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Inuit Knowledge & Climate Change: Therese Mattaq's Starvation Story


24 November 2010

16382 ḵing gan

Therese Mattaq shares a story about starvation

We sang, prayed and ate our Christmas feast. After the food was gone, we weren't hungry for a while. Dogs have to eat too. We moved to a small island and were looking for seal holes. I was a child that stayed to babysit two boys. Inuit searching for us, hunters from another camp, passed between our two parties. It was Kupak, Qaatuq's husband.

Kupak's dogs were mating but our dogs didn't even hear them. Our hunters were on foot looking for agluus (seal breathing holes). The next day we went to look for the agluus but they had frozen up. We returned to Qaisukat, our main camp, and looked for frozen caribou skins under the snow. We found them and there was a bit of meat inside. We had that food for a while.

After a while, we went back to Ugliit. We noticed the antlers on top of our igluu. Some one had put them there. After sleeping in there, we stared to moving inland.

I was really cold, especially my hands, they were tucked inside my coat. I said make a marker pointing the direction we are going, so they'll find us. I didn't want to go inland. I said let's go to where there's people, but nobody heard me. They told me that if we went my way, we would starve to death. I don't know how many days it took us reach the caches. Our dogs started dying and there was one left.

We came to a lake. My father was using the dogs to find the caches, but our poor dog died. After that, we skinned it, and took the meat, so the child had something to eat. Father took his saw and shovel out and built an igluu. We were fixing the bedding, while he continued to search for our cache. It got dark and we couldn't find them. We started sleeping with our clothes on, not in bed.

We looked for five days. Sometimes we traveled far. I think it was my fault. He was using an old way for prediction. Using a rock on a rope, while asking for direction on where the cache is. I didn't believe his technique would work, I laughed, and turned my back and recited the Lord's prayer.

If I hadn't prayed, he probably would have found the cache. That's what I've thought until. We never found our hidden meat. We would always return to our igluu to find the two small boys. We got water from the lake. Father made a hole in the ice, mother kept it open.

It was our last search. He couldn't hardly walk and he'd fall sometimes. I always carried the rifle. On the last search, my kamiks got a hole, right as we were about to return. My foot was down to the skin. He took part of his caribou coat, put it on my feet, and tied it with fringes. I kept walking on my toes because the skins were falling off my feet. We kept eating snow, a special kind father told me to eat. We started approaching our igluu slowly. He said to me he wanted to carry the rifle. I told him I could carry it all the way. The igluu is close. After we reached the water hole, he wanted the rifle again, but I didn't. We drank water and returned to the igluu.

At the igluu, he asked for the rifle again. He told me to leave the rifle and go in. I was going to fetch water and told him to go in. Without food for this many days, he once said he could end my misery. He loved us so much and I think he wanted to shoot us.

Father went in. I had holes in my kamiks. My skin was showing in winter. It was January. I came in with water. I took my kamik off and it was steaming, not even frozen. We never moved out of the igluu. We could hardly move. While inside, the little boy died of cold. We stayed inside, eating snow from inside the igluu. Father couldn't get up. He was always sitting.

We would get a wet caribou skin and take the hair off. Father would be way up in his bed, sharpening knives. I would use the knife so I could take some snow off. For the last time, he sharpened his pocket knife. I wanted to use it for caribou and to cut my hair, before I got too many lice. I would get the knives and never return them. He would shout: "I'm thirsty for water". He was once given a cup from Arctic Bay. I would fill the cup with snow and put it inside by my skin. Melting it and making water.

After the snow would get wet, I put it in his mouth. It took a long time for the snow to melt. My mother and I were kneeling in our pants. One night, he wanted to lie down. He kept shouting for water. He asked me: "You want me to be ok?" I replied: "Yes of course". Nobody came, even though we shouted for help. in the middle of the night, he lost his voice, still asking for water. He wanted his inner pants off. I was supposed to put them on if I got cold. My mother kept telling him to eat the dead boy, wanting him to live, saying that humans are food too. My mother was brave. She was outside taking one of the little boys apart. She was whimpering while doing it.

Father was lying down for a long time. We didn't take his inner pants. My mother and I were handling him, warming his hands. I couldn't stand. Mother said he wasn't breathing anymore. I suggested we put his pants back on. We managed to do it even in the dark. Next morning, I took a look, and she had covered him.

The other boy was still alive. Mother was trying to feed him meat from our little brother. But he couldn't eat it. Mother wouldn't let us see what she was preparing. That was the hardest. Very hard. We kept shouting: "someone save us!". There was nobody around. The next morning my other brother died.

I couldn't stretch my legs. I don't know how long we were at that stage. That day she kept me awake. We were close together and talking about how we don't want to be alive and alone. When you're at that stage, you don't want to be alive and alone. I wasn't scared of death.

I kept falling asleep. I don't remember dreaming much. But one I do remember was someone pouring seal oil into the lamp. I started to lose my hearing and mother sounded far. She would nudge me. And she said: "What is that?". I heard something too. I don't know if I thought or said it: "those are people". A few minutes later, someone yelled from the porch: "Is anybody in there?"

We had to answer from deep inside ourselves. Our door was open. At that time, we had a blanket on the door with a hole, and the sun would shine through. The blanket was red. I don't remember the month. When I replied, I fell down to the floor, and then our rescuers sat me back up. They gave me half a cup of water and the rest was for my mother. I got my senses back. I said father didn't want to be moved. And, given he was thirsty, he wanted us to leave him with his cup. He must be still up there by the lake. Every May, when the land starts to melt, I always thought of our igluu melted by the lake.

Next, they gave us four pieces of cooked meat. I was told to take two and share two with mother. They also gave me a cup of tea to share with mother. Always the same cup. They took us out and put on us on caribou skins. I don't remember the rest.

My brother said I wasn't going to make it another night when they found me. After our rescuers finished, we moved to the shore, and they built an igluu. They made us bedding. We were so smelly. Both of us no longer had hoods. My mother sewed a temporary one. That's how we prepared for this journey.

I don't remember begging for food, but I was, I just don't remember it. I watched that seal fat being pounded and I wanted some. My inlaw, who was one of the rescuers, constantly looked after us and never slept.

Every time I wake up, my inlaw would feed me, she never slept because she was taking care of us. I was seeing double vision when people were far away. They took us to other Inuit. When we were traveling by skidoo, the snow was moving by quickly, it reminded me of being on the dogteam. We must have been going fast.

While we were traveling, I thought I could run beside the sled. My brother asked: "What does she want?". They told her I wanted to run beside the sled.

When we arrived, they brought me inside, and cut my clothes off because I couldn't move.

My father was gone for a long time. When they arrived, I went out, and I saw the sled with a lump on it covered with skins. It was Therese. They brought her into the qammaq, carried by two people, one in front and one in back. They put her on the floor, cut off her old clothes, gave her new ones, and put her on bedding. She couldn't stretch her legs. All she could do was move her arms. She couldn't lay down by herself and they kept her sitting. She was so skinny she could not close her eyes. Even when sleeping, they remained open.

My brother showed me a mirror and I saw my image in it. I noticed the boney sockets around my eyes. When I looked at my wrists, they were so skinny, I could see light through them.


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