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Northern resident helps bridge the gap between cultures


Joan Black, Windspeaker Contributor







Achievement Page 16

Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk was born in 1931 on the Ungava Coast near present-day Kangirsujuaq, Que. There were no schools in her village until the 1960s, but Mitiarjuk has earned the reputation of a scholar and legendary authority on Inuit language and culture. Years of unstinting service to Inuit education, of holding up the standard of traditional values and heritage, a lifetime devoted to learning and sharing from her hands and her heart, are the reasons the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation presented her with an award this year for Heritage and Spirituality.

Mitiarjuk's mission is to preserve the Inuttitut language of her people, not just as history but as the living spirit of Inuit culture, the medium that holds all the songs and stories together, the breath that holds all knowledge of the old ways that must be passed on.

She is the recorder of ancient wisdom, of the disappearing words and way of life that belonged to her people in the days before priests, provincial laws, schools and satellite television.

She is the broker for new knowledge, the trier of technology that she knows must be harnessed to serve the needs of Inuit society. The people of Nunavik look to Mitiarjuk to teach them how to carve and pile the blocks that bridge the dark water between minds and tongues and souls.

Because community life is all about sharing, it was in the right order of things that Mitiarjuk's parents passed on their people's ways to their daughter. Because she was the eldest daughter, Mitiarjuk needed to learn the traditional tasks of Inuit men as well as the work of women.

The first half of her life was spent living entirely with the land, engaged in the rhythms of the hunting culture to which she belongs. Hunting and fishing the caribou, seals, fish, Beluga whales and geese in their seasons; cleaning skins, passing on the stories - surviving.

The stories Mitiarjuk learned were imparted by the oral tradition of both her mother's people on the east coast of Hudson Bay, and her father's people on the Ungava coast. In time, she shared this rich tradition with her own children and community.

Sharing did not stop when the strangers came either. In the 1950s, Mitiarjuk helped the Catholic priest in her village to learn Inuttitut; he in turn showed her how to write syllabics. That was the beginning of her writing career and a life that has brought honor to the Inuit of northern Quebec. It was an exchange of different cultures.

"Mitiarjukhas devoted her life to promoting understanding between the Inuit and southern cultures," Kativic School Board director general Annie Grenier affirms.

Grenier also calls her "the greatest teacher in Nunavik with respect to Inuit culture, history and traditional knowledge," and "the greatest story teller."

Mitiarjuk compiled an Inuttitut encyclopedia of Inuit culture. It was translated by Prof. Bernard Saladin, head of the anthropology faculty at Université Laval, where it is used in the Northern Studies department. Mitiarjuk's life was the subject of a film made by the university in the 1960s, too.

She worked with the priests of Nunavik - Father Dion, Father Schneider and Father Lechat - to translate Bible readings contained in the Roman Catholic lectionary into Inuttitut. They also translated a combined hymn book and missal for the Inuit, and Mitiarjuk helped write a dictionary in her language, Father Dion said.

"We asked her. . . how she would translate certain things, and after the translation has been made, we asked her to read it, or we read it to her, and she made the corrections," Dion explained.

Mitiarjuk also has the distinction of writing the first novel to be published in Inuttitut.

Sanaaq is about a young couple living the traditional life on the tundra in the 1920s. It was published by Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit Inc., Université Laval. Father Dion says he believes it has been translated into both English and French.

Books by Mitiarjuk are bing used by teachers and students of the Kativik School Board's jurisdiction, so they can learn the archaic words, legends and natural history of the region's original inhabitants. She has also contributed to Nunavik's cultural and historical magazine, Tumivut.

Mitiarjuk has embraced the inventions of the 20th century "to ensure . . . the expressions of old are recorded before they vanish," as Debbie Astroff, public relations officer at the Kativic School Board explained it. CBC North broadcasts audiotapes that Mitiarjuk records for them. The morning after her return from the National Aboriginal Achievement Award ceremony in Regina, she was at the radio station relating the experiences of the Saskatchewan trip to her people.

Officially retired since 1996, Mitiarjuk worked for the school board from 1965 till then, teaching Inuit culture and language. She still visits Arsaniq School to share stories with the children. According to Grenier, Mitiarjuk believes strongly that survival skills and traditional values are relevant in a changing world. She remains active on the Kangiqsujuaq Community Council and is a member of the Inuttitut Language Commission in Nunavik.

Mitiarjuk is married with 54 children and grandchildren. According to daughter Arnaujaq Nappaaluk Qumaaluk, "when the time came for her to get the award in Saskatchewan, she was really happy about it, because it was not only for herself, but all Inuit people. She would never think about that, that she would get the award, but when she did, she was really proud of it. We are all . . . proud of it," her daughter said.