• Feature

Susan Aglukark's mission to share stories and correct narratives through art

Dec 21, 2022
by Sue Carter

What a year it’s been for Nunavut singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark, OC! The beloved musician and kids’ book author released her tenth album, The Crossing, in April, just a month after she received the 2022 Junos’ Humanitarian Award for her contributions to improving the lives of children and youth in Northern communities through her Arctic Rose Foundation, which provides after-school arts and mentorship programs to Inuit and Indigenous students across Nunavut.

The second title in her kids’ picture book series, Una Huna?: Ukpik Learns to Sew, published by Inhabit Media, made its way onto shelves this spring. In June, Aglukark, who is based out of Oakville, ON, gave an inspiring keynote speech at the Inuit Studies Conference in Winnipeg, MB, which highlighted special personal moments throughout her illustrious career and ended with the audience dancing.

This summer, IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter spoke to Aglukark about storytelling for all ages, her writing process and defining success as an artist.

Sue Carter: Why is mentoring and sharing your stories such an important part of your personal mission?

Susan Aglukark: As artists especially, we're living in a time when we have to get the information out there; the process of reconciling requires both sides to participate. There are a lot of wonderful healing stories from the Indigenous perspective, from the Inuit perspective. They’re our own stories, and we need to share them. We need to share how we are healing.

We have to fill the world with our stories. And not just our current stories, but from the past as well, because that's part of correcting the narrative, which becomes part of the reconciling process.

SC: Is that one of the goals that you have for the Arctic Rose Foundation?

SA: The core of the work is recovering individual dignity with the participants, and with their youth workers, and then sharing so that we recover their dignity within communities. We do that by reconnecting an individual’s emotional health with expressive arts. A goal and a purpose of the Arctic Rose Foundation is to view our past through the lens of a whole and heal the young person instead of as a traumatized person so that they begin to see and view their possibilities through that lens.

Aglukark_unahuna artAmiel Sandland and Rebecca Brook Illustration from Una Huna?: Ukpik Learns to Sew Courtesy Inhabit Media

SC: The first Ukpik picture book, Una Huna?: What Is This?, came out in 2018. Did you have fun returning to your character?

SA: I just love Ukpik so much. Those of us who are born from the generation whose formative years were traditional, they share their memories with us so that we can see them, we feel them. My mom's generation, when they talk about the tents and the iglus, for example, those were real to them. That was their life and they share them from a place of absolute passion. It was who they were.

When I share Ukpik, that's how I imagine Ukpik's life, and I love trying to emulate that.

SC: Is it a joyful experience writing books for a younger audience?

SA: When I went to read from the first Ukpik book for the first time, I didn’t realize that you sit in that space differently when your audience is primarily children. The way that you hold attention is a little bit different. At the end, they ask such beautiful questions, and they’re just so honest, too. [Laughs] It was so refreshing. This time around, I'm a bit more prepared and know what to expect.

SC: Were you working on this book at the same time as the album?

SA: Una Huna started about 12 years ago when I was challenging myself to write differently. Self-employment is primarily my motivator; I need to be constantly creating something. There was this panic moment between my residency with the University of Alberta and going back to full-time work for Aglukark Entertainment. What else do I do?

I decided to start writing little stories, and out of that came Ukpik's character and then she turned into this six-part series. There are four more books to come.

SC: Did you have a vision of Ukpik in your mind as you were first writing? How did it feel actually seeing the illustrations on the page?

SA: I started to go through pictures and images: if she were to become a real story, what would I want her to look like? There was this one image, a Richard Harrington photo of a beautiful girl. She has her attayuk on, which is a one-piece made from caribou skin, and a puppy on her back—I don’t think it’s an amauti, I think they must have smushed the puppy onto her back. It’s just the most beautiful picture and I was just so drawn to it. So I tore that out.

I collected these pictures for when [Inhabit] went to illustrators. Danny Christopher, who was the artist for the first Una Huna book, he got it bang on, he created Ukpik so well. [Amiel Sandland and Rebecca Brook illustrated Una Huna?: Ukpik Learns to Sew.] But it all started with the tear sheets from those pictures from the past.

SC: Your storytelling always contains elements of hope. Do you set out to share positivity, or does it naturally come out in the writing?

SA: I feel so strongly that without dreamers there is no hope, without hope there are no dreamers. That’s one of the focuses of our work with the Arctic Rose Foundation. When we see that little light come on their eyes, we know the dreamer’s waking up, and now we have to keep them believing. As long as they believe, they hope.

I really feel that if I can't live it, if I can't be an example, I shouldn't share it. I come back to how fortunate I am that I'm living my dream life. I'm surrounded by paint and pencil crayons and paper and art and writing. I never imagined, not once, when I was living at home—this is not a criticism, this is just the way life was—that I could live a life of an artist, that I would be surrounded by it, that I would have a house that I own.

We need to share those possibilities. It’s very important to share the success stories, because as long as they keep seeing them, they see the possibilities, they believe, and they keep hoping.

SC: The reality is that it’s a big deal for artists to be able to support themselves, their families, to have a home. It's not a small achievement.

SA: When my husband and I do workshops together—he handles the administration side of things—we speak as realists. If there was ever a day that we could say, “Yeah, we're wealthy,” that would be great, but we probably never will be. But we are successful. I think we have to be honest about what success looks like. We pay our bills—he's a sound engineer, so he can still do that to a degree, and I can still be a songwriter and a singer to a degree.

I don't have as much band work as I would like, but I'm doing other things. Adaptability has to be a big part of that success story, and living within your means. And so we share that message: "Here's the truth behind being successful artists." [Laughs]

SC: Your new album isdescribed as being written through the lens of your ancestors’ experiences. Did taking on that perspective change your writing process?

SA: The Crossing took a few years to write. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a disruption, but a good one. When the commission started, and then the report was set to come out a few years later, as an advocate, I wanted to support it. At the time, I was starting to write The Crossing and that origin story, but knew we had to support the report and the process of the Commission.

I’m glad I did put the album off for a couple of years because now we're talking about reconciliation and correcting the narrative. And how can we possibly begin a reconciliation conversation when we're still putting the puzzle pieces of the origin story together? Who were they? We need to find their beautiful stories. They're there and we've heard them, but we need to make them ours. I feel like this is the time for The Crossing, even though it took a long time to get here.

SC: I'm curious how language plays into your songwriting. How do you decide what language you're going to write in? Does that flow naturally?

SA: I think the most important goal right now for me is getting the message across. My challenge in Inuktitut writing is—and it's getting better—that for a lot of the concepts that I write about there really aren’t correlating Inuktitut words. When I translate or write a song in Inuktitut, it's the same challenge we have with a conversation. They're very long words, so they don't fit into a three-minute song often.

I always defer to sticking with the message. But occasionally, what also happens is an entire song will be written in Inuktitut, and we'll record it that way. But my focus is the story and the message.

There's a song on The Crossing called “Uangilaa.” Inuktitut is a very efficient language and Uangilaa is that word that could be used in two extreme situations. One is when a mother is just completely devouring and loving a child. We'll say it that way, and it sounds like you're angry, but actually you're just totally devouring your baby because you just love the baby so much. But it could also be when you're really, really disappointed or really, really angry with somebody. So it's a pretty impactful word used in the right way.

In the song “Uangilaa,” the whole song is about that first period of contact, and how our ancestors would have sensed, “Mmm, I'm not sure that I quite trust you. But I'm going to choose to right now.” On the other side there is this degree of insincerity, and the whole situation there was this undertone of disappointment. So the whole chorus is “Uangilaa,” just to make that statement and to share the power of the Inuktitut language.

SC: You dedicate the album to “those who have, are, and will find their story,” which is so beautiful and powerful.

SA: I think we're living in a time when we're empowered and inspired. Inspired isn't always about beautiful things or nice songs. Inspired could also be compelled. One of my favorite comments at that conference in Winnipeg was a student who had been struggling with his final paper. He heard my story and felt empowered: “Okay, I'm gonna take up the courage and write my story too, now.”

There are a lot of urban Indigenous peoples and urban Inuit who are living between two worlds who really need to feel comfortable enough to claim their Indigeneity, and they're a bit afraid to do that. When you share your story, you empower them to do the thing they need to do for themselves. We have to collect those stories, share them and in sharing them, empower others to find and share theirs.

SC: Have you observed younger artists returning to traditional skills and stories and feeling empowered by them, and also by stories from people like yourself?

SA: That's the beauty of a generation who understands social media, because I'm sure we’ve missed a lot. When I was coming out with Arctic Rose (1992) and This Child (1995), there must have been so much more talent coming out from the North and Indigenous talent, in general, that we missed because how did you get it out there?

With social media in the last 10, 15 years, there's been an explosion of opportunities and talent coming out of our communities. It’s just incredible to watch. I'm totally an Instagram addict right now because you just see so much beautiful talent instantly. The more you put out there, the more you invite, so it's just going to keep growing. And that's really exciting.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.