internet, satellite television, and processed food! As with many indigenous cultures world wide this leaped has not proved easy and the Inuit have faced some very difficult hurdles during this transition from their traditional nomadic life to a sedentary life once forced upon them. The Inuit are a people of endurance and survival. They have always fought for their existence and this has not changed.

Travelling back from the Iglu that day, back off the tundra--to the town site where government built portable homes heated by furnaces rather than seal oil lamps stood above the permafrost on stilts, where the children sat at desks in stuffy classrooms instead of shadowing their parents hunting and gathering and playing with the toys that nature provides--I felt again as a time traveller returning from a sojourn into the past following a route far less easy for the people of the arctic!

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