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.