To begin, a few brief selections from I, Nuligak:
I, Nuligak, will tell you a story. It is the story of what has happened to me in my life, all my adventures, many of them forever graven in my memory. Those of my people who lived before me came from Kitigariuit. During my earliest youth the Kitigariukmeut were very numerous; I have known them, I have seen them. I was an orphan, for my father died before I was able to know him. I have no memory of him. Because I was an orphan and a poor one at that, my mind was always alert to the happenings around me. Once my eyes has seen something, it was never forgotten.
Naoyavak, my grandfather, said to me one day, "I will teach you how to recognize the different moons; I am getting old and many do not know the Eskimo names of the moons. They have forgotten. You, remember them." Then Grandfather took little sticks and stood them up in the snow. [...] This is what I retained of what he taugh me in that month of January, 1909. The January moon is called Avunniviayik in Eskimo. It is during this month that the dwarf seals produce their little ones. Premature young of the ordinary seals freeze and do not survive. The February moon is Avunnivik. The true seals bring forth their young. These develop and become the seals we hunt. March is Amaolikkervik. The little snow birds (amaolikat) arrive from the south. The April moon receives the name of Kriblalikvik because the sun has melted the top of the snow, and as we stare at it, it sparkles with whiteness. Tigmiyikvik is our month of May, the time when ducks and geese return from the south. June is called Nuertorvik; in our kayaks we go after muskrats swimming in the rivers and lakes--we hurl harpoons. To the July moon we give the name of Padlersersivik because everything dries up during this month, even the earth. August becomes Krugyuat Tingiviat in Eskimo--the young swans take their flight. In September the Inuit of the Arctic Ocean leave in their kayaks to harpoon seals, using a special harpoon, the aklikat. Therefore the moon is called Aklikarniarvik. In the month of October one of the first signs of cold is the forming of thin ice on the sandy shores of the ocean. This ice is called tuglu, and the moon Tugluvik. In November it is cold and when we open the door white mist fills the igloo; this is the mist of the freezing days. That is the reason why this moon is called Itartoryuk. We call the December moon Kaitvitjvik because during this month of darkness the Inuit assemble, forget their worries, rejoice and dance.
The old Aoktalik had set a herring net along the shore, away from the loose ice. We were eating in our tents when we heard him call. He shouted in his Nunatak language, "Samma subbonme!" The white man would have said, "There she blows!" But we said, "Hey, over there--a white whale!" I took my gun and began to run. The whale was struggling and the old man had all he could do to hold on to the end of the net. His feet had dug a furrow in the sand--and he was standing in water! "A whale there!" The beast came to the surface to breathe and I took a shot. The old man was out of breath--a white whale is quite strong, you know! Aoktalik must have had uncommon strength to have held on to a whale caught in a herring net.
At Imariuk the sun did not appear above the horizon any more. The fish did not bite, and we had scarcely enough to eat. For that reason we came back to Tuktoyaktuk. We had set aside an abundant quantity of fish there. As we had no provisions Uncle and I took only one sledge. We had but one dog left. The Ovayuaks had only two. Although we were not very far from Tuk our dogs refused to move any further. Cold, hungry, they lay down on the snow. We harnessed ourselves to our sledges and thus reached Tuk. From Our cache we took a quantity of fish. Our dogs reached us, at night, one after another. They had followed us as soon as a little rest had brought heat back to their bellies. We gave them food. Our dogsgrew far and regained their strength. Ovayuak, the eldest of my uncles, decided to go to Kitigariuit to sell the silver fox I had caught at Imariuk. We left. Ovayuak sold it to Mr. Young. I was there, taking it all in, while the bargaining went on. The fox was quite small. He bought it for $110. Uncle used the money to buy white man's food. For me, he bought a carbine 30/30 and I don't know how many boxes of cartridges. He also took a kerosene lamp which had me bewildered when I watched it change darkness into bright light. It was during those days that we two, Uncle Nuyaviak and myself, got sores all over our hips, thighs and feet. The itch was unbearable, so much so that often after scratching the sores to the quick we found relief by sitting in the snow; and the snow would turn red with blood. We very nearly died. I believe that we had what the white men call smallpox. This frequent sitting in the snow cured us, healing our sores.
