It was a day of Nunavut celebration, but on Dene land. In a small city with the attraction of public housing, shopping centres, social assistance and opportunities to work, the population of Nunavummiut in Somba Ke had grown rapidly since the early 1990s. With no Inuit centre, the only place where you could find Inuit is the Larga Kitikmeot Medical Boarding Home, a modest and efficient building that accommodates Inuit from the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut.
For nearly three years I worked as a housekeeper, cleaning bedrooms and bathrooms five days a week. It was a full-time job and it paid the bills. Although, never would I have seen myself working with or for Inuit after my time in Nunavut. Where peoples’ words and actions stung worse than frostbite. Ironically enough, it was at Larga where I found a renewed sense of belonging, among Inuit I personally did not know but worked for. Constellations were being made and I just went along with it.
Each shift passed in a daze, each similar but slightly different. The work was repetitive and my mind frequently wandered while my hands cleaned. In the early morning, people woke with messy hair and tired eyes, quietly making their way from room to room. As a child my mother used pots and pans to wake my sister and me on school mornings because she found it entertaining; this certainly would not be the place or time to do such a thing. Her actions echoed in the silence of my workplace.
Small children ran up and down the hallways only to stop and stare blankly at me while I sprayed down toilets, wiping them down. Elders being pushed in wheelchairs smiled warmly as they passed, heading for the elevator. There was usually a comfortable silence in the mornings and even though my job was to change garbage bags and sweep floors, just watching Inuit be Inuit filled my soul with a sense of home and familiarity.
I know I’m Inuk but I’m not as Inuk as they are… I often thought as I watched people move in their homemade jackets. Their hoods lined with luxurious white fox fur or a shiny black and brown wolverine pelt. They looked so sleek in their sealskin pualuks (mittens) that were embroidered with pretty flowers and lined with soft rabbit fur. Their kamiks (winter boots), gorgeous and impeccably sewn, were soft pitter-patter footsteps along the shiny waxed floors.
It is a well-maintained building and I found simple satisfaction in seeing it clean. Along the walls of several rooms were images of various Arctic scenes portrayed through photos, paintings and wall hangings. Its plain and striking beauty of vast whiteness, open sky and frigid temperatures brings memories and longing. Images that I can only dream about revisiting.
Sepia tone prints of the original nomadic hunters hang on the walls in black frames. An image of an older woman, one of whom I am a descendant of, wears a straight face, decorated with tattoos staring boldly at the camera. I like to think that she was there with me, all those days I worked, taking time to acknowledge her picture.
Nunavut Day was fast approaching at Larga Kitikmeot. A co-worker and I were hired to organize an afternoon of activities for the patients and escorts. Excitement and nervousness were mounting inside of me. Will people have fun? What if they judge me on my peculiarity and inability to fit in with other Inuit? Well, the manager hired me for a reason and all I can do is make the best of it.
At lunch, the lighting of the kudliq (oil lamp) and a feast would be served to start off the celebration. The kitchen crew worked hard that morning preparing a variety of foods. Decadent smells were carried all throughout the first floor. Caribou stew, bannock, Arctic char with lemon and dill, mashed potatoes, gravy, healthy green salads and dessert salads filled the noses and spirit of those waiting to eat. Not so aromatic was the frozen food bar, which was filled with delectable pieces of deep red caribou, bright orange fish and grey and white whale. Beside were small bowls of soya sauce and mayonnaise for dipping. Yum.
Lunch was usually a favorite time of day. Patients and escorts, as well as employees, were welcome to dine together every day. On Nunavut Day the dining room was especially packed. Every chair was filled, tables held big plates of quality-made food and words of gratitude were shared by almost everyone.
After lunch, small herds of people made their way upstairs to the common room. A co-worker was in charge for the first hour of game activities and I would lead the second hour. Groups of people began formulating circles, ready to start the party games. I could hardly sit out of nervousness and fear.
The week before I decided I would present traditional Inuit games during the second hour. While everyone played games I reminded myself that in some way it was important that I bring up something traditional, even if not everyone was excited about it.
My enthusiasm was beginning to subside when I realized I hardly knew how to play any of them. Soon enough, the second hour had come and the floor was mine. Older women filled the sofas and chairs. People stood, leaning against the wall and some sitting on the floor. Children crawled and pranced between people they knew. It was a tightknit space to be playing games but surely there would be enough room for one-on-one matches to be played safely.
