• Isuma Style

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    The Art of Inuit Storytelling
    Zacharias Kunuk (b. 1957, Kapuivik near Igloolik) won the Camera d’or at Cannes 2001 for Isuma’s first feature, Atanarjuat The Fast Runner.


    uploaded date: 11-11-2017

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    uploaded date: 14-11-2017

Zacharias Kunuk speaks with Joysanne Sidimus

Zacharias Kunuk speaks with Joysanne Sidimus

I was nine when I came into Igloolik. I was on Baffin Island, living on the land, and I saw the last of that era – my family living in a sod house, my father getting ready to go dog-teaming early in the morning, mother waking me up saying, "Go get your dog," because nobody else could catch my dog I would go out and the dog would come to me, and I'd give it to my father. He harnessed it, and I would go back to sleep. I was just about old enough to go out with the men dog-teaming, and then I had to go to school; so I just saw a little bit of that life. Since we have an oral history, nothing is written down – everything is taught by what you see. Your father's fixing up the harpoon; you watch how he does it and you learn from it. How he cuts the blocks and builds an igloo. For the medium I work in now, it was exactly the same thing. You don't need pen and paper to document what you see. Oral history and new technology match. When I went to school I started doing sculpture. When I was younger, I was interested in 35 mm still photography. Technology started to come here in the early 1970s. My friends and I had to adapt to it, to learn it – just like hunting, you keep trying until you get it.


I also wanted to preserve what I saw. I used to work for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), and in my eight years there interviewed many elders. They would talk about the good old days, and I would come down to the editing table and wish I could use what they were talking about to document our people. But I couldn't do it in the corporation – there was no budget. All this time we had wanted to do it and didn't know there was a funding agency where, if your proposal is successful, you could be funded. When I met Norman Cohn, he introduced me to the realities of the outside world, and how the funding system works. In 1985, we finally discovered the Canada Council.

When I went to work for IBC I had never had any formal training. I bought my camera in 1981, paying for it by trading my sculptures in Montréal, and then I tried the camera out here at home. I was just starting to do my own work when the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation opened. I was already trying it, so they hired me, though I never had any formal training. In 1985 I went to a camera seminar in Iqaluit, and Norman Cohn gave the seminar.

The camera was a tool we did not understand. We didn’t know anything about it, so we didn’t want it. We were afraid that the impact would be too strong, so we kept it out. In 1975 we voted against TV. We didn’t want it, because in every community around us, it had had a bad effect. We voted against it twice. We kept television out until Inuit broadcasting started to broadcast a half-hour a day. Then, in 1983, we finally gave in. I remember when they brought in the signal – it was in October when we saw the first hockey game. CBC was the only channel. We started to learn about the CBC by watching late-night re-runs, or two or three hours of golf on Saturday afternoon.

We are all artists. Every person is an artist. That is how I see it.

Everybody is an artist; some people can do things better than others. Some are abstract artists. What they see is there, and some of us can't see it!

Some people have a form that is more organic for them, or can see things in more depth. My culture respects the elders, so we wait for what the elders have to say. But that system doesn't work in this day and age, because we are now colonialized. For our kids, the goal is to reach grade 12. Parents are waking their kids every morning and sending them off to school in the dead of winter. Today you start to realize that that system doesn't work. Students nowadays have no interest in going out hunting. They don't know what a fresh or an old seal hole is, though they do teach them in school and take them out on the land. It's part of the school program, but it’s just an activity, not part of life. My children went to school, but I stopped them going. I'm just preparing them, now, to go out on the hunt with me. I don't know if I will succeed – I have three boys at home, one girl, one adopted – and they have gone through the school system. When you go through the school system you lose respect. You have no more respect for elders or the old ways. That is what I am seeing. Some of what they learn is good. If we put it to good, then it is good.

In the lack of respect for elders, I see things that are endangered: Inuit belief – shamanism – each community's own camp grounds. Now we are all sucked into one community. Earlier, at this time of the year, when the birds come, people would be scattered out on the land – anywhere they wanted to be. But we are now boxed in, because we have to go to the health centre and we have to get our welfare cheques. And you need a job. It costs twenty bucks to buy five gallons of gas, and another twenty-five bucks to buy bullets. So we are boxed in, just like the rest of the world. We plan for our holidays.

