You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness.
~ The Tent, Margaret Atwood
It isn’t that cold, especially when you’re among friends. It’s the end of July 2005. But we are in a tent on south east Southampton Island, in Iglurjuakuluit, Nunavut. The Canadian Arctic. It’s not exactly comfortable, but the landscape is breathtaking. It can be overwhelming.
It’s vast, very vast.
In the large communal tent, a pot of tea simmers on the propane burner, a lantern casts shadows against the canvass, which, in this raging wind, snaps, whips, whorls around us. We’re hours away from the nearest community, having traveled here by boat. Many of us are afraid of the water, even when it’s calm. And somewhere out there, a polar bear lurks. He paid us a visit our first evening. He was big, very big. I’ve been out on the land before, but this is a first.
Hunters with guns kept watch as we slept.
All of us are afraid of polar bears.
For the moment, however, we forget about the isolation, the weather, the wilderness, the sharp teeth and claws of bears. We’re wrapped around and snug inside the syllables of a simple, charming, story-in-verse. It’ s better than flannel.
We like our old tree,
Our home in the tree ;
We swing in the Spring
We crawl in the Fall
And we dance on the branches
Way up in the Tree.
Nineteen Inuit women, and one Quallanut huddle together; listening to the storyteller. The Quallanut would me; it’s an Inuktitut word which, loosely translated, means southerner.
These Inuk women, aged twenty and older, are here to participate in an innovative program called Somebody’s Daughter. Over the next two weeks, they will learn, laugh, cry, and heal. They will sew by day, reclaiming the traditional Inuit sewing skills of their foremothers: cleaning, scraping, stretching, chewing then stitching the skins of caribou and seal. They will make parkas, kamiks, mittens. By night, ulus, thimbles, needles and thread will be put aside.
They will claim their voices.
They will improve their literacy. They will tell their stories orally, or use pen and paper. Sometimes they will write poems that will crack my heart wide open. They will send messages to loved ones, letters to politicians and inspiring words to women around the world.
This storyteller is also their teacher. It’s her first year. But she will become, as well, both courier and messenger. At times, the voice is barely audible, competing, as it must, against the wind’s howl. So we lean in closer, riveted as she turns pages and shows us pictures. This story’s in a book. This book is called Up In the Tree. There’s more than a touch of irony in this; we’re miles above the tree line. Some of these women have never touched a tree, let alone climbed one. Fewer still know anything about this storyteller, either by name or reputation.
She is also "a picture book maker."
"So you write books?" they inquire shyly after she closes the book.
"Did I maybe see you on TV?"
And Margaret Atwood will smile and say, "You may have, yes."
In Inuit culture, the oral tradition is still revered. Art, film, song, dance and radio, are perhaps a better media to articulate this culture than the world of books will ever be. Legends and stories, especially from respected elders- are still a valued way of transmitting Inuit culture and history.
If or when there the world crashes, satellites go out, we might all remember such basics and rely on the storyteller’s very human voice. We might once again take sinew from whale, rinse it in salt, stretch it across a board and then wait until it dries in the sun, spun gold, transformed into thread. Thread with which we sew things together , or back together, stitch by stitch.
Bernadette Dean can do this.
It’s because Dean asked and Atwood said yes, that Atwood has the honor of being teacher and writer-in- residence out on the land with Somebody’ s Daughter. Dean is the mover and shaker behind the scenes, social co-coordinator for KIA, an association committed to the education of Inuit youth and preservation of Inuit culture. A long time educator and activist for healthy communities and a more hopeful future for her people, Dean has worked in ways than we cannot to begin to fathom.
Bernadette can shoot a caribou.
She also gives power point presentations. Yesterday she emailed a video of her first granddaughter made just that morning. Dean’s produced CDs. collecting the songs and chants she wants never to be lost. Her great- grandmother was Shoofly. She’s shown me pictures. Dean is Somebody’s Daughter, and great granddaughter. I still dream of her writing that book.
We met in 1992 at Arctic College. I was going by instinct, my first time teaching creative writing in a cross-cultural setting, painfully aware of my blonde hair and blue eyes, of being under scrutiny. It was my job, above all else, to create a safe place so authentic voices might come forth. On the third day, Dean wrote and read a poem about her mother ‘s bannock recipe and her mother’s battle with cancer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the class when she finished reading. Writing class stopped. Learning began. The women got out the flour and lard and baked bannock.
When the teacher is ready, the students appear.
Dean straddles, as many Inuit do: two cultures, two languages, two worlds, embracing the new, preserving traditions, negotiating through tangled beaurocracy. She holds a lot of stories inside . She hurts when yet another woman is beaten, or another community loses a teen or other loved one to suicide.
And she is also a woman of great faith. Let Go and Let God is on the silver cross she gave me first summer.
I hold many stories from the Daughters of Somebody’s Daughter but I will not tell them. They are their stories. I can tell, however, I ‘ve never met such brave or resilient women. This program heals and humbles me.
I chewed sealskin and sewed a miniature kamik, my first year, thanks to Hattie, my teacher. (I’ve barely ever sewn a button on anything.) When they clapped for me, my chest exploded and I cried as many of the women do when our sewing project is completed. Your hands are healing the elders told me.
They named me Naluaqq. White sealskin hung out to dry.
My tiny kamik, here in my office, holds insense and a piece of thread Bernadette made from the sinew.
In February, Atwood wrote an essay for the Washington Post on the writing life and on how participating in this program brought her back to some basics. Fundamentals such as : if you want to learn, teach. And that writing is always for someone. A few days later, Dean participated in that paper’s online chat to folks around the world. By some wonderful quirk of fate, Dean and I ended up in a cubicle at the Sheraton in Winnipeg airport together with a window of few hours. And logged on. Margaret Atwood was in New York.
A Inuit woman talking through cyber space to folks around the world—about her culture and what this program and literacy education means in the north—with a literary icon. A writer whose books, along with Alice Munroe’s, I once kept under my bed, dreaming of the day I might one day maybe be a published writer.
During the chat, when one person asked if sewing wasn’t rather degrading for women, my hackles went up. Atwood’s response was terrific, but, because she can be extremely generous , she handed over the forum to Dean. Dean calmly typed in, quoted a Buddhist saying. A line about humility, about making the best basket one can make.
I remain in awe.
Because of Atwood’s connections with UNESCO, and Dean’s ongoing commitment as she attends conferences on aboriginal education around the globe, Somebody’s Daughter could end up being a model for land -based literacy programs in other cultures. It’s both an experiential and contemplative model of education. Ghandi’s words on literacy education embody its premise.
"Literacy education should follow the literacy of the hand- the one gift that visibly distinguishes man from the beast. It is superstition to think that the fullest development of man is impossible without a knowledge of reading and writing. That knowledge undoubtedly adds grace to life, but is in no way indispenable for man’s moral, physical or material growth."
Those are challenging words for writers to wrap their heads around, or readers, or anyone in the book industry. In today’s world, most folks do need to read, write and keep up with technology. Employment matters. Survival. So it is a bit more tangible than Grace, though it is that too.
It is difficult to speak of grace.
Let me try again.
Atwood’s voice is hypnotic, the cadence consistently monotone, and her face, somewhat of a mask. Her pitch-up here is perfect. It’s also culturally appropriate; we are in the midst of a mostly modest culture—one where an animated expression is often seen as rude. Among Inuit, 'yes' is a barely discernible raise of both eyebrows, 'no' is a subtle scrunch of a nose. It takes some time to adjust. I’ve been trying to learn on and off for almost twenty years. Why?
Because when I was eight years old I read Farley Mowat and Jack London and Robert Service. I fell in love with the word aurora borealis as colours splashed across the pages of a Grade Three Reader. Because I had a recurring vivid dream that I was under a white dome. I was in an igloo with the Eskimos the only word I knew then.
The north—as it does for many, beckoned.
I made my first trek there in 1988 thanks to Canadian Children’s Book Centre and the Canada Council. It was dark and cold and I was glad to get home. There was, however, no turning back after that. Thanks to Peter Gzowski and his literacy fundraisers, a band of southerners going up to play golf on the ice, I ended up in Pond Inlet. Bernadette’s daughter Ashley, now studying to become a teacher, was in Grade Five then.
After that there were other calls to go work. Sometimes I said yes. Sometimes no. Bernadette’s CALL was no ordinary call. Want to come teaching in a camp at the top of the world?
I joke that maybe because I only had sons, I have had to go north to find my daughters. God-daughters maybe. But also, sisters, friends. Teachers. Truth is, I have them back home in the Maritimes and here in Washington—a real a cold place if you don’t have friends to remind you to follow you heart’s affections.
How is it that women who 'told' me stories in a tent , and three sentences written on a piece of torn paper, passed through a tent flap, by a woman who initially wept each time she tried to write—has become more valuable to me than any book I could ever write? To be of use, writes Marge Piercy on a poem by that title. It is work that makes me feel I am of use. Sometimes, I think my love of the north began with Santa. But it’s bigger than that – it might just be as close to heaven as I will ever get.
It is vast—this view at the top of the world. A line from one of the Somebody’s Daughters participants in summer, 2004 comes to mind: "Such large land and sky!"
There is a possibility of angels close by.
Picture my friend Bernadette spreading arms wide as if hugging the land— saying this—this—this—is my living room! Picture a storyteller in a tent keeping fear at bay as she gathers us around her. Vast, says Atwood.
~ Sheree Fitch, first published in New Brunswick Reader