What I learned from the Polar Gas Pipeline Enquiry and Elders like Donald Suluk and Mickie
Reading the words of Donald Suluk and Mickie brings back lots of memories. If you read them carefully, there is a lot being said. Some of it, we would say in English, is ‘between the lines’.
What I remember is the tremendous struggle of many Inuit Elders in the 1970s to figure out a way of handling two very different cultures. Donald Suluk puts his finger on this when he compares the land to a ‘store’ in Qablunaat culture. He also notes the different relationship Inuit have with material things - and especially with money. He is absolutely right when he notes that Qablunaat culture is all about money. There are many Qablunaat who do not have this insight.
For me, listening to Elders in the late 1970s when we were doing this enquiry was both educational and increasingly painful. I watched Inuit trying to do what I now recognize is a central part of Inuit culture. Inuit are much better than Qablunaat at accommodating ‘difference’ - at respecting and trying to make room for different ways of thinking and doing things. Inuit culture has always been ‘a welcoming one’. And the archival records that I know well, illustrate this over and over again.
So when I read Donald’s words, I can detect his fears and concerns about the construction of a gas pipeline through the Kivalliq Region, but I also see him trying to accommodate it by making recommendation for changes in the route and warning about how the environment - garbage and waste oil from construction activities - should be dealt with. Mickie thinks it shouldn’t be built. The old and the new are found in Donald’s words. But most importantly, the relationship between Inuit and land and animals comes through clearly. When you combine that with what Mickie had to say about young people losing their culture, the fears and wisdom of Elders become obvious.
And this is an ongoing struggle that I can see in our work. In many Inuit communities, the introduction of Qablunaat religion has created intolerances and divisions that have been very hard to deal with. A culture where money is now needed for everything - rent, food, clothing, travel - and is in short supply given the lack of jobs and opportunities for many Inuit, competes with a culture and values that were definitely not centered around $$$. This was (and is) a culture based on relationships between Inuit and land, Inuit and animals, Inuit and other Inuit. It struggles in a modern world.
If Inuit young people are having a hard time with all of this, many of their Elders and the Inuit I met, interviewed and worked with in the 1970s were struggling with the same kinds of things. These are all questions about values and what is important. They compete with the logic of money and what we need to survive and live in a modern world. The way money affects who we think is something that is hard to talk about. My own Qablunaat culture certainly needs to start doing this.
Why did oil pour into the Gulf of Mexico? Why did the world recently experience (another) economic collapse with disatrous consequences for the lives of so many ordinary people - especially working Americans? It was all about money. There is a lot of history here and Inuit history helps us understand all of this much better. If we, and especially our children and children’s children are to have a good life, then we need to think carefully and learn lessons from the past about how to live on this tiny planet. There is a lot in the wisdom of Donald Suluk and Mickie. Thanks to both of them.