I stood, unsure, in front of the Kitikmeot Inuit. “Good afternoon everyone, the floor is now open to traditional Inuit games… I initially didn’t know what they were so I Googled them.” Blank stares from pretty much everyone intimidated me but I continued anyway. “I think it’s really important that we remember and practice the traditional games so that the younger generation will know what they are, as well as acknowledging the practices of our ancestors.”
There was a low hush and I had the impression that most of the people there could care less about traditional games or what I had to say. No one said anything. Regardless, it was Nunavut Day, and I had to make it look like I knew what I was doing.
“The first game we’ll be playing is the Backpush.” Wherein, two people sit back-to-back, arms locked at the elbows. The objective is to push the opponent backward until they exceed the limit of the carpet or circle. “I’ll be demonstrating with whoever would like to try. First person to win three matches wins a gift card to Extra Foods or McDonalds.” I sat in the middle of the carpet waiting.
Silence hovered in the room. No one really wanted to play but maybe in a few minutes someone would get up and try. Somewhere Inuit spirits might be watching, congratulating us on our attempts to play their games! Maybe not, who knows.
Finally, an older woman with short grey hair volunteered to challenge me in the Backpush. Many times I had seen her walking around town with her grandkids, taking them to the park, riding the bus. Considering her age and habit of walking slowly, I decided to take it easy on her. Someone counted to three and then we were off.
Like a tough old woman, she began pushing me toward my side of the carpet faster than I realized. I squeezed my leg muscles and pushed back, resisting the surprising amount of strength she gave.
“Holy shit,” I said, squeezing those words tightly out my mouth. “You are way stronger than you look!”
“Just because I’m a Grandma doesn’t mean I’ve lost my strength!” she said, words squeezing tightly out as well. Her back was warm and soft as we pushed each other back to the centre.
The women watching chuckled, some agreeing that a person’s age does not guarantee strength or weakness. Mid-competition people started warming up, carrying on conversation. This woman I was up against was very strong and my years of playing hockey, soccer and track were put to the test that afternoon. My mother used to tell me that older women walked slowly to conserve their energy, in case they needed it for something special, like running away or to someone.
Sweat began beading from our foreheads as we pushed and grunted, back and forth. This soft and lovely older woman was at least twice or three times my age but she sure made me work. I squeezed my butt cheeks, tightened my thighs and gave one last unrelenting push. Her feet crossed over her side and the match was over, finally.
Both relieved and sweating, we laughed.
“That was pretty good,” I said. The floor was reopened and considering I was ineligible for any prize it was up to anyone willing to try.
Gradually, with the rise of conversation, more and more women volunteered. Match after match, the young and old challenged each other until a young woman won three consecutive matches. The Backpush was closed for competition.
“I know some jigging games,” an older woman from Kugaaruk began to speak. Her voice was raspy from heavy smoking. “Two people stand in front of each other and do the same pattern. Almost like they’re mirroring each other. First person to mess up the pattern or fall behind loses…”
She stood, demonstrating a series of motions that moved her feet in and out, side to side, back to back. There was full on jigging action and it looked like so much fun and silliness.
“They played these games during dark winter days to stay warm, pass time, and entertain themselves,” this older woman’s daughter explained as her mother moved. Her voice was friendly and comforting, with a slight accent that many small-town Inuit have. If only I could accumulate that accent, turn it into an ice cream topping, eat it and sound the same as her.
Another young woman sitting comfortably on the floor cleared her throat and cleaned the ketchup residue from her hands.
“I know this game,” she said, getting up.
Several minutes passed and their feet moved in unison, picking up speed. Their cheeks and bellies bounced as they continued jigging. Eventually one person gave way to an error and then more women offered to test their jigging skills. Match after match, people challenged one another, the amount of perspiration and happy faces in the room accumulating.
Other games such as the High Kick, Knee Jump and Knuckle Hop were tried. Nearly everyone offered to try and test their skills in various games and the embarrassment I felt gave way to relief. The hour flew by quickly and by the end of it the older women expressed how glad they were that we played traditional Inuit games. Comforting words to hear on a celebratory day.