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Awakening near Prince of Wales Island

If you look at a map of the Arctic, you'll notice that smack overtop of Adelaide Peninsula is the smallish (by Arctic standards) and most grandiloquently entitled King William Island. It is adjacent to many other trumpeting titles, as though Arctic cartographers had attended a sale on royal names. There's Prince of Wales this, Queen Maude that, Viscount Melville Sound and so on. It's as though everything had been named by somebody obsessed with British royalty.

We, the Inuit, naturally knew them by very different names, such as, Place for Fishing, Large Inlet, or Place to Hunt Caribou. And these sorts of names were in use during that one summer, long ago, when our family packed itself up and headed off to hunt beluga. My father had gone too long without his Eastern Arctic diet of large sea mammals. This then, was a special sort of hunting trip from the very beginning. For me, however, it was to become my summer of boating boot camp - my very own tale of the sea.

Our goal was to reach the shore of Pasley Bay in our diesel-driven Peterhead boat, then cross the strait to Prince of Wales Island. There was still quite a bit of moving pack ice, ominous stuff that made long, extensive crosses over any broad area very dangerous. I had this dreamy way of regarding everything in those days (at about age 13, I'm pretty sure), and I recall watching the ice and thinking to myself: what better time for our father to instruct us in the ways of hunting by boat? I was only partially right, as it turns out. I could never have expected what my father really intended.

Many times, as we journeyed, my father navigated between opposing currents and past hulking icebergs. Below lay the beautiful and horribly alluring deep waters, all turquoise blue and shimmering even in the mild light. Occasionally, the water took on a metallic gray coloration as the sky became overcast, but at other times it alternated to the purest emerald green. We navigated our way through a paradise, and the scenery took my breath away.

It is strange to think back upon such beauty, when at once I know that this was possibly the worst summer I ever experienced. It turned out that this boat trip was the only good part, as I plummeted from paradise to hell shortly after our stop at Taloyoak (then Spence Bay). From here onward, we were officially on the hunting trip. As we left Spence Bay, I was still viewing everything through my child's eyes - it was all a lark. My father was the hunter, but to me it was all supposed to be fun.

It started with the sleep deprivation. I would try to snooze in the front of the boat, but this was nearly impossible amidst the constant thuds from its sides striking pieces of floating ice. I kept awakening with the thought: Oh my God! We've been struck! We're going to drown! We were all wearing life-jackets, but only my father (and maybe his partner who accompanied him) was able to swim. It's not exactly a traditional skill, since you wouldn't last 10 minutes in the freezing water, anyway. At least I wasn't seasick.

Then there was my father's change in behavior. Usually laid back and calm, he had suddenly become transformed into a bellowing monster, awakening me most erratically, at the earliest hours, with demands and questions such as: Why haven't you made us coffee? Or wake up, wake up, help look for seals! And go feed your siblings, and fetch some ice for drinking while you're at it!

It was constant harassment, as we stopped and started along that trip, setting up camp and taking it down countless times, riding for 10-hour stretches by boat. And I was never allowed a minute of peace. The child was gradually shocked out of me as adult duties were expected of me. It was constant lifting and sorting and checking. Why was this rope here and not there? Who was stupid enough to leave the rifles out in the rain? Don't fall while you lift those things. Are you deaf? Have you left your hearing on land?

When I had time to think, I wondered if the strain was making my father crack up.

My father had never treated me like this.

Take this rifle and be prepared to shoot when I tell you. Did you check this? How about that? Take over the steering wheel. Watch for rocks and icebergs. Steer this way, no, not that way! Why are your hands so stiff?

I was a kid! Why was he making me do adult chores? What was wrong with him? My few futile responses went something like, Why do I have to do it? It's too heavy. I can't lift it. Maybe I should get something lighter, like the sleeping bags. I'm too tired. I have to sleep.

It fell on deaf ears, as I was bullied into doing whatever I was told to. I resorted to trickery, shirking my duties while my father wasn't looking; figuring someone else would take up the slack. It was useless. Whatever I didn't accomplish in a day was left for me the next. Then I got told off with both barrels. Knowing there was no way to dodge my tasks forced me to keep up to speed for my own sake. After a while, I even started to anticipate what needed to be done just to keep from being yelled at.

During that whole trip, my ego took a battering. I could not be fast enough, strong enough, patient enough, resilient enough. I cried for many a night. Then, I got angry. And, strangely, I was angry at myself instead of my father. Damn it, I wasn't going to be inept anymore. I was going to lift harder and carry further. And I was determined to do it with a good attitude. I would prove myself.

From then on, no matter what my father requested of me or challenged me with, I put maximal effort into it. If he said, "Throw me this thick rope," I would fling it with both arms, using my whole body to do so. I stood in soaked, icy boots, putting up with the discomfort until my own flesh warmed the water up to my normal body temperature. I went without food, water, and sleep, like a veteran hunter, and even when I did sleep, I awoke with alertness and focus. Gone were the earlier days when I would first warm up, then sleepily drag myself around.

It was then that the madness of it all came to make more sense. Suddenly, I was alert enough, at four in the morning, to witness a huge male bear swimming alongside of our boat: I still remember the monstrous thrumming of his breath. For the first time, I could tune into the hitherto unnoticed world around me, hearing a seal as he delicately bobbed to the surface to steal air. It was then that I could look ashore and see that the coast was too rocky, knowing the wind direction was wrong for putting up a shelter. It was almost as though a dormant part of my brain had been activated. I identified with my ancestors, who once had to depend on the great land, both their home and teacher. There was no magic at work. I was simply seeing things through adult eyes now, suddenly understanding the necessity of adult behavior, of knowing my world. My new eyes were teaching me to learn a universal survival skill.

In Inuit tradition, a child has no duties until it is time, usually puberty, for them to awaken into adulthood. But when such a time comes, the child is an equal to the adults, a true human with the full responsibilities of such a creature.

Years later, it occurred to me that my father had never struck me and never questioned my actual worth. He had simply decided I was an adult, expecting adult behavior of me. And, ultimately, I shed my childhood not out of fear of him, but out of pride for myself. And I have treasured this experience ever since.

I once thanked my father for this rough-and-tumble way of teaching. He nodded his head, and said, "the child never knows more than the parent." I wish I could teach in this fashion to my own children, but I don't think I could be that tough on them. And my children are living under different circumstances, without the need for such survival skills.

Or are they?

Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)

Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern world.