Sunday, July 02, 2006

Reader's Diary #117- F.W. Peacock: Nuna Nunamiullo, The Land and The People (FINISHED)

Okay, this is a rarity. I came across this one in the school library and haven't been able to find another copy anywhere, not even in online rare and used book stores. But if you're one of the few people out there that comes across it, it's worth a read- well, depending on your interests...

This book is a good segue for me. As I announced in an earlier post I'm moving to Iqaluit in August- and since this book still revolves around my province yet is primarily about the Inuit, maybe it's the perfect literary bridge for me.

When I lived in Rankin Inlet, I happened to go to the local Catholic church one Sunday and I was amazed at how well the priest, a white Francophone, was speaking Inuktitut. I only spent four years there, but I had met other southerners who had lived there for more than a decade and had not even come close to picking up the language. I took lessons in my first year there and continued to pick up bits of vocab here and there from my students, but it is NOT an easy language to learn (is there such a thing?). In a lot of ways, it should be easy: there are not as many rules as in English concerning subject-verb agreement, there's not an abundance of unnecessary pronouns, conjunctions and so forth, and often verbs are just nouns used in a different context (English speakers do it to some extent- ex. "I like to fish."). However, unlike French or other European languages, there's a lot more sounds completely foreign to the English ear and the alphabet system isn't the same. However, maybe priests have some natural inclination to the learning of languages, because apparently F.W. Peacock, like the priest in Rankin, mastered Inuktitut.

With the recent controversy over residential schools in Canada's North, not to mention every other Catholic priest scandal, it would have been very easy to look for fault in Peacock's poetry and point of view. A few years ago I read Arctic Wings written by another Catholic missionary to the North, William A. Leising, and while it made for an interesting read I was taken aback at how right the man felt in his convictions. In the name of God, children were taken away from their families, communities and culture and "educated". This wasn't 100 years ago. Leising didn't come across as an evil man, but it's pretty revealing how values have changed.

Again in Rankin, there are mixed feelings amongst the Inuit regarding Catholics and the education system in general, but the majority still send their kids to school and there's a pretty active Catholic community. While there, I wanted to hear about older beliefs, legends and customs but I found it hard to get information about anything that veered remotely from Christianity. The kids still talked about the Northern lights being ball-playing ancestors who'd come down and take your head if you whistled at them, and local author Michael Kusugak had written several children's books some of which delved into mythology (in particular Hide and Sneak and A Promise Is A Promise with Robert Munsch) but just ask about shamans and see how quickly some people clam up.

Interestingly, Peacock didn't shy away from these legends and this is what makes the collection so valuable. The poetry itself, isn't wonderful in a literary sense. Except for a great sense of rhythm (from his experience giving sermons, I wonder?) the poems are pretty literal and single layered. Peacock can't be criticized too harshly though- the manuscript was published post-humously and without editing from his notes. Where Peacock shines is his recounting of Inuit legends. We get poems entitled "The Legend of PerKallujaK", "Boulder Spirits", the very risque "Legend of the Origin of the Sun and Moon" and more. It's quite an educational book, but much more entertaining and compelling to read than a history book or folklore textbook, like Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). Best of all, Peacock didn't seem to be passing judgments on their beliefs and stories- in fact, it sometimes seemed like he even believed in shamans himself!

As an interesting sidenote, I've had Harold Horwood's White Eskimo on my bookshelf for quite some time and just haven't gotten around to it. However, Peacock makes reference to it and criticizes it for being misleading and inaccurate- now I want to read it more. Nothing sells like a controversy!


chuck said...

Sounds like you are in for a great well as immersion in issues of cultural adaptations and cultural survival of the Inuit people...and social coping issues of alcohol and drug abuse, families at risk, youth suicide, and underemployment and unemployment among the Inuit people.

Sadly, "Nanook of the North" is history...and does not begin to describe the complexities of modern Inuit life.

John Mutford said...

Rest assured Chuck, I've been there before and I'm not going into this with rose coloured glasses. But we've weighed the pros and cons (there are pros and cons for everywhere) and Iqaluit seems like the best option for us now. Tell me where in the world all of those issues you named don't exist? Yes, the rates might be higher in some places than others but there's often a lot of good that gets overlooked too. I'm one of the first to cringe when people put any culture on a pedestal (Newfoundland too). Those sweeping generalizations do no one any good. But on the same token, a people should not be defined by their problems either.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Is the whole family excited about the move? Have your kids been there before. It will be quite a change for them, but they are still young enough to adapt.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, Yes we're all excited. My little girl has been in Nunavut before (in fact she was born there), but not Iqaluit. She's likely to be a little overwhelmed at first (she won't be living near her grandparents or great grandparents anymore), but as you say- she's young enough to adept. Our son is still too young to grasp it, but even if he could, he's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy.

John Mutford said...

Ooops. "Adept" should obviously read "adapt".