• Beyond the Gallery

6 Inuit Book Besties

Couch Content from the IAQ

May 15, 2020
by Jessica MacDonald

Escapism comes in many forms these days, but there’s a big one you may have missed during the last two months stuck inside: books!

They have a tremendous power to transport you away from your present circumstances, enabling travel to far-off destinations currently forbidden. Join us as we read through six Inuit literature greats that run the gamut from fiction to memoir to poetry.


Split Tooth
Tanya Tagaq
Penguin Canada

Split Tooth (2018) is the first novel of internationally acclaimed throat singer Tanya Tagaq. It follows a young girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s, exploring a world where the distinctions between good and evil, animal and human, victim and transgressor, real and imagined lose their meaning, but the guiding power of love remains. Split Tooth won the 2019 Indigenous Voices Award for Published Prose and was nominated for a host of other awards, including the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2019 Amazon First Novel Award. Tagaq is originally from Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU. She is the winner of multiple Juno Awards and took home the Polaris Prize in 2014 for her record Animism. With this book, she has “reshaped what Inuit literature is”.


Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar. Knee to knee, we would sit, hiding, hoping nobody would discover us. Every time it was different. Sometimes there was only thumping, screaming, moans, laughter. Sometimes the old woman would come in and smother us with her suffering love. Her love so strong and heavy it seemed a burden. Even then I knew that love could be a curse. Her love for us made her cry. The past became a river that was released by her eyes. The poison of alcohol on her breath would fill the room. She would wail and grab at us, kissing us, kissing the only things she could trust.

Fake-wood panel walls, the smell of smoke and fish. Velvet art hung on the walls, usually of Elvis or Jesus, but also polar bears and Eskimos.

The drunks came home rowdier than usual one night, so we opted for the closet. We giggle nervously as the yelling begins. Become silent when the thumping starts. The whole house shakes. Women are screaming, but that sound is overtaken by the sound of things breaking. Wet sounds of flesh breaking and dry sounds of wood snapping, or is that bone?


There are loud pounding footsteps. Fuck! Someone is coming towards us. We stop breathing. Our eyes large in the darkness, we huddle and shiver and hope for the best. There is someone standing right outside the closet door, panting.

The door slides open, and my uncle sticks his head in.

Towering over us, swaying and slurring. Blood pouring down his face from some wound above his hairline.

“I just wanted to tell you kids not to be scared.” Then he closed the door.

Excerpted from Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq. Copyright © 2018 Tanya Tagaq. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.



Curved Against the Hull of a Peterhead
Taqralik Partridge
Publication Studio

With the warm ring of the spoken word at their centre, the poems in Taqralik Partridge’s Curved Against the Hull of a Peterhead (2019) wrestle with colonialism and racial violence while also reflecting a rich sensory imagery. A writer, performer and curator originally from Nunavik and now based out of Kautokeino, Norway, Partridge is an Inuk textile artist, curator, writer and spoken word poet, as well as a former Editor-at-Large for the Inuit Art Quarterly and a current member of the IAQ’s Advisory Committee. Partridge’s textile art is currently on view as part of the Biennale of Sydney and Among All These Tundras, both accessible online, while Qautamaat | Every day / everyday, an exhibition featuring Nunavimmiut photographers curated by Partridge, is up at the Art Gallery of Guelph. 

“Charlie Adams”

This is getting expensive.
Charlie Adams is begging down by the old forum.
Seated supplicant.
He can walk again,
but he looks
and he already has
street-grit sunk-in pores.
He still has the same moustache.
He’s Charlie Adams
godammit. Inuk country crooner.
Every day we walk down Ste.-Catherine—
for some reason or other.
Every eskimo here
is tied to this street—
like it
or not.
It’s ones and twos for him.

Charlie you sang for us
when we were kids.
So Charlie
we’re paying you now.

It’s quarters and dimes for him.
And pennies for the other beggars.
It’s getting expensive—
we doled out five bucks
this week.

But when he stands
smoke in hand
in a doorway,
we know
he’s not working
so Elisapi
bums a light.

Excerpted from curved against the hull of a peterhead by Taqralik Partridge. Copyright © 2019 Taqralik Partridge. Published by Publication Studio. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.



Life Among the Qallunaat
Mini Aodla Freeman
University of Manitoba Press

Life Among the Qallunaat (2015) is the story of Mini Aodla Freeman’s experiences growing up in the Inuit communities of James Bay and her journey in the 1950s from her home to the strange land and stranger customs of the Qallunaat, those living south of the Arctic. Freeman trained as a nurse before moving to Ottawa in 1957 to work as a translator for the then Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. Life Among the Qallunaat was first published in 1978 and has been translated into French, German, and Greenlandic. 

