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Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women

by Nancy Wachowich,Apphia Agalakti Awa, Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak and Sandra Pikujak Katsak

Saqiyuq is the Inuktitut word for a strong wind that suddenly shifts direction. Inuit life has also undergone a sudden shift in the last four decades, from nomadic subsistence hunting to permanent settlement in communities. Anthropologist Nancy Wachowich has collected stories that illustrate this shift by speaking with a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter from the Baffin Island community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Family matriarch Apphia Agalakti Awa, who died in 1996 at age 65, is the most engaging storyteller of the three. She was raised in the oral tradition, on the land, and her recollections were recorded in Inuktitut in hours-long sessions. This methodology ensured that Awa’s stories retain the two most distinctive facets of oral tradition: non-linearity and repetitiveness. Her tales are also the most varied – documenting details now lost to younger Inuit, such as the difference between caribou fat and seal fat, how to train and relate to sled dogs, and traditional medicines – and therefore more illustrative of the enforced acculturation of the Inuit and the imposition of religious and cultural values useless to Inuit culture.

Sandra Pikujak Katsak, Awa’s granddaughter, writes matter-of-factly about the suicide of friends, the high rate of youths dropping out of school, drug use, and smoking. She is searching for a spiritual philosophy to fill the void, but she cannot find anyone willing to teach her: the elders refuse to tell her about traditional Inuit beliefs because of their complete conversion to Christianity.

Saqiyuq boasts a list of suggested reading and a backgrounder on Inuit history. Researchers will appreciate that individual stories are indexed by subtitle, since the book is better suited to browsing.

Although Awa was convinced that Inuit ways were “deepest, darkest sin,” it’s interesting to note that her daughter and granddaughter are wearing vertical-striped men’s kamiks (boots) on the cover, while Awa is wearing horizontal-striped women’s ones. Some traditions are hard to break.