My children got very little to eat at times. February ninth was one of those days. No open water. I left anyhow and far out I saw a polar bear. I killed it; I was so happy thinking that the children would have something to eat, that I never forgot that day. I had killed a male white bear, big and fat. I cut it up, selected a piece of meat from the paws and put it in my bag. Stanley, my little boy, my youngest, came to meet me. I gave him the little morself of meat: "Go and show this to your mother." The little one brought it to his mother, and Margaret shouted with joy. The young men brought the carcass home and the Inuit of Abvak had a good meal. With my forty-four cartridges, from January to March, I killed thirty seals, five ugiuk, the big bearded seals, and four white bears. I am not saying this to brag nor to serve as an example to younger men, but only to stress that I was very happy to have changed my cartridges into so many things to eat.
Right after New Year's we hooked 1,869 fish and netted 696. In Sitidgi Lake my son took 3,851 of them. That made 6,416 in all. [...] During the fourteen years I lived in the Delta I took the following furs with the help of my sons:
White fox: 3
Red fox: 19
Silver fox: 3
aglu: Hole in sea ice, where seals come up
aklak: Brown bear of the steppes
angayokrartune: When we have become old
aodlarnerk: One who has left with the intention of not returning
avartsiun: Magic song to halt whale's flight
krilalugak: White whale, beluga
kroliat: True story
maktak: Whale skin
nukatperaluk: Little young man
nuliartunga: I took a wife
oliyut: Nerves from caribou spinal column, dried and used as thread
orsiktartut: They make a loop
pernerk: A curve
sila: Time or weather, sometimes personified
taimane: In that time, once upon a time
takunaklunulu: Looking attentively
unipkay: Story that mingles fantasy with fact
When I had first written to introduce I, Nuligak, and registered, at the bottom of the post, my alarm at seeing The Walrus publishing ads on their website from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), ads that attempt to greenwash the Tar Sands, it was, I thought, a combination of two separate subjects that simply occurred at the moment of writing: I, Nuligak is a work of literature that I would cite as having an absolutely necessary place in a historical study of Canadian writing, one that I worry could be lost as it is now nearly thirty years out of print; and, having returned from the region in Pennsylvania where I grew up, witnessing there the contestation within many of the communities around natural gas fracking (and seeing Josh Fox's fine film Gasland, specifically about what is happening there), only then to read, once back in Yellowknife, the National Energy Board's report giving their approval to the Mackenzie Gas Project, "Respecting all voices: Our journey to a decision," a thorough washing of a whole other degree, in which traditional leaders from throughout the Northwest Territories express their concern over the building of this natural gas pipeline (beginning in the exact places Nuligak describes over the course of his autobiography, and moving across the entire territory down to Alberta, where it will be pushed straight to the Tar Sands and burned to extract crude oil from the sludge there), and to see these very real and imperative objections packaged oh so strategically in a document that seems to nominally enumerate such concerns so that the pipeline proponents can then ignore them--after all, says document, the project can be done "sustainably," any effects on the people, the animals and the landscape will be "mitigable" (n.b. nothing is mitigable)--and then, finally, to see in The Walrus, an otherwise great venue for social-minded journalism, one that has consistently attempted to shake-up various complacencies national and global, to see these ludicrous ads attempting to make what is happening in our Tar Sands somehow progressive and mindful of our common future, well, it seemed that both I, Nuligak (the book itself and the landscape told of in its story) and The Walrus ads (the ads themselves and the landscape affected by those who invest in such ads) were two parts of the same larger social document, one under the genre of erasure text.
Now, the ads are down. It could have something do with some of the protest found across online media. It could be that CAPP's contract with The Walrus ended with the new year. Or it could be that some person or persons on the masthead finally spoke out about how false the ads made the general mandate of the magazine appear. I'm not sure.
"It has to do with the vitality and integrity of the publishing culture." This is from Lisa Robertson, spoken at the end of our conversation, in regards to the small presses that have kept her works published, and, therefore, alive. It is a sentence, I believe, that applies equally, too, to the preservation and cultivation of a book like I, Nuligak in the context of Canadian writing, as much as it does to the role of writers, editors and publishers when confronting the Tar Sands.
Michael Nardone lives in the Northwest Territories.
Michael Nardone lives in the Northwest Territories.