Inuit leaders struggle to keep old ways alive

December 23, 1990|By Chicago Tribune

NAIN, Newfoundland -- This northernmost community in Labrador is also its biggest Inuit village where natives still wish one another silaki -- except on days when it's kannivuk.

In English, that translates roughly into, "Have a nice day." Or in bad winter weather, "It's snowing."

The unique richness of Inuktitut, the ancient language of the Inuit, comes across in the extraordinary number of words they use to describe the treasures and traditions of everyday life in the frozen North.

There are said to be more than 30 words for snow, for example, about half as many for ice and different terms for the same animal depending on where it is seen in the wild.

In the dialect of the Labrador Eskimos, who call themselves Inuit -- their word for people -- snow on the ground is aputik, and drifting snow is pittuvuk. Soft snow you sink into when you walk is mauja, and wet snow is aumannak.

In a world where snowmobiles have replaced dog sleds, government-subsidized housing has supplanted igloos and television takes up time once spent on hunting and crafts, the language of the elders is just one more of the old ways that is now in danger of disappearing.

Inuktitut is in particular peril in Labrador, but a new push is on in Nain and other Inuit villages across the North to revive the language and respect for the 6,000 years of native traditions it represents.

Increasingly, Canada's Inuit are working hard to stop the decline. They are using land claims, language, education, radio and television to try to preserve their traditions.

"Younger and older people don't understand each other as we did when I was a boy," said Jerry Sillett, 66, chief elder in this predominantly Inuit village of 1,200, where only half the residents, most of them older, speak Inuktitut.

"In the old days, community elders ran things. Nowadays there's hardly any communication between the generations. The elders don't have the control they used to," Mr. Sillett complained through an interpreter when asked how Inuit traditions were being lost.

"One of the things I'm concerned about is that people here are trying to follow the example of white people, even though they're not white people," added Mr. Sillett, who then returned to his sunset chore: pulling a sled along a snow-covered road to fetch fresh water.

Across the North, many school-age Inuit still learn only English in their classrooms and homes.

Community leaders see Inuktitut as one of the keys to bringing back their traditions. It is a common heritage in six different dialects spoken by Inuit peoples from Labrador and Greenland to Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

The language is still in wide use in northern Quebec, Keewatin, Baffin Island and the central Arctic.

"Generally, our lifestyle is hunting, fishing and trapping. We live off the land," said Fran Williams, 46, program director for the OkalaKatiget Society in Nain, which is dedicated to preserving Inuit culture and improving communications.

But modern conveniences, the influence of white society and government help have taken their toll on the current generation, said Ms. Williams, who oversees radio and television productions in Inuktitut and in English for a regional network.

"They seem to be lost between the Inuit culture and the white culture, groping to try to identify themselves," said Ms. Williams.

"I don't think aboriginal people will get anywhere until the government realizes we are the first peoples of this country and until we have the same kind of constitutional protection as all Canadians," she said.

Ms. Williams argues that Inuktitut should be an official language in Canada, just like English and French.

Inuit leaders now are starting Labrador studies programs to revive the native culture. Inuit children have Inuktitut-speaking teachers and Inuktitut immersion in school from kindergarten to the second grade, and it's optional up to graduation from high school.

Another way they hope to preserve their culture is to move toward greater self-government, a prime objective of current dealings with the government over Inuit land claims in Labrador.

"I'm surprised that we still have a language. The culture itself has taken a beating," said William Andersen, president of the 5,000-member Labrador Inuit Association, which has its headquarters in Nain. "We don't have our drum dance anymore. The Moravians tried to do away with all heathen aspects of life."

Moravian missionaries brought Christian culture to the Inuit in the 1700s.

Mr. Andersen and Ms. Williams argue that natives should have more responsibility for spending federal funds.

They said if the Inuits were to win their claim to a third of northern Labrador stretching from Lake Melville to Cape Chidley, they would have more control over their health, education and cultural preservation.

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