THREE GENERATIONS OF INUIT SONGS FROM ARVIAT, NUNAVUT (ESKIMO POINT, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES), JANUARY 1975
The Inuit songs and stories in this collection were recorded in the winter of 1975 by Lynn Whidden for a project at the University of Minnesota School of Music where it is deposited. There is also a copy in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg.
The songs and stories were recorded from three generations of Ihalmuit (the other people) later named Caribou Inuit. As their name suggests, this group was entirely dependent upon the caribou and when caribou numbers decreased, starvation became a regular occurrence for the Ihalmuit. By 1975 these people had lived in government settlements for almost two decades.
Despite schools, missionaries, and communication media the songs and stories continued to be a part of everyday life for the oldest generation. The nine persons interviewed in 1975 sang and talked about the old ways: Siatala described how his take of ten caribou alleviated his family's hunger and how he protected the cache of meat from wolves, weasels, fox, and wolverines with a trap. Paopa provided information on how the seal hunt was carried out. Donald Suluk related a suspenseful account about the Eskimo's (the name they used for themselves) near encounter with a small band of Indians. Youthful midsadventures are the subject of Helen Ishlanuik's humorous vignettes.
In 1975 all the old people knew songs, yet there was only one working set of drums for the drum dance in the settlement; they were stored at the community centre and available to all. The scarcity of drums may have been attributable to missionary efforts, but also reflected the shortage of wood in the Arctic that was needed for the drum frame.
The elders liked to tell of their encounters with the Kabloona. Donald Suluk described Eskimo Point in 1950 when the first white people arrived and he expressed concern about the Eskimo dependence upon welfare that bound them to the settlement. Paopa described the shopping trips to Churchill by boat when there were only two white people there, the Hudson Bay manager and his wife. Alice Suluk told how her mother caused laughter when she tried to stir the tea through the teapot spout. Laurent Pameolik worried about the young person's inability to survive without the white man's help and about the depletion of animals and fish, and the wasting of caribou meat and skins. The stories of the old people, nearly all told with humor, depict the personal control and knowledge that enabled them to survive in a challenging physical environment. They show the Inuit fascination with the white man's culture and are a revealing documentary of the abrupt loss of the traditional lifeways.
As this collection shows, the words of the modern songs reflect the new lifestyle copied from non-Natives. Children's songs were those learned at school and church and consist of familiar items such as popcorn, chewing gun, and ice-cream. Their parents enjoyed the old hymns and the evangelical tunes. Charlie Panigoniak's songs encompass the interests of all generations. He composed songs with traditional topics such as talking animals, and songs for the hunt. Particularly moving is a narrative song of a famine, "We were starving in 1957" (Song 26) that ends happily in typical Inuit fashion. His transition to the modern world is evident in songs based on non-traditional subjects: biblical scripture; a love song; and a song entitled "Rubber and Jello".
Inngerut refer to hymns or modern music. In 1975, hymns taught by missionaries were household songs; dances were to tunes learned from whalers and traders; and every settlement had its youth with guitars who imitated the sounds of country music heard on the radio. The guitar became popular after the Inuit moved from their tents and snowhouses to heated homes, and as Paul Irksak confirmed, guitars were played mainly by the men. The fiddle, introduced by the whalers, also became popular and imitations were made from boxes and ham tins. They had as many as three strings and were plucked or bowed. By 1975, when the Inuit gathered to dance to music of European origin, the rhythms were simplified and the accents became predictable in non-Native style.
The old songs are called piseq or ayayait. The piseq belonged to the composer, but could be given as a gift. As you will hear, the old songs are musically distinctive. These singers were recorded in their homes and did not have drums for accompaniment, yet the rhythms are strong. They are based upon word-phrases rather than metrical divisions. Married couples liked to sing together, often at the same pitch, although they occasionally sang in fourths and thirds. Together they are able to create a continuous sound, propelling the voice on the ay ya ya syllables of the chorus. There are many ornaments such as grace notes and rising and falling attacks. Occasionally the melody was transposed to a different pitch, as in Songs 18 and 42. All the songs are unified by frequent repetition of one pitch and by repetition of phrases.
All the old people could sing and their songwords are characterized by self-deprecation. For example, laziness is mentioned in three of the songs, shyness in one, and helplessness in another. Elizabeth Nanook sang about her daily life: cleaning house and making clothing from caribou hides. She stated that her second song was her father's song and that as a woman she didn't know what it was about. The Owlijoot's song dwells on the topic of spirits: the spirits who were tired of waiting for the people, made noise in the hills. The hunting songs end happily, and the caribou are always captured.