We have been Christianized now, and are trying to be educated in the world system. But then when somebody dies, there are rumours that shamanism appears. That seems to be connected with death. Why bring that back? That's what goes through my head. What is the Inuit view of life? Shamanism? What knowledge do they carry? In Inuit mythology, there is the sea goddess, Sedna, and there is a sky spirit, another woman, and there's a land spirit. There are many spirits. Doing my research, I have run into a book that records hundreds of spirits. They're all over the place. We are so blind that we don't see them. We ignore them and we don't know them. In Inuit belief there are so many of them. In this world that we live in, we breathe the same air and walk the same land as the spirits. In the old days there were taboos that they had to follow. That's how we were structured. Break a taboo and the spirits are on you. Then Christianity came, and tried to stop everything. In this community, we were divided in two – Catholics and Anglicans. Christianity still controls the community, but it’s a lot better now because Catholics and Anglicans are intertwined. We have three churches and close to fifteen hundred people.

You had to become Christian. I remember the day I was baptized in 1963, when I was six years old. We dog-teamed into this community and we were in the church. My two brothers and sister and I were sitting on a bench, the stove warming up a teapot that was going to be used to baptize us. My parents are very religious. Probably I learned the idea of good and evil from them, black and white. The day I was baptized the person who was going to baptize me was wearing a black robe. I thought, "It's the devil himself!" I was so scared that my mother had to take me out. Maybe if he had been wearing a white robe it would have been okay, but everything was black.

They say once you are a Christian you are always a Christian. Everyone had to confess their sins every Friday or Saturday. Our priest used to call out to the elders, "You have to confess. That's the only way – you have to confess." It scared me. In the Inuit culture the only time you sin is when you are sick. You get sick because you are so full of sin. That is why the shaman is called. You confess, and he takes the sin away. There are shamans today. They will always be here.

The brothers and sisters cast out in my film are not evil. Human form can be evil, but not always. They are told to go, to move. They are forgiven. They are not acceptable in the community any more, so they move to another. We changed the ending of the film. Originally, in the ending, Ataranjuat kills the three guys and the woman also dies. We changed the ending a lot from the original. The original ending would not be acceptable today because that kind of killing – revenge killing – never stops. Our idea was that these kinds of things were going to stop. We talked a lot about this ending before we changed it, asking the elders if it would be okay to change it. One of the elders told us that is what they are always doing. They are forever changing the story! We never thought of making two endings.

I think the film was successful because it is just about this group of people and their problems, with no other culture interfering. We were aiming the film to our Inuit audience. I had no idea that the film would speak to everyone and be so successful. But my other partner, Norman, was planning it. He knew it. He knew that this film could work on an international level.

I felt it was my job to put something up on that screen that was true to Inuit culture.

What I have done was bound to happen, and somebody was going to try it, and I wanted to try. A lot of us wanted to try, but we didn't know how the system worked. And then, we were aboriginal. We never said we were aboriginal – when we were put into that category there was very limited funding. We are Canadians, and all Canadians should be treated the same.

Mystery, the unknowable, is what we dream. What is going to happen to us when we die? Do we still live on? In Inuit mythology there are many stories about this. The sea goddess collects people who are sick for a long time, and purifies them. Some of them are sent to the day heaven. Why is that? That goes through my head, because in Christianity there's only Heaven and Hell, and there's no way you can go to Heaven if you're in Hell. But in Inuit mythology it does happen. Then there is another place where people who commit suicide go.

This place is probably a zombie land. That is how I see it. The way that is described in zombie movies is that people who commit suicide have their tongues out, crying for water. Then there is what we call day heaven, a bunch of houses with no doors, where spirits just walk through the walls, and they are always happy when somebody's coming. When a shaman visits he has to say, "I am from the air." Shamans are real people who are possessed by different spirits. They could have five or ten spirits around them. The more spirits they have, the shorter their life is.

The suicide rate is high now but it was not always like that. In Inuit history the only people who committed suicide were elders. The elders are respected, but when an old man cannot hunt and supply the community with more food, he is just being carried around. This is a moving culture – people are always moving from place to place, seeking better hunting grounds. Elders – men and women – would get left behind. That was their choice. We call it suicide, but probably it was their last communication with the spirits, and the spirits just took them. But today our young people are committing suicide because they are now in the lost culture. That's how I see it. They are not educated; they went to school, but didn't receive an appropriate education.

