I had the good fortune to return to Gjoa Haven last month. As you may recall from my previous blog post, I am now providing medical care to this remote Inuit community from time to time. I was last there during a heat wave in August, so I was looking forward to seeing what it might be like in November. As expected, it was dark and very cold. And very interesting.
There were only about 2 hours of daylight when I was there, although we lost about 30 minutes a day over my few short days there. The sun rose around 10 am, and set around noon. It didn’t even really completely rise over the horizon – it just popped up and went down again, and didn’t seem to travel any distance at all. Its like being in a time warp.
It was strange to have such dark evenings. Between the cold weather and the darkness, it was hard to be outside after work. I felt like going to bed after dinner. With nothing to do inside but watch television, I can see that the winter would be extremely long. There doesn’t seem to be anything to do in town either. Not much going on in the way of community gatherings. It seems folks just spend the winter indoors. I don’t think I could do it. I’d surely get cabin fever, if not depressed and seriously overweight and practically comatose.
And if you consider the housing situation, which is that there are usually several generations, and probably a dozen people, living together in the small houses, (which look to be about 800 square feet) I’m sure people occasionally find that hard. At least I, as an introvert, would. However I think this is probably very traditional, many generations together in a small space, so perhaps for the locals it is not difficult.
As someone who has only spent a few days in this village, I feel unqualified to comment much upon the local Inuit culture. It does seem however, that most of the traditions are no longer practiced. For instance, the elders often speak only Inuktitut, but most of the people younger than me cannot. Inukitut seems to be a very complex language to learn – full of unusual consonants like q. As well, apparently each work captures an entire thought or concept. For instance, my Inukitut phrase book tells me ‘I have cancer’ translates as ‘Aqirktauyungnangituqarqtunga’. And ‘It might snow’ is ‘Qarnirqniarqtuksauyurq’. Imagine trying to learn this language! I love the way it sounds though. I can say some of the Inuit names; full of multiple syllables, q’s and a’s, they roll off the tongue musically.
The traditional activities that do remain are carving, and textiles. Lots of folks still wear kamiks, traditional style sealskin boots, and fur mitts are also common. There is often an element of embroidery on these items, usually a floral design in bright colors. And it seems that the older women still make lots of parkas. I saw many beautiful and one of a kind parkas worn by women and children, often with big, lush fur collars and trim.
Unfortunately I don’t have any parka photos to show you. I think its unfair to ask patients to pose for photos, and I’m too shy to ask anyone I haven’t met to. I’ve got lots of photos of carvings though, which I will post soon!