Teaching Social Studies through Storytelling: The Enduring Spirit of the Arctic

By Kilbourne, John | Social Education, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Teaching Social Studies through Storytelling: The Enduring Spirit of the Arctic


Kilbourne, John, Social Education


The region in the Canadian Arctic now known as Nunavut ("our land" in the language of the Inuit) is a vast territory with a small population. Lying north and west of Hudson Bay, and previously part of Canada's Northwest Territories, it consists of 750,000 square miles of land and 62,000 square miles of water. It has been continuously populated for approximately 4,000 years. According to the 2006 census, it had 29,474 inhabitants, of whom 24,640 identified themselves as Inuit (83.6 %). About three in five were under twenty-five years of age.

Nunavut was created as a homeland for the Inuit people after a majority of residents ratified the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act in 1992. This was an accord drafted over 20 years by a committed group of Canadians (both Inuit and non-Inuit) that resulted, in 1993, in the largest land claims settlement in Canada, with $1.1 billion to be paid out between 1993 and 2007. The official creation of Nunavut took place in a magnificent ceremony on April 1, 1999, in Iqaluit.

Iqaluit became the official capital of Nunavut in 1999. Its name means "place of many fish" in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. It is the largest community in the region, located on the south coast of Baffin Island at the head of Frobisher Bay. In 2006, the Census reported the population of Iqaluit to be 6,184 (58% Inuit and 41% non-aboriginal), a growth of 18% from 2001.

As the capital of Nunavut, the economy of Iqaluit is based mainly on government. There are many new government buildings and government employees servicing the needs of the new territory, including social services, education, health, arts, and culture. Because of its modern airport, oil and mining companies use Iqaluit as a service and supply center. Many Inuit in Iqaluit continue to harvest fish and seals for food and clothing while other local residents produce and sell Inuit arts and crafts.

The original religion of many Inuit was shamanism. Although shamanism is still practiced in secret, most Inuit have converted to Christianity over time. This began with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1800s and continues to this day. Today in Iqaluit, nearly 85% of the population reports being a member of a Christian faith.

As its name suggests, Iqaluit is a prime fishing area that has provided Inuit with a reliable source of food for many years. In Iqaluit, local residents often head to Sylvia Grinnell River to catch Arctic char, to Ogac Lake to catch cod, or to the ocean to catch shrimp. Some locals actually move to outpost camps during fishing and hunting seasons, returning to the city only for work. Other Iqaluit residents purchase fresh fish and shrimp from the local food markets.

By engaging with the ocean, land, rivers, lakes, and animals, Inuit learn through observation, discovery, and experience. Information about where and how to fish and hunt, and a sense of sharing and community is passed from one generation to the next This knowledge and these values, which are hallmarks of traditional Inuit culture, are known as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ); and Inuit in Iqaluit work hard to weave them into their daily lives. Fishing is an excellent activity for promoting these guiding principles.

The spirit of the Arctic lives on in the people of the region. It is illustrated in the true story on pages 322-323 that is the centerpiece of this article. On my first visit to the Canadian Arctic, I had been told about Pitseolak Alainga and his incredible survival story. When our family moved to the Canadian Arctic in 2001 as part of my sabbatical study, we discovered that Pitseolak and his family actually lived next door to the home we rented in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

Throughout history, storytelling has been very important to the Inuit. It is through their stories that important information is passed from one generation to the next. Hugh Brody, referring to the importance of stories for a young girl, says the following in his informative book, The Other Side of Eden:

   The land to which she belongs is
   the subject of many kinds of stories. … 

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