Playing Cowboys and Inuit

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I witnessed a funny thing the other day as I was walking by a lake. A group of seagulls had decided that they preferred the company of ducks, which were napping by the shore. I'm not sure of the twist of logic that my mind took, but I suddenly recalled my nephews when they were little. Maybe the fluffiness of the ducklings reminded me of some aspects of their personalities. They shared some similar kind of cuteness.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been so amazed. I had once taught an arctic tern chick to accept a duckling for a sibling. They slept neck-to-neck, eating out of one bowl. As a child, I assumed they could "speak" to each other. But here, by the lake, the memory brought to mind the fact that animals do have culture. They learn from one another and pass skills onto offspring. And even different species can share culture.

The thought had originated in whimsy, but I began to contemplate it more seriously. It occurred to me that my nephews are part Inuit, part Chippewa. Under the Canadian Constitution, they are termed "Aboriginal" peoples. So which rights do they have? Their father's? Their mother's? In other words, do they have interchangeable rights? And to what degree do their descendants have to be one or the other? My grandfather was part Cree on my mother's side. Or does the fact that my father was half white dilute our rights, even though culturally he was 100 percent Inuit?

And then another thing occurred to me: let's say I moved to Alaska. Or let's suppose that it was a move from Alaska to Canada. What rights do I lose, and