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The Return Of Kiviuq

The Return Of Kiviuq

An Inuit legend is brought back to life on stage—and with it, a whole other way to talk about the world.
By Elaine Anselmi
Jun 08
From the June 2018 Issue

Kiviuq is a hunter. He is a wanderer and a legendary Inuit hero. Lost at sea, he journeys home, encountering animals he comes to love and others he battles. He survives on his instincts, his kindness to others and through the power of his spiritual guides. It is imperative that Kiviuq returns home: if he dies during his travels, all Inuit will die along with him.

Stories about Kiviuq abound—Qaunaq Mikigaq of Cape Dorset knows more than 200 herself—and they’ve been told across the Canadian Arctic, and throughout Greenland and Alaska.

Last spring in Iqaluit, a cast and crew of Nunavummiut sat with elders and experts from Gjoa Haven, Iglulik, Cape Dorset and Cambridge Bay to hear some of these stories. Together, they created a story arc and script for a play—Kiviuq Returns—after narrowing 25 stories down to just six.

Photo courtesy Qaggiavuut/David Kilabuk

Iqaluit-based Qaggiavuut and its Qaggiq theatre collective produced the play, which was staged at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, Ontario and the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta before showing on other southern stages. A scaled-down production with fewer actors, modest stages (mostly in gymnasiums) and limited lighting and sound production later travelled to 11 communities across Nunavut, casting local youth in small roles.

Despite the wealth of stories of this Odysseus of the North, much of the audience, cast and crew had never heard of Kiviuq prior to landing in Iqaluit. His legend had skipped a few generations.

“I first heard these stories when I was a child, and then there was a period of time where the stories stopped being told,” says Julia Ogina, an expert in Inuit languages, drum dance and song. She remembers hearing stories of Kiviuq in an elder’s living room in her home community of Cambridge Bay. She was fascinated. But as missionaries populated the North bringing their religion and canonical tales with them, they discouraged and even prohibited Inuit from sharing their own stories. “We got into the school scene and then the less I heard these stories,” says Ogina.

Before she was cast in the play, Christine Tootoo of Rankin Inlet knew nothing about Kiviuq. At the Iqaluit gathering, Kiviuq stories were recited in Inuktitut and each one was recorded on video to be later projected onto the stage during the play. “I’m not fully bilingual,” says Tootoo. “I can pick out parts of when people are talking and I can understand bits of it. So when we were told these stories, I would just listen and let it wash over me and take in as much as I could and try to understand as much as I could.”

In its production and staging, Kiviuq Returns has done more than retell the legends. A little more than half of all Inuit in Canada speak Inuktitut, according to the 2016 census. The percentage decreases the younger the age group. The stories were translated into English to let cast and crew get more familiar with them before they spent two weeks staging the different parts, refining the script and rehearsing it in Inuktitut. “Now when we play the videos of the elders telling the stories in Inuktitut, I can understand everything about it,” says Tootoo.

For the large percentage of Inuit who do speak a dialect of Inuktitut, these stories still might sound unfamiliar. Ellen Hamilton, executive director of Qaggiavuut, likens it to an English speaker’s first read of Shakespeare. The language is more lyrical than conversational. Animals like tuktu (caribou), nattiq (seal), tulugak (raven) or nanuq (polar bear) are never referred to directly by their Inuktitut word, Ogina explains. Rather, they are given a character or descriptor. Tuktu becomes the one with the horns or the one who gives us warm clothing. Nattiq becomes the one with the rich broth. “They wouldn’t label them by the names out of respect for the animals,” says Ogina. It’s like walking into a room after people have been gossiping about you. We’ve all experienced that, says Ogina. It’s an uncomfortable, unwelcoming environment when you know that you’ve been talked about. “It’s the same with our values and beliefs from our ancestors,” she says. “Because they live off the animals, they won’t call them by name in fear the animals won’t come to them.”

And to those not familiar with Inuktitut, the language uses highly specific terms that don’t necessarily have a one-word English equivalent, says Ogina. “If snow is going to be used for tea drinking or if snow is going to be used for shelter building, we know what type of snow we need to be collecting,” she says. And there’s a specific term for snow for each of those uses.

"While they’re learning the play—you see them gain confidence in themselves and in their culture. It’s a very emotional thing and very rewarding." -Christine Tootoo

When these Kiviuq stories were first told, only Inuktitut was spoken in the region. There was no English to adapt to or challenge these terms. But that has all changed. “We have elders in their 60s and 70s not knowing these terms or these songs,” says Ogina. “Stories weren’t transferred. We could sing them but we couldn’t interpret the stories, which meant we couldn’t put a visual picture to the story—and that’s what stories are. They’re engaging visually, if they’re told and understood.”

That’s what Kiviuq Returns is intended to do—share stories and language that newer generations may not otherwise learn. If it weren’t for her personal interest, Ogina says her own understanding would be lacking. “I’m 55, going on 56, and through this work I’ve been doing with language and through different activities such as drum dance, we’ve been able to connect back to knowledge holders,” says Ogina. “They’ve started to share comfortably these values and belief systems they had to follow.”

And from what Tootoo can tell, the younger cast members are grasping the message: “It’s great to see that after they do the play—and while they’re learning the play—you see them gain confidence in themselves and in their culture. It’s a very emotional thing and very rewarding.”

The play tends to spark an emotional response among the audience. Kiviuq Returns opens with a young orphan playing with a sealskin ball before bullies in her community take it away. The girl’s grandmother, played by Tootoo, comforts her and helps her become a seal to exact revenge. Through this transformation, she lures her bullies out to sea and capsizes their boat. She spares Kiviuq because he had been kind to her before, but he’s left at sea, seeking a way home. Thus begins his trials and travels.

In the final act of the play, Kiviuq meets a goose who he falls in love with. She has to fly south for the winter and he tries to convince her not to go. But she has to leave and tells him that he must stay. Nonetheless, he tries to follow. When he does, he turns to stone, recounts Qaunaq Mikigaq, an elder storyteller and throatsinger, her image projected onto the screen. It’s the part that makes everyone cry, says Hamilton.

But it’s not just about what’s happening to Kiviuq, the character. “As she’s telling the story, she says, ‘I think I’m starting to forget,’” says Hamilton. Mikigaq starts singing the Kiviuq song that runs throughout the play. The cast comes on stage to join her in singing, and bring their hero back to life. That’s what Kiviuq Returns is about, says Hamilton. “He is returning to Inuit.”

A few days after it showed in Cambridge Bay, Ogina’s granddaughter, who was cast in the local production, turned 11. At her birthday party, Ogina and the other adults prepared food and decorations in the kitchen. They listened in as the kids, unprompted, acted out and sang Kiviuq’s stories.

“Just to hear them talking, saying their lines, playing Kiviuq, it was amazing to hear. When kids are playing and using the language, we know something is working and it makes me feel like we’re right on track,” she says. “I was so excited. I had goose bumps all over me because I hadn’t heard kids in play, using our language. That was the icing on the cake.”