"I thought I would grow old there. I even have my gravesite up there."
For 11 years, Michelline and Samuelie Ammaq lived at a series of outpost camps along the south coast of Baffin Island with their four adopted children. Their three cabins and summer camps were clustered around the mouth of Steensby Inlet. Michelline tells what it was like to live there, and her thoughts about the future of the area, below:
When I was a child, we would live out on the land. And I grew up on Baffin, where there were always mountains around us. I loved Baffin because it has colour, it has landscape. It has plants you can eat, not just plants you can see, and we picked and ate blueberries and blackberries there all summer.
And I remember polar bear hunting in the Gulf of Boethia. Whenever our dogs were chasing a polar bear, my mother would grab me and pull me off the qamutiq. But one day I made up my mind, I’m going to hang on. So when she grabbed me and pulled me, I’m holding on and BANG! The qamutiq ran right into the back of the polar bear! My father shot him before he had a chance to turn around. That’s one incident that I remember of that time. Polar bear hunting.
When I turned seven, I went to the boarding school in Chesterfield Inlet. I was mostly living in the boarding school, ten months of the year. I lost so much of my life there, I don’t even remember much of my first years in Chester. So it seems as if I was robbed of my life.
I used to think of recapturing it. And when I met my husband, he would talk about the life he used to have out on the land too. He was always out hunting before I met him. He was more out on the land than in town, I think. He never went to any school.
So we made plans for years. For 10, 12 years we planned it. We’d say today, today, today…and then in ’86 we decided we would move there, back to Baffin Island.
I wanted to see what my parents went through. I remember here and there from before I went to school, but I didn’t have to go get snow. I didn’t crush fat for the lamp. I had to experience it myself. I wanted to.
So in ’86 we went. Just my family. We had two children when we moved there, but we took [my husband] Samuelie’s nephew along with us so we were five. Then we got a girl in ’87, so we became six. And we used to have a lot of children visit us, who wanted to be there too.
We lived in the first outpost camp for maybe 5 years. That was at Grand Sullie Bay [at the mouth of Steensby Inlet].
I bought a generator from the Co-op because I couldn’t think of living without a washer. I used to hang the clothing up to dry. And I would use a sewing machine whenever I needed it, but in the later years there were these old-fashioned sewing machines, so my husband got me one and I stopped using the electric sewing machine.
We had a stove, so it was warm. And we had lights but we mostly used lanterns.
I had a qulliq—a lamp—so I had to make oil every day. We had seals but I had to pound the fat, let it melt, pour it into the qulliq, and I had to do that every day, melting.
We worked 24 hours a day. I made caribou clothing for all of us, head to toe. And for full winter clothing, it takes eight caribou for one person.
I didn’t know how to do any of this. My mother passed away in 1982 and whenever we needed something, I just asked my father. Like for skins, I thought they soften by themselves. I didn’t know I had to work on them. I completely didn’t know.
I had all these skins stacked up and they were not getting soft. I put them side by side and they were not getting any softer, so I called a lady in town over the SF radio—we had these radios where you call a number and they answer, like the phone, but out on the land.
So I called her and said, “I wonder why my skins aren’t getting very soft.” And she said, “the only way they’re going to get soft is by working on them.” With seals, you have to bite them, but with caribou, we have tools. So she showed me, through that radio when she was so far away from me. She told me to bring it in, so I brought it in and about a half an hour later, she told me to stretch it very softly, just to make it smooth. She told me what to do at every step of the way. So I softened the first two skins and made a qulittak. That’s like a parka where the fur is on the outside.
Around October or the end of September would be our last shopping month until the freeze-up—that’s in December. So we tried to get enough food for the next three months in Igloolik.
Flour, tea, sugar. And canned vegetables. We relied on canned food from October to December. When Samuelie came here for shopping after the freeze-up, the frozen vegetables seemed so fresh! So good.
And then, because there would be a way into town by Christmas, Samuelie would get chicken legs in town, and that was our Christmas feast: boiled chicken legs. Boiled because we didn’t have an oven.
Mostly though, we ate caribou, because there were plenty of caribou over here. Seal every once in a while, aged walrus—the islands are just full of walrus, and mostly male near the beach—beluga in the summer, but mostly caribou.
We were always out on the land, always camping out. We had a summer camp to the south and went back up for the winter. We camped in the summer and travelled in the winter because it’s easier to go farther in the winter.
The only other campsites we saw were from the ’30s and ‘40s. I would find metal spoons in them. And there’s an inuksuk on the way to Ikpik Bay, at the very end of the point, near Grand Sullie Bay. I love to see it because when I see it, I know we’re not so far off. When I see the inuksuk, I know we’re getting close. We’re getting there.
So we would camp in the summer, and sometimes we would spend the summers with other families in their outpost camps [along the south coast of Baffin Island].
There was never a lonely moment. I had books, and there was so much to do and I had to make all of the clothing. There weren’t a lot of times when we ran out of something because we tried to preserve everything. Make it last as long as possible. When we ran out of sugar, we would just stop drinking tea. Only one time, when I ran out of smokes, I told myself, nobody’s ever committed suicide because of wanting to smoke, but I’m about to! But we usually didn’t run out.
My first camp was so beautiful. It’s so beautiful.
There’s a mountain—a high mountain—it’s far on my right, a big mountain. On my left the mountain’s a bit closer, so looking out the window to my left, it’s just land. No sky, no nothing. Then downwards, in the bay, the land seems to catch onto itself so there’s hardly any far sea. We’re in a bay, so it’s just surrounded with land. It’s like we’re inland with a lake. It’s beautiful.
And in the summer, the sun goes behind the mountain, and you never see it all summer, it just circles around behind the mountains. It’s as if we don’t have the sun during the spring and summer. And the sun sets about November 17-18 for the winter, and we don’t see it until the beginning of February. It’s bright, bright, but we don’t see the sun until the beginning of February. It’s just beautiful.
But I robbed my children of their school living there. I would let them do only one hour of either Math or English, so they got way behind their age group. My daughter tried schooling, but it was too hard for her. My son did three years but after that, he stopped going to school; he stopped going all together.
My father passed away in ’97, so we flew back then, and then in ’98, we came here to audition for [the film] Atanarjuat [the Fast Runner]. The auditions were sometime in January, so we came here by Skidoo in early January, and after the auditions, I became the wardrobe researcher—I got the ladies to make the clothing out of caribou. So I started sewing. I got a job and we sort of stayed. And stayed and stayed and stayed. Until today.
And then the rest of the families in the outpost camps came in, and they never went back to the camps.
There were camps outside of Arctic Bay, but the people who lived there have all moved back to Arctic Bay. There used to be camps around Pond [Inlet] but they’re all gone. In the ’80s there were lots, but there doesn’t seem to be any more outpost camps, I don’t know why.
When we came back to Igloolik, it got crowded—and fast. We had to follow the clock all the time. Eat at 12 o’clock. Everything closes at five, and so on.
I don’t think my children would do what I did. How would they survive? Like, if it wasn’t for Samuelie, I would have been scared. Because we both lived there, it wasn’t scary for me.
And they have never learned to travel, so they might not go out at all, you never know. I think I’m able to travel alone, and my eldest son is able to travel because he grew up over there. But the younger ones, I don’t think they would go that far.
People should go back there before the mining starts. I think they should. When we went back to our first outpost camp, our house had been blown off, just the floor was left. It hurts. Like I’m homeless. Homeless…. And when I came back [to Igloolik] and saw my daughter, I just turned to her and…”we’re homeless!” I started crying because the feeling I had over there came back when I saw my daughter. It was as if I was living outside. I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe it, but I felt so homeless. I always thought of moving back there.
I thought I would grow old over there. I even have my gravesite up there. But who’s going to bring me?
People should go see that before they see it when it’s ruined. See it for the last time before seeing it ruined. It hurts. It really hurts. It’s really…. I’m glad that most elders have passed away. They won’t see. Like…it hurts.
My main concern [about the mine] is, are the animals going to be edible? I heard that the ship will have to fill up their tanks with water from over there, dump it here when they’re going to fill up with iron, so they’re going to add salt water that’s not ours here. May be really polluted.
One year when we were living on Baffin Island, hundreds and hundreds of caribou passed through the camp going south. So many caribou passed going south.
They were passing daily, daily, until they ran out. They were going down, down, down. Very few went back up in the spring.
But they disappeared. They were going down, down, and then they reached Iqaluit. There were so many in Iqaluit, they would jump up outside the windows of my sister’s house. There were lots in Iqaluit but now they have moved up, so they’re probably going back up north again. Maybe they ate all the food here so they’re went south. And when they eat all that they’ll go back up. So there will be caribou here. I don’t know.
Maybe they’ll come back up. [When the mining starts,] they’ll stop for a while, but they have this thing inside them that says go, go, go. So I think they’ll always go. But somewhere around Mary River, I think there’s a calving ground, so I don’t know about that. I don’t know if they’ll still calve up there or not.
This story has been edited for content, clarity and length.