1991, continued from April 2:
I can still see the view from J.’s apartment in Puvirnituq. I’d press my nose against the glass and look out, past older matchbox houses, to more recently-built units with red, blue or green siding and a few three-storey apartment buildings, all separated by huge banks of snow.
Beyond the last house: an endless view of rocks and snow. As I looked out the window, I would run my tongue over my teeth. I could taste the film of seal fat.
“No matter what you do,” J. had counselled me. “Don’t eat too much of the seal fat. I burped it up for a week.”
On my second day in Purvirnituq, wind and snow were still blowing in from the land.
In this cold place, everyone then lived in heated homes, there were snowplows to clear the roads and trucks to pick up sewage and bring in fresh water. In 1991, snowmobiles took people around the community or out on the land — but chained-up sled dogs still howled behind every home and woke me up during the night.
I’d been invited for lunch at the home of L.’s mother-in-law. There, in the vestibule of her house, my too-bright, felt-lined boots joined the huge pile of boots stacked up against fox pelts and parkas.
L.’s relatives met at her mother-in-law’s kitchen every day for lunch. I walked in and greeted them. They were already sitting around the floor around a large piece of cardboard. In the middle of the sheet lay several large chunks of raw caribou — one looked like a leg, the other a roast. That is, it would have, had it been cooked. Everyone was busy slicing slivers of the half-frozen meat. The women used a rounded ulu knife to deftly cut the caribou right into their mouths. The men handled straight-edged knives. These were the only utensils around.
“Sit down, sit down,” L.’s sister-in-law called over.
I joined the group, sitting cross-legged on the linoleum.
“Try this,” said L., handing me a slice of the raw caribou. It’s surprisingly tender.
She pointed out a container of oil in the middle of the cardboard.
“We dip the tuktu in this seal oil, misaraq — it’s like our ketchup! But, watch out, it tastes hot.”
Lots of laughs. I immersed a small piece of my meat into the pungent, cheesy oil. L. then carved me a large piece of the raw Arctic char. I wasn’t able to figure out what raw caribou tasted like, but the first bite of char reminded me of more familiar textures of sushi or gravlax salmon. It was good. Between the bits of conversation, there was only the sound of razor-sharp ulus flipping over the meat. As I nibbled on the char, I was searching for ways to digest the scene in front of me. No, it wasn’t a picnic, not a barbecue. We were inside, in the middle of a November mini-blizzard.
I joined in. I was given a hunk of whale blubber, mataaq, neatly carved into a waffle pattern for easier eating. It looked like bacon, I couldn’t help thinking, but tasted a bit like coconut-flavoured bubble gum and the rind was thicker. We sipped coolish tea as we ate.
“Too bad you’re not here when we’re having snowy owl,” L. said. “It’s my favourite.”
Country foods, as I learned Inuit call these raw local dishes, reflected the reality of the fuel-less tundra around us, a harvest of the wild where agriculture is impossible.
After everyone had eaten enough, it was time to clean up. The leftover pieces of meat and fish were wrapped up and put back in the freezer or tossed out on to the porch. The few scraps that remained were pushed to the centre. These were to be fed to the dogs. Then, the cardboard that was been our table was folded up for storage until the next meal. Finally, L. whisked the kitchen floor with a large feathered goose wing. The kitchen was clean again and there was no sign that we had our feast at all.
I saw how country foods still nourished this community in 1991.
When a fishing boat returned after a five-day trip up the coast, its arrival was announced on the community radio station. Everyone ran down to the dock with plastic bags. The walrus caught by the men was spread out in front of the boat. Then, there was a kind of banquet when everyone in the community sampled the walrus, and afterwards, each family took a big piece home.
From what I could see at the local co-operative store in Puvirnituq, foods from the South looked like an expensive choice: $3.15 for a lettuce, a melon for $6.60 or how about cookies at over $7.00 a box? I saw bottled water on sale for the first time in my life — something I never thought of buying in the South. And why would people need to buy water here? Because, I learned, the water delivered to homes could sometimes make people sick. Co-op members received a discount when they buy at the store, I learn, and they could always charge their purchases when money was tight.
Over the co-op’s office counter, I spoke with the manager, Aisara Tukalak. How do people survive here, I asked him. Sometimes they didn’t, was his answer. He told me — for the first time — a story that I would hear countless times, of how during a famine, many years ago, the Hudson Bay Co. trading post refused to offer Inuit credit. With no furs to barter, many starved to death, he told me. I asked Tukalak many questions, but he spoke almost no English and I didn’t yet speak any Inuktitut at all.
“Talk to Peter Murdoch,” Tukalak said, pronouncing the word like “Peetah.” “At the hotel… later.”
To be continued April 4
You can read the first part here.
Join me in “Like an iceberg” as I remember my travels in the Canadian Arctic during the 1990s, a period when few journalists travelled as widely in the region.
I started working on this tale back in 1996, thanks to a Canada Council Literary Development grant, and then put everything aside for more than 15 years as I worked for the Nunatsiaq News.
I am taking the liberty of changing some names and details to protect the many people who spoke to me freely and to safeguard myself against any possible defamation lawsuits.
Comments are welcome!