Ancient People, Modern Promise

By Olsen, Eric P. | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Ancient People, Modern Promise

Olsen, Eric P., The World and I


"I used to think that people never died," remarked 58-year-old Joanasi Solomonie, an Inuit social worker in the remote arctic village of Cape Dorset. "No one was ever sick." He rocked back in his chair with a smile, recalling his early childhood diet of seaweed, seal, caribou, polar bear, arctic frogs, and roots mixed with whale blubber. "Oh, yes," he said, "that was a happy time. We felt wealthy because we had lots of country food."

It is a time that no longer exists for Canada's Inuit population, racing toward an uncertain future. For the Canadian government and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories are embarking on a far-reaching political and cultural accord that is being watched by governments around the world.

On April 1, 1999, the Northwest Territories will cease to be, and Canada's northernmost indigenous population will assume authority over a vast and enigmatic land, the largest land-claim settlement in history--known henceforth as Nunavut ("our land").

Nunavut encompasses Canada's eastern Arctic, a largely natural division of the Northwest Territories demarking the traditional lands of the Inuit ("the people"). The more forested western territory is home to other native peoples and has been jokingly named "Bob," pending a referendum on a permanent appellation.

Europeans traveling to the United States often remark on the breadth and amplitude of the midwestern plains and mountainous West. But nothing can quite prepare one for Nunavut. With a population of twenty-four thousand, Nunavut embraces a territory of some 1.9 million square kilometers. To put this in perspective, consider settling the spectators in a half-empty professional baseball stadium in a land area four times the size of the state of California.

A journey to Nunavut is a chance to reappraise priorities. It is an occasion to set aside those habits and mental patterns that govern our complex and often denatured daily lives. Nunavut is home to a generous, creative, and courageous people, struggling to retain reverence for the land while embracing a forward-looking entry into a global twenty-first-century society.

There are few ways to enter Nunavut. In fact, no American city offers a direct flight to any community in the new territory. My connection from Washington, D.C., was through Montreal, in the company of an officer from the Canadian Embassy in Washington sent to assess the region's capacity to accommodate a future tourist trade.

Flying out of Montreal, with a perfunctory look below at the rich green patchwork of the southern Canadian piedmont, my new friend and I conversed on the history and culture of this vast territory. Frank La Fleche, a former bush pilot in the north and longtime embassy staffer, had worked on Baffin Island (our destination) for five years in the late riffles and sixties with a construction company operating the Distant Early Warning missile defense site maintained jointly by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Returning to Iqaluit (recently voted Nunavut's new capital) after twenty-seven years, La Fleche expressed both curiosity and anticipation. And while five long arctic winters had made an impression upon him, his most resonant memories were of the Inuit people.

"I can honestly say I never saw a race of people who were so friendly or who had a philosophy of life more worthy of taking a look at," he said. "When you consider the difficulty of living in the Arctic, it is hard to understand. Dangers are everywhere, but they are always laughing. They have no pretensions. I remember one man whose wife contracted pneumonia. She died shortly after, and the next day he was back at work, getting on with his life, looking after his family without any visible mourning. It can be a sunny and calm day, and the next day can be a storm. …

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