Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 30, 2000 - Issue 26


A Christmas Message from the Commissioner of Nunavut

by Peter Irniq Commissioner of Nunavut


IQALUIT ó When I was growing up in my beloved homeland in the Naujaat-Repulse Bay area in the 1950s and 1960s, the Christmas season was an important time for my family of five. My mother was very religious and strongly believed that no matter what, we had to be in Naujaat for the festive season.

We lived most of the time in Nattiligaarjuk (Committee Bay), an archaelogical outpost camp situated between Naujaat and Kuugaarrjuk (Pelly Bay). My mother and father preferred living there because it had, and still has, plenty of fish and anbundance of game, plus, itís a beautiful part of Nunavut.

When Christmas season approached, we would travel by dog team to Naujaat and sleep one or two nights in between, depending on the weather of course. When we would arrive at Naujaat, we would either build an iglu or stay with a family, and remain there until after the January 1 had past. January 1 was also an important date for exchanging used gifts, between friends.

It was up to the local Oblate priest and the Hudsonís Bay Company manager to plan the activities. There was a big feast and prizes to be won.

There would be a lot of joy and excitement, when about 60-80 Inuit would gather at the Roman Catholic Mission, preparing for midnight mass. Christmas songs, sung by both men and women, sounded wonderful to listen to. As a rule, men would sit on one side and women would sit on the other side of the church.

We, the small children, would sit very still in front of the adults, most of the time pretending to pray hard, trying to impress the priest and the adults.

For the midnight mass, my mother would dress me in the cleanest clothes she could find (remember we lived either in an iglu or a sod house in the winter time).

She would wash my face down, comb my hair, dress me in a pair of store-bought pants and shirt, then present me with brand new seal-skin kamiik.

The midnight lasted until about 1:30 a.m. and then we would all go home getting ready for the next dayís activities.

I particularly enjoyed dog team races with Inuit dogs. That was because my father and my brother-in-law would almost always receive the first prize. The prizes, normally a rifle, a primus stove and Zippo lighter or a 10-gallon can of kerosene, were essential to living in those days.

I might say, one reason that our dogs were very healthy was because, unlike some of the dogs in Naujaat, they all ran loose in Nattiligaarjuk.

After the races, the next big event was a huge meal of caribou, caribou stew, and porridge and bread. Everyone enjoyed themselves exchanging hunting stories.

Then, there were games. Father Theophile Didier enjoyed wrestling. He would have adult men wrestle in the middle of the room, while I watched with great anxiety.

Another popular game that was played was aqsaaraq ó handpull. In this game, two men would see who would pull each other faster and the strongest of the two would be the winner.

There were also other games played. For example, Father Didier had three men having cigar-smoking contests. They included the three elders from that generation. One of them was my father, Athanasie Angutitaq, and the others were Aapapak Siutinnuaq and Ulikattaq.

Richard Harrington, a renowned photographer from Toronto, spent the season there in 1952 and took several pictures of the Christmas event in Naujaat.

Another popular game was Nugluktaqtut ó a game that is regularly played today by Elders in at the Iqaluit Elderís Centre. Several contestants, holding at least three-foot cues, would try to poke their tip into an ivory target that was hanging from the ceiling of the mission building.

The nugluktaq, hanging by a string and sinker at the bottom, had four holes. Any one of the contestants who poked their cue into one of the four holes would be declared a winner and get a prize.

There was also a drum dance. In the days when various missionaries were advising Inuit not to drum-dance any more, Father Didier was one priest that I remember who allowed drum dancing. I can still remember my father drumming, while my mother sang one of his songs.

In traditional times, that was normally the way drum-dancing was conducted. Today, drumming is coming back big time, especially with the younger people.

Where I am concerned is that more and more elders are passing on, and we need to make sure that these Inuit traditional songs are kept alive. Itís important that we the elders pass on this knowledge of traditional songs or pisiit to our younger generation.

The joyous events would go on until News Yearís Day, and it wasnít until the first day of January that we would exchange used gifts, unwrapped. It was done only with the best of friends and not with family members.

I remember some men used to exchange rifles, ammunition, primus stoves, pots and kettles, which were all essential items in those days. We would do these things by saying haapinuuja, an Inuktitut expression adopted from the English language "Happy New Year."

After the festivities and after trading our furs and my motherís carvings with the Hudsonís Bay Company, we would begin traveling back to Nattiligaarjuk by dog-team.

Today, we spend Christmas and New Years completely different. There is no way that we would go back to the simple times like in Repulse Bay.

Today, I want to wish everyone to continue the way of giving, especially to the needy, the disabled, the homeless, and to those children who receive less than others. This has always been the Inuit way and this is the only way that we Inuit have survived for many, many thousands of years.

Letís all continue to build a territory of Nunavut, in cooperation and friendship. We are a compassionate people in Nunavut. Itís the only way.

Merry Christmas to all and Haapinuuja!



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