In the public imagination there lies the concept that Inuit are still standing atop seal breathing holes with a harpoon in hand, or that we are people who lack the acumen to function in the modern, contemporary world. When one considers the survival skills required to live a northern life, whether in present-day or in days past, the Inuit reek of intelligence, expertise and above all, patience. Patience is a huge requirement in hunting. Patience is a huge requirement in everyday living—especially if you are a southern Inuk.
Inuit in the city are often looked upon as people who are living out of context. This same supposition affects not only Inuit but all Aboriginal people. The ideation that we should remain the native who is out on the land dominates. We should not be walking around downtown, shopping, going out for lunch, going to the office. How does that stereotype stay only with Aboriginal people, while non-Inuit can operate in any geographical context at any time of the day, and in any year on the calendar?
When I look around Edmonton, the public images of Inuit are few. This is Treaty 6 territory, but the province of Alberta has a population of 1190 Inuit, with a total of 1115 living in Edmonton based on the 2011 National Household Survey. Within academia, city-dwelling Inuit are now being labelled “urban Inuit.” I find this terminology derogatory, but it does fill the need for non-Inuit to constantly categorize what kind of Aboriginal an Aboriginal actually is, and to what length Aboriginal peoples are “real.” Why can’t Aboriginal people be accepted for who we say we are?
This is a paradox of being a member of an Aboriginal population in any part of the world. If I meet a non-Inuit person who tells me they are Dutch, I do not look at their feet and ask them why they are wearing Nikes instead of wooden shoes. From an Aboriginal perspective, being asked how much of your body and being is actually Inuit is a ridiculous—but all too commonplace—event. I am very sure that non-Inuit do not have to break down their identity in a biological perspective, to such an extent that I am finally convinced that yes, this person is Dutch—even without their wooden shoes.
With the dawning of the age of reconciliation there comes small personal forms of reconciliation that we can each take up. I would ask that when a person identifies as Inuit, First Nation or Métis, the questioning of skin colour, genetics or use of an Aboriginal language not be the measure of acceptance of who we say we are. I ask instead for the acceptance of Aboriginal identity as it is spoken by the Aboriginal person.
Can ya speak it?
Fat snowflakes falling from, cold grey skies
Melting the burning question filling her eyes
Can ya speak it? Her tongue is hot to ask
I know what’s next, she wants to unmask.
The question marking?
My Evidence of being Eskimo.
Only Native peoples, need to provide
The proof to coincide.
Measured by a lingo meter stick
Penned height, and width against a bar
No one else needs to pass this test
A German, Swede or winter star.V
Norma Dunning is an Inuk writer and scholar and a third-year doctoral student with Indigenous Peoples Education. Her collection of prose Annie Muktuk and Other Stories is scheduled to release via University of Alberta Press in the fall of 2017.