If I could design the educational system I would design two systems; the one we have now, and cultural education, as a separate type of education. We are supposed to teach our children our way, and they should listen to us, which is not happening right now. My cultural education would include learning about shamanism. That's the bottom line in our culture – some person with great knowledge, knowledge that we ordinary people dream of. In shamanism, there are many taboos each person has to follow. Then from there we would start learning. In everyday life, helping your mother if you are a girl, helping your father if you are a boy – it's a hunting culture.

A child would be educated in only one system. In the system we have now is you finish grade 12 and then if you are lucky you go on to university and try to get a master's degree. In culture education, parents and elders would be teachers. They have so much knowledge that is shut down because currently it is a one-way system. A lot of us younger people become leaders. We become councillors because we can read the English language, understand the policies, and we run the community. But that is not our tradition. The oldest man is the most respected, the oldest lady is the most respected. They have seen more of life than you have, and know more than you do. We do still respect our elders, but not as much as if we had this kind of education

I would want parallel systems of education, because I would love to compare everything. It could be a great scientific test. When young people are out on the land, they have more respect for the land. It seems as if they have a goal in life, but once you box them in the community, drill them, wake them to go to school, they get tired very easily. They are like an egg – very fragile. In my school days, if I didn't do my homework I got slapped or scolded. But over the years we have become really soft and lazy. We are human beings, and are on this Earth and we need to get out there and get some fresh air!

I see three hundred kids going to school every morning. They are after a goal – to have a good job. But how many jobs do we have in Igloolik? A lot of the young people leave, because they are given a chance elsewhere.

Every time I'm traveling in the south it all feels the same. The only difference is the people. Whether I'm in Montréal or Vancouver, Los Angeles, if I'm in the mood for Chinese food I go to a Chinese restaurant. Everywhere in the world! Or Italian, or if I'm in the mood for a steak I go to a steakhouse. You order your food the way you want it, and it comes the way you want it. But what's the story behind it? Before you eat this meat, what's the story behind it? But up here, you see the animal, you see it killed. You eat it on the spot, or take it home and cook it. You know the story behind that meat.

I am trying to do this with my films – tell the story behind it. I have William Perry's journals from 1822 when they wintered here. Perry writes because his ship is frozen and every day he goes out, probably on his deck, and sees these Inuit igloo houses. He started to notice that every time the men would go out hunting women would guard their huts. He writes that. That's how he saw it, but he was wrong. Being an Inuk, you know what they were doing. They were listening. He saw it as guarding, but they were actually standing long hours just listening, waiting for their men to come home. When I was growing up, we were told to do that. Go out and listen if they are coming. Go out and listen. The sound, the empty sound. It's so empty that your ear starts to hum and you are going to pick up every little sound. That was when we used to live out on the land. You could hear dogs barking or wolves howling, a short or long distance away – you could hear them.

My next film is about shamanism, the coming of Christianity, and Inuit mythology. I believe in these spirits. I believe that the dead walk the earth. In Inuit mythology, evil spirits invade a camp, when people stay too long in one place. Shamans would have to kill these spirits. When Christianity came that stopped (so there must be a lot of evil around). No one is killing them. It is said the longer you wait, the smarter they get.

I do think certain artists have a special gift to communicate. In Inuit mythology that gift comes before the child is born, when the child is in the womb of the mother. When Noah Pilatuk (the elder who brought back drumming and storytelling) was in his mother's womb, the mother would wake up every morning and chip the snow off windows in her camp. Before anybody left, she cleaned the windows, every morning for nine months. Her dream was that when her son was born he would have a gift of walking on very thin ice. This is where a lot of hunting is done. Walrus go through thin ice and take air. Sometimes Noah Pilatuk would do this, he would walk on thin ice without falling. He went where no man can go all his life. He could run even on bouncing ice.

If someone has these special qualities, they have to accept that responsibility, and understand it. In my case, I carry my namesakes. I have five namesakes, and they are all women. They were all old women. One of them dreamed that in her next life she would be a man and would go out hunting, because in her life her job was to keep the igloo warm, look after the children and make sure everybody has clothes. So I am fulfilling her dream.

Life is too short to do too many things. I only want to do films about my people.

(This interview was first published in Reflections in a Dancing Eye: Investigating the Artist's Role in Canadian Society
Joysanne Sidimus & Carol Anderson, Banff Centre Press, 2006)


ᑐᑭᓯᒋᐊᕐᕖᑦ: Isuma Style