“We have silence”:
I wanted to call it Duma’s Speech. But that makes it sound as if he was standing in front of a roomful of people making an impassioned plea. He wasn’t. He was talking to one person. And the whole thing was just a prologue, the background to the real story. He needed to make sure this one person understood. Everyone told parts of the main story—sometimes the same part from different sides. But nobody else wanted to handle the explanation. Duma did. When you know you’re never going to see someone again, it sometimes makes them even more important. You can’t go back and edit the memory. It has to be perfect the first time.
I was there mainly as interpreter. I had to keep thinking about how to make it work in English. Sometimes I didn’t notice the ambiguity until I wrote it down. When I say “you” it could mean any of three things. You, singular, the person he was talking to. You, plural, all of you—her people, the ones I call Americans. You, loosely, like “one”. So the translation is a mix. Some parts are what I really said. Other parts are what I would have said if I had had time to think about it and make it . . . Not perfect. I’m not a professional. Better.
“Duma” isn’t his real name, of course. It’s what you get when your name is filtered through ears that are used to hearing English. They don’t know what syllables to listen for. It’s also—let’s be fair—what you get when you assume the other person won’t be able to pronounce your name. So you don’t say it carefully and make sure they’ve got it right. At least it doesn’t mean anything rude. It sounds more like a girl’s name, but you can’t expect an English speaker to know that. Some of the people who were there that summer still use it as a pet name for him. His sister was “Polly”. It sounds ridiculous when you know that it’s a random piece pulled out of her full name, Akpaliapik. But it fits her perfectly in English.
“Most of us have lived in that world”.
The schools started out as a compromise with the government. We’ll let you have our young people for four of their most impressionable years—including four consecutive winters when they ought to be learning the things an adult needs to know to survive. In return, you promise not to bother us about anything else. The second compromise came later. We will allow our children to learn English, so long as you don’t force them to. That one came too late for me. I was halfway through school when the rules changed. You might think it doesn’t matter, because I would have chosen to study English anyway. And I chose to stay with it after I didn’t have to. But if that’s how you see it, you really haven’t been paying attention.
Before those four lethal years, you’re supposed to have eight years of structured schooling at home. Or in the village, if it’s big enough. They give you the books. But they don’t check up on you, so we’ve made our quiet adjustments. In the summer, most teaching is done by the older kids home from school. So you learn exactly what they expect you to know. And how you’re supposed to behave. The government doesn’t understand that part. When you hit grade nine and come in contact with kids from other backgrounds, you’re good at grammar. They expect that. You’re also good in things like math, which they don’t expect. And you don’t walk around staring at everything in slack-jawed amazement. It’s more head-shaking and “You’ve got to be kidding.” I was taught this way. It worked, didn’t it?
People say my English is choppy. It’s called hypercorrection. When every other syllable is a new word, how do you know when not to stop? At least I know when to compromise. I put the words “snow house” into Duma’s mouth because I can’t bring myself to use the word igloo in the English sense. But I no longer flinch when you mispronounce words spelled with j. And I do try to be sympathetic about q. Just don’t use the E-word. Everyone has their breaking point.
Schools will always use Central, which we don’t understand. There aren’t enough of us to find our own teachers and make a separate curriculum. Pick your battles. Yes, I know all about dialect continuums. I’m simply telling you. When I first got to school, I didn’t understand a word anyone said. You pick it up pretty fast, though. It is the same language. They just push their vowels in strange directions, and mistreat the consonants. I tried to describe the difference to an English speaker once. She said it sounded like trying to understand spoken French if you’ve only seen it in writing. Except that here they don’t just swallow the ends of words. They swallow the end of everything.
Some people hold on to Central after they leave school. Some try to blot it from their minds. When we travel in small groups, we try to have at least one person who can communicate. I’m pretty sure Duma still understands Central, even if you’ll never catch him speaking it. He can write, too. He just doesn’t have any use for it.
“You don’t want to leave, but you know that you have to.”
Duma is in most ways very conservative. But he isn’t inflexible. He simply knows what’s right. He’s a lot younger than you think. I’d have to guess early 20’s. He left school after only two years, and went back to become an adult in his village. Officially you’re not allowed to do that. It’s four years, period, no negotiation. But when you’re sixteen, legally you have just enough leeway that if you dig in your heels and stick to your guns you can get just about anything you want.
Are you impressed by the way I used three English metaphors in a row? I went out of my way to learn them. Knowing how people talk helps you to understand how they think. I probably know more about your figures of speech than you do. Did you know that “went out of my way” is English? We don’t have the concept. The place you need to go to is your way, even if it isn’t on a straight line between the beginning and end of your trip.
I guess I’ve just illustrated my own point. I was starting to say that by leaving school early, Duma missed two rounds of the Suquit Lecture. No, three. There’s a final one just before you graduate. It isn’t really called that. It’s the Supplementary Session for Members of Isolated Communities. That means us. They tell you what to do if, for example, someone asks to see your caribou-hunting permit. It’s trickier than you think. The only people who would even ask are the ones too stupid to recognize your tattoo. Or your clothes. Or your weapons. So you have to frame the answer very carefully.
