Building A Bridge
Susan Aglukark has become something of a history buff.
For more than 15 years, the award-winning singer and songwriter has been researching the time when people crossed the Bering land bridge that connected North America and Asia roughly 15,000 years ago. “There’s a moment where it dawned on me that the period on the land bridge, who were we?” she asks. “We weren’t Inuit. When did we become Inuit? How did that happen?”
For generations, people crossed the bridge and over the centuries that followed, they spread across the Americas, through the Arctic and into Greenland. Aglukark is interested in connecting the ancestral dots to change the historical narrative from that time right up until contact, to highlight what life was like long before Europeans wrote about it.
This passion inspired her new album, The Crossing, due out in February, which starts with that time on the land bridge. “Really, the theme is introducing to the listener who we were, and this is how long we’ve been here,” she says. “If we’re going to teach Inuit history, we should research it as far back as we possibly can, and that’s where it should start.”
It’s also important to teach this to young people, which is why Aglukark is venturing into new territory as a children’s book author. She started the Arctic Rose Foundation in 2012 to give Northern kids a venue to express themselves and explore their culture through the arts, with everything from graffiti and slam poetry to painting, drawing and the written word.
Una Huna: What is this? focuses on introducing a new history, with Inuit as the protagonists. “We have been told one story, and we believed that story,” says Aglukark. But she’s interested in taking that story farther back, prior to colonization. “There’s all this other history, there are all these other ancestors, there’s all this other work that’s been ongoing for thousands and thousands of years. Who were those people?”
Aglukark’s story revolves around Ukpik, a young girl who lives with her family in a camp with 12 other Inuit families at the beginning of contact with Europeans. Ukpik gathers water in a skin bucket, and she puzzles over naming her new puppy, which will one day be a big sled dog. When her father trades fox furs and seal skins for wooden cutlery, he’s doing more than bringing a new way of eating to their camp. They didn’t always have these things, says Aglukark, wondering what it must have been like to encounter such foreign objects.
She believes by exploring that history, she can spur the next generation to create their own stories. “Let’s turn those stories into songs and stage productions and books and resources for universities and colleges.” Teaching the next generation of Inuit and Indigenous youth their history, she hopes, will inspire them to find creative outlets.
That includes encouraging young people to learn and re-learn their languages. The book includes many Inuktitut words, as well as descriptions of traditional tools like a kakivak (a fishing spear) and a pana (a snow knife). “There are some pretty stunning words that are very efficient. Inuit, we’re pretty brilliant that way and we need to keep those words,” says Aglukark.
In Ukpik, she’s also created a character who isn’t sure how she feels about her world changing: in a conversation with her anaanatsiaq (grandmother) she wonders if she’ll always have to use forks now, if they didn’t need them before.
“Even if our world will not stay the same, our camp and our family will always be here,” her grandmother replies.
Una Huna: What is this? is published by Inhabit Media, written by Susan Aglukark and illustrated by Amanda Sandland and Danny Christopher.