Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Northern Magic

An Inuit novel for all the Farley Know-its

  • Print

Well over a half-century ago, from the anatomy of Canada's Arctic, there began to emerge an emphatic creative accomplishment in Inuit culture that brought new life to their alphabet.

It was the beginning of the first work of fiction, the first novel, in Inuit syllabics (a kind of shorthand) from the magical mind of a young and nonconforming indigenous woman.

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk's Sanaaq has now been translated and published in English so more people, particularly southerners, can enjoy this literary gem and the fascinating life of its Inuit author and her intrinsic creative skill.

It's hard to fathom, but about 60 years ago, a Roman Catholic priest asked a woman in a tiny settlement in Arctic Quebec (a female born not in a written, but an oral culture, a woman in her 20s who never went to school, a person illiterate by southern standards) to help him study her language. She jotted down some phrases in the syllabics writing system she and her people use that was created long before by a white missionary and adapted for the Inuit.

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk did much more than that: she took her observations of ordinary, everyday life and began to step over the threshold of history by sitting down in her snow house (igloo) and summer tent to write Canada's first work of fiction in her people's shorthand. And some of it she may well have written by the flickering light of a seal oil lamp.

Thus did Nappaaluk off-and-on over 20 years complete on paper the adventures of the make-believe woman Sanaaq. The novel (distilled from the 1,000 pages she wrote) was published in syllabics in 1987. It became a bestseller in French in 2002. (The English translation is from the French.)

Her writing is set about the time non-natives started coming into northern Quebec as traders and missionaries around the turn of the century. It's the story of a determined Inuit widow and her daughter and their everyday experiences with the people around them in the extreme climate that still kills the disrespectful.

The work roughly covers the period up to the Second World War and its aftermath, a period of sometimes aching social change for the Inuit.

The secondary impact of Nappaaluk's novel is that it is an Inuk writing about the Inuit rather than a judgmental southerner (a kabloona) who usually studies them to death or spends a weekend to write a magazine article about the people or a week to pen a book. One such white author earned the unflattering nickname Farley Know-It.

But this writing is more than just an ethnographic record of the lives of a specialized people living in probably the world's harshest climate. This novelist is good — skilled in her storytelling, provocative in her style and her character development and, instinctive as it must have been, is confident and successful. (Mitiarjuk died in 2007 at age 76.)

The novel is made up of 48 episodes, including descriptions of hunting, gathering, the dangerous ritual of collecting mussels, laughter, violence, birth and death, the spirit world, relationships, conflicts between Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries, sexual relationships with non-natives and, doubtlessly to the surprise of many, the stability and peacefulness of their everyday lives way up there.

Sanaaq is worthwhile both for pleasure and to combat the bombardment of misconceptions outside their environs these native northerners have had to tolerate forever.

And the first to read Mitiarjuk in English should be all the Farley Know-its.


Barry Craig lived in the Far North for years and came to admire the Inuit.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A1


Updated on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 8:37 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets players discuss outcome of Game 3 and hopes for Game 4

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A squirrel enjoys the morning sunshine next to the duck pond in Assiniboine Park Wednesday– June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS June 23, 2011 Local - A Monarch butterfly is perched on a flower  in the newly opened Butterfly Garden in Assiniboine Park Thursday morning.

View More Gallery Photos


Did you watch the Bruce Jenner interview?

View Results

Ads by Google