Traditions were really unimportant to the Inuit people of Igloolik before they encountered outsiders, according to Nancy Wachowich. One elder explained to the author, “we didn’t talk about traditions in the past. There were no other cultures here with us and we didn’t think about preserving anything because we were living it. It was all we had” (p.122).

Inuit communitiesWachowich focuses a recent article on efforts to preserve the culture of this community over the past 35 years. The earlier work of various explorers and ethnographers, such as Franz Boas and Knud Rasmussen, fostered the reputation of Igloolik as a remote, infrequently contacted Inuit community. Between 1968 and 1972, while the people of the community were moving from their camps on the land into the permanent settlement, outside researchers were collecting a large amount of biometric and social data about them.

Many aspects of their previous life on the land, such as traveling by dogsleds, sewing skins for clothing, building snowhouses, and hunting took on symbolic, moral values. The inhabitants of Igloolik, the Iglulingmiut, became known as a people to be studied: classified, objectified, and assigned values relative to their previous traditional practices.

Outsiders suggested that they should preserve their culture. A Catholic Church administrator helped community leaders form the Inummariit Society, a group charged with preserving their traditions. In 1972, the society constructed a museum, an igloo-like structure made out of cement complete with shelves and cabinets for displaying objects. Residents donated the things they had earlier used in their camp lives—harpoons, knives, skin clothing, qulliit (stone lamps)—to put on display for visitors.

The idea was that elders would use the museum as a venue for giving talks about what it used to be like to live on the land. But the place only seemed to make people sad. One woman said she felt a chill in her spine when she saw her own grandmother’s stone lamp on display in the museum. It had been used for heating as well as cooking. Not too long before, she had watched her grandmother tending the lamp in her tent.

But the biggest problem was that the museum and its displays were extrinsic to the lives of the Iglulingmiut. It was difficult for preserved, permanent displays to really represent what it was like to live out on the land. The display of objects in a permanent building may have been a well-meaning attempt to cherish their earlier traditions, but to them it perpetuated the western vision of the Inuit as a museum-like culture.

Also, the museum building was cold, difficult to heat, drafty and damp, and it was prone to frosting over. Displayed objects soon dried or rotted, and few Iglulingmiut visited it. As the young people grew up in the settled community, they lost interest in their culture as preserved in a museum. The collections were disbanded, stored, and returned to individuals. After the priest who had instigated the venture left the area, the museum was closed and ultimately torn down. The prevailing symbol of Inuit culture changed, and they began to realize that their real identity was their relationship to the land.

In the 1980s, the Iglulingmiut formed the Inullariit Group, another society that they hoped would maintain and foster their cultural traditions. This group began, as one of its first efforts, an oral history project which recorded the memories of elders in both English and Inuktitut about their life on the land. Transcribed and recorded in a computerized database, the material is stored in Igloolik and Yellowknife. It has become an online, searchable encyclopedia of traditional Iglulingmiut culture.

In the 1990s, the group began outreach programs to teach the young people in the community their cultural traditions. The elders take young people out on both summer and winter camping programs to help them learn skills such as hunting, making shelters, processing skins, producing tools, and so on. The society also holds classes in igloo-building, Inuit navigation, drum-dancing, and, perhaps most critically, in the proper pronunciation of the Inuktitut language.

The group also presents an annual Language Week, which is held in January to coincide with the yearly festivities that accompany their holiday of Qaggiq: The Return of the Sun. Celebrations in the town feature throat singing, square dancing, drum dancing, fashion shows with traditional skin clothing, and speechmaking by politicians. The major purpose of the group, according to one statement, is to reach out to the youth, to teach them “to learn the way of becoming an Inuk” (p.131).

Wachowich also describes the work of the Igloolik Isuma Productions, a film and video production company founded in the town in 1988 that has developed a reputation for producing successful dramas based on the traditional Iglulingmiut culture.

The Qaggiq Trilogy, filmed between 1988 and 1993, followed in 1994 by the thirteen-part Nunavut Series, employed Inuit actors, each of whom played his or her atiq (namesake). The actors, in essence, played themselves in their namesake existences, improvising their scenes and the social relations as they felt the dramas might have developed many decades earlier. The actors were thus living out the experiences they believed earlier generations had had when they still lived on the land. The company deliberately displayed in their productions Iglulingmiut perspectives toward the land, social relationships, time, and mortality.

The company had a resounding success with their film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in 2001. Distributed internationally, it won numerous awards. It is a dramatization of a legend, but the company is proud of the fact that the actors all know how to make traditional tools, use them, run dog teams, and so on. As one man was quoted, “Atanarjuat shows a national TV audience our culture from an Inuit point of view, not as victims but with the skills and strength to survive 4000 years with our identity intact. Inuit culture is alive; that is our statement, not yours” (p.135).

The people of Igloolik have a come a long ways from building frigid, ineffective stone museums.

Wachowich, Nancy. 2006. “Cultural Survival and the Trade in Iglulingmiut Traditions.” In Critical Inuit Studies: An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography, edited by Pamela Stern and Lisa Stevenson, p.119-138. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press