Posted on February 5 by David F. Pelly in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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Ukkusiksalik is the traditional name of a region in the northwestern corner of Hudson Bay. No one lives there today, but for the Inuit it has a special significance because it was a land of plenty for their ancestors, a bountiful hunting ground where one could always find food. In difficult times and in times of hunger, people came from the north and the south and from inland to the west to find sustenance in Ukkusiksalik. As a result, it is a landscape of stories. And that’s what this new book is all about: the stories from the elders who were among the last people to live in Ukkusiksalik. 

Let me make it clear right off the top that these people are the knowledge-holders, the tradition-bearers. This is their book. I just happen to have the privilege of serving as their trusted vehicle to convey their stories to the wider world. This book is full of those stories. 

In 1996 I spent a week camped with an Inuit elder named Tuinnaq and her family in the very heart of Ukkusiksalik. Tuinnaq grew up at the old Hudson’s Bay Company post that operated there from 1925 (the year she was born) until 1945. She and her husband shared a wealth of stories during our time together; they have both since passed away. In one long session, she recounted the tale of a multiple murder. I won’t go into all the gory detail today, but it amply illustrates the harshness and occasional brutality of survival on the land in the old days. It is a long and complex story which took Tuinnaq many hours to recount, but here is the gist: A young man named Ajaruq was ordered to kill his father after the man had gone crazy and murdered four other relatives in their camp with a snow knife.  

The morning after she told me this, Tuinnaq said to me, “I will show you where the murders took place.” So we all walked for an hour across the tundra to an inconspicuous but quite lovely spot beside a small river. Although she had not been there for more than fifty years, she knew exactly where the site of the murders was. She sat on a rock and remembered the people, her ancestors, and told bits of the story again. (Repetition, one should note, is an important technique in traditional Inuit storytelling.)

Just as we were about to leave this beautiful but haunting place and head back to our camp, one of Tuinnaq’s daughters, roughly my age, cried out, “Look what I found!” She had been bent down to the ground, and then stood up holding a snow knife — exactly the same as the murder weapon had been. 

Make of this what you will. It is 100% true, I assure you. We don’t know, of course, whose snow knife this was or how long it had been lying there; though it certainly had for a very long time. But does that matter? For all of us present that day, this was the confluence of myth and reality that so often underlies traditional knowledge. It is a manifestation of a power beyond our understanding.

Back in camp that evening, sitting in our big tent, Tuinnaq leaned over toward me, put her hand on my arm and said, “I told you that story using the same words that Ajaruq said to his mother when he told her what had happened. It is not a legend. It is a true story.” Recanted in full in Ukkusiksalik, this story was relayed from Ajaruq to his mother, Ujaralaaq, who passed it to her daughter, Toota, who then passed it down to her own daughter, Tuinnaq, who, in turn, recorded it in 1996 with translation by her daughter, Manitok.


David F. Pelly

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
David F. Pelly photo

David F. Pelly

David F. Pelly is a modern-day explorer of the North's cultural landscape, who has lived in and travelled to the Arctic since the late 1970s. He is the author of several books and articles on the land and its people, including The Old Way North, Sacred Hunt, and Uvajuq: The Origin of Death. Much of his writing is based on oral history shared with him by Inuit elders. He lives in the woods near Ottawa.