Loneliness Had Many Reasons 

My weekends and evenings were very lonely. At times, I would just lie on my bed, wishing I was with my family, and out of nowhere, tears would come down my cheeks. I missed visiting people who I know, open air, howling dogs, even the chores I had to do—washing, cleaning, cutting wood, filling the water pails. I missed the sound of the sea just a few feet from our home, carrying branches off a tree, gathering twigs from the shore, welcoming a dog team just back from a hunting trip, and most of all, joking, laughing and smiling through these everyday events. I missed my food, especially frozen seal liver with seal fat. I would wonder if I would see and feel all these things again. I missed going out on canoe trips to pick berries and the smell of tea brewed on an open fire. 

I missed my brother, with whom I shared all these chores. I would burst out crying when I got a letter from him saying, “I do all the work alone now. Today I put up snares; I am still allowed to use one dog, but I miss your help pushing the sled with me.” He made me cry because I was having such an easy life and because I knew what he was going through. 

I could just picture him. He had to get up as soon as he opened his eyes because of our culture’s tradition that we not lie around. That can lead to hard times in bringing up children, and for a girl it means that she will have hard times while giving birth. We were never allowed to eat before we went outside. Grandmother would remind us, “Go out, look at the world, look around you, greet and adore the things that are disposed to us.” Having to do this every day in our childhood became a joke to me and my brother. We would burst out laughing. What were we looking for? Grandmother always knew that we were laughing at something that we were not supposed to, and she would warn us that we would bear unhealthy children. Naturally, we would get scared and try not to laugh at anything again. 

The Screen Had To Do With It 

Going to a theatre to see a movie for the first time made me gasp. I could not decide if the show was real or not. one scene where there was fighting just made me scared. I dreamed about it for weeks: it was the first fight I ever witnessed in my whole life. And everything I saw made me wonder if qallunaat really live like that. The film was titled Oklahoma. 

Excerpted from Life Among the Qallunaat by Mini Aodla Freeman. Copyright © 2015. Published by University of Manitoba Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.



The Right to Be Cold
Sheila Watt-Cloutier
Penguin Canada

With The Right to Be Cold (2015), one of Canada’s most passionate environmental and human rights activists addressed the global threat of climate change from the intimate perspective of her own Arctic childhood in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC. The book was longlisted for Canada Reads in 2017. Sheila Watt-Cloutier has been a political representative for Inuit at regional, national and international levels, most recently as International Chair for Inuit Circumpolar Council. Among her many achievements, she became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her advocacy work.


The world I was born into has changed forever.

For the first ten years of my life, I travelled only by dog team. As the youngest child of four on our family hunting and ice fishing trips, I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled. I would view the vast expanses of Arctic sky and feel the crunching of the snow and the ice below me as our dogs, led by my brothers, Charlie and Elijah, carried us safely across the frozen land. I remember just as vividly the Arctic summer scenes that slipped by as I sat in the canoe on the way to our hunting and fishing grounds.The world was blue and white and rocky, and defined by the things that had an immediate bearing on us—the people who helped and cared for us, the dogs that gave us their strength, the water and land that nurtured us. The Arctic may seem cold and dark to those who don’t know it well, but for us a day of hunting or fishing brought the most succulent, nutritious food. Then there would be the intense joy as we gathered together as family and friends, sharing and partaking of the same animal in a communal meal. To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with the ice and snow.

Those idyllic moments of my childhood seem very far away these days. Today, while dog teams, qajaqs (kayaks) and canoes are at times still used to move out onto the Arctic land and water, snow machines are more common than dogs, and the hum of fast-moving powerboats is now heard on Arctic waters. All of our communities now have airports, medical clinics and schools, with some having hospitals, television stations, daycares and colleges. Our people still hunt and fish, sew and bead, but they are also nurses, lawyers, teachers, business people and politicians. The Arctic is a different place than it was when I was a child. And while many of the changes are positive, the journey into the modern world was not an easy one—and it has left its scars.

In a sense, Inuit of my generation have lived in both the ice age and the space age. The modern world arrived slowly in some places in the world, and quickly in others. But in the Arctic, it appeared in a single generation. Like everyone I grew up with, I have seen ancient traditions give way to southern habits. I have seen communities broken apart or transformed dramatically by government policies. I have seen Inuit traditional wisdom supplanted by southern programs and institutions. And most shockingly, like all my fellow Inuit, I have seen what seemed permanent begin to melt away.

The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.

Excerpted from The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Copyright © 2015 Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. 


Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk
University of Manitoba Press

Sanaaq (2014) is the intimate story of a young widow named Sanaaq and her daughter Qumaq in their small semi-nomadic community in Nunavik, QC, and their negotiation of the changes brought into their community by the coming of the qallunaat, the white people. From Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, QC, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk began writing at the age of twenty-two, eventually publishing over twenty books and becoming a member of the Order of Canada. Sanaaq was first published in 1987 in syllabic Inuttitut—the first novel written in syllabics—and later translated into French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure in 2002.  


A woman, Sanaaq, was getting ready to go and gather branches for mat-making. This is what she did. Before leaving, she assembled a tumpline to carry the load, her ulu to cut the shrubs, and a glove to yank them out of the ground. She also filled a small bag with provisions: tea, meat, and blubber, as well as her pipe, matches, and chewing tobacco. 

Sanaaq set off across a wide plain and then through a long stretch of foothills. She kept walking further and further from home, followed by her two dogs, Kajualuk and Qirniq. On the way she saw some aqig- giit and prepared to kill them with a few well-aimed stones. But the dogs ran after the birds. Sanaaq tried her best to stop the dogs, yelling at the top of her voice, “Hau! Hau! Kajualuk hau! hau!” 

Her shouting was to no avail and the dogs continued to give chase. The ptarmigans flew off. Very much annoyed, she continued on her way and came to the end of her journey. 

There, she busied herself preparing an ullugummitaaq and making a fire. Her teapot was a small metal bucket and the water came from a small pool. She placed a few stones around the fireplace for shelter from the wind and gathered some heather to keep the fire going. She now waited for the tea to boil, eating some meat and blubber. The dogs, no longer asleep and rolled up into furry balls, were foraging for her scraps of meat and bone. Suddenly one of them, Kajualuk, started choking on a bone. Sanaaq was panic-stricken. What to do? Thinking fast, she remem- bered the leftover pieces of blubber: “If I can make it swallow some large chunks of blubber, that might help it get rid of the bone.” 

She gave the poor animal what she still had. The chunks of blubber did the job, helping the bone slide down the dog’s throat and letting it breathe freely again. At last she could drink her tea, straight from the small teapot for want of a cup. Soot smudged her hands and mouth, even her cheeks. Unaware (how could she see herself?), she went to gather branches for mat-making. Some dwarf birches looked suitable and she started yanking them out of the ground, using her ulu to cut the more stubborn ones. When one patch of ground had been stripped bare, she moved to the next, leaving behind piles of pulled-up birches. She pulled up more and more, one after another, the sweat streaming down her face... Then she stopped. Stretching her tumpline out on the ground, she bundled the branches for the trip home. There was much to take back and the load would be a heavy one. After tying the bundle up, she lit her pipe and puffed repeatedly, inhaling deep breaths. The provisions were all gone and she was very hungry. She strapped the tumpline around her chest and, laying the bundle on a large rock, finished fastening it to her body to carry in front of her. The load was indeed heavy. She could barely stand up.

Excerpted from Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk. Copyright © 2014. Published by University of Manitoba Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


Those Who Run in the Sky
Aviaq Johnston
Inhabit Media

Those Who Run in the Sky (2014) is a coming-of-age story that follows a young shaman named Pitu as he learns to use his powers and ultimately finds himself lost in the world of spirits. It won the 2017 Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Young Adult Literature (for which the sequel, Those Who Dwell Below, was also nominated), as well as the 2018 Indigenous Voices Award for Most Significant Work of Prose in English by an Emerging Indigenous Writer, and was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature. This was the debut novel for Igloolik, NU, author Aviaq Johnston, and followed closely on the heels of her 2014 Governor General’s History Award win for short story "Tarnikuluk.”  

One of the women turned to look at him.

Pitu stepped back in instant horror, dropping his weapons in shock. It wasn’t a woman, he realized instantly. The stories he had been told as a child about playing on the ice alone sprang to memory. He was looking at a qallupilluq: a creature that steals lone children.

All three of them swirled around to look at him. Large, bulbous eyes, like those of a fish, bulged out of their faces; their mouths were black holes filled with sharp teeth. The taut skin that clung tightly to their bones was a pallid shade of grey, resembling a drowned body. They wore amautiit that were covered in algae, the hems stripping off, showing their thin arms and legs, their knobby joints. They didn’t wear kamiik on their feet, which looked more like flippers.

The three qallupilluit shrieked a piercing noise into Pitu’s ears. He leaped back as the closest one swiped a webbed hand with long, sharp claws at his body. The screams coming out of their mouths disoriented him. He fell to his knees, clamping his mitted hands over his ears.

One of the qallupilluit jumped on top of him, the scent of seaweed reaching his nose. He felt the slimy curl of it on his face. Their hair… their hair was made of seaweed.

The qallupilluq was slight, weighing barely more than a feather, but she had incredible strength in her grip. Her sharp claws dug into his shoulders, her feet—or flippers—pierced into his legs. The screeches coming from her throat were making him go deaf.

Pitu’s stomach convulsed. Their shrieks and appearance and scent were making him feel sick. He felt one of the creature’s claws cut through his cheek. The slick feeling of blood flowing made his head spin. The qallupilluq on top of him made a sound of disgust and jumped off. He took the opportunity to start crawling away. 

Only when he saw his own blood reddening the snow did his stomach convulse hard enough that he vomited. He retched onto the snow until nothing else would come out. The shrieking suddenly stopped.

He looked up to see them observing him. They crouched in a grotesque fashion with their knees turned outward, their curled backs looking ancient and broken. One of the qallupilluit pointed a long, bony finger at him, and in a hoarse voice, asked, “Are you alive?” 

Excerpted from Those Who Run The Sky by Aviaq Johnston. Copyright © 2017 Aviaq Johnston. Published by Inhabit Media. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. 

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