They don’t tell you how to deal with the genuinely stupid questions, though. Those you have to figure out for yourself.
“We value people who have ideas.”
When I left, I thought I was better than the others. I wasn’t just looking for a place that had satellite dishes and ATVs. Or rifles and snowmobiles. I wanted to help people. I rotate among four clinics in two Territories. That’s counting the slightly unofficial one in NT. And I’m on the roster for the air ambulance. When I started out it was six clinics. I guess that means things are improving. If having one more doctor in the interior of the Territory counts as improvement. We do anything that the nurses can’t handle—and I have to say, there is nothing those clinic nurses haven’t handled at one time or another. And we decide when someone has to go to a hospital. That’s a last resort. If there’s any way we can let people get better at home, we’ll find it.
The final part of Duma’s talk was especially hard for me to translate. Emotionally hard, I mean. He could have been talking about me. Maybe he was talking about me. It took me a long time to understand that my reasons for leaving weren’t “better”. They were worse. There are only about a thousand of us left. We won’t survive if the only people who stay are the ones with no imagination or intelligence. No matter where they live, they won’t have anything special to offer. This seems to be especially hard for outsiders to understand. I don’t just mean Americans. I mean Ottawa. And Iqaluit. Sorry. Material culture and ideas aren’t locked together. You can live a certain way, outwardly, without having to think a certain way, inwardly. Otherwise, you’re saying that if there had been no Contact, then people would never have had any new ideas. They would have stayed exactly the same for ever and ever. And that’s pretty insulting, if you stop and think about it.
“When you look at the village, you won’t see fifty of the same person.”
He could have said: when you look at us, you won’t see a dozen of the same village. My home village was very conservative. Not just outwardly but on the inside. We’ve got a shaman. How conservative is that? One group of villages is talking seriously about domesticated caribou. Another cluster of villages is mostly Christian. I don’t know how they manage it. In Duma’s village, I know of two occasions when someone has walked a day and a half to send an e-mail. Granted, those two times were eight years apart. But they chose to do it both times. Let the timber line get a little bit closer, and you’ll see us on skis.
There are some things about our people that I hope will never change. Outsiders say that we’re good at apologizing. Turn it around: they’re the ones who are terrible at it. I don’t mean that we go around crawling to each other and begging forgiveness. I mean that there’s no personal shame in saying I was wrong. So you were wrong. Who cares? Individuals change. Cultures change. You’re still the same person.
Another one: We’ve got a clear distinction between men’s work and women’s work. Everyone does. But if a man has to mend his own clothes, or a woman has to hunt, nobody makes a huge fuss about it. Duma’s sister is damn good with a spear. I wasn’t there for the bear incident, but I’ve seen her bring down a caribou. The old people may start in with “In my day . . .” But old people always do that anyway.
It probably wouldn’t do our culture any harm if we decided that old people are just a little bit too uppity. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with— I was going to say “Get away with murder”. But that’s English. When we talk about murder, we mean it. Let’s say: Old people can get away with anything and everything. But maybe I’ll feel differently about that in 20 or 30 years. I was wrong. I’ve changed my mind.
Looking back over these notes, I am almost sorry I am writing in English. You do not often see Iqaluit described as, well, qallunaat.
I should explain about our name. Should, but can’t, because I don’t know the story. Maybe there isn’t one. Somewhere along the line we got truncated to Suquit, or even Suqu. This is obviously senseless. It’s not only a verb, it’s a verb that means the exact opposite of our formal name, Suqusuittuit. The ones who don’t change. But we’re stuck with it.
Oh. By the way. P.S. I do drive an ATV. Have you seen the roads around here? Neither have I. There aren’t any. And I have a satellite dish. I need it for the Internet. It’s the only way to keep up on research and publications. Not everything is technology. Sometimes it’s simply an idea nobody has had before. Kangarooing. Oral rehydration.
Most people know me by my Christian name, Rebecca. I still have trouble with the syllabary. Missed that in school too. I can read it—barely—but I can’t write it except on the computer. I only go home every couple of years, and I’ve learned to time it. Either right before the kids come back from school for the summer, or right after they leave. If I don’t, the parents watch me as if I’m your Pied Piper, all set to steal their children. Guess what, people! Rats can swim. That was a metaphor, in case you hadn’t figured it out.
None of that is important. What is important is that I was shattered when my parents wouldn’t let me be married from the village. I don’t know what I expected. “Well, at least he isn’t Cree”? They didn’t even go through the motions of consulting the shaman. Then they could have blamed the decision on someone else.
There’s a metaphor for that too. You can take the girl out of the country, but— You know the rest.
I had to put Rebecca on a separate page because I honestly had no idea she would have so much to say. I thought she was just going to explain a few things about the schools and so on. But I didn’t want to cut her off, because some of it turned out to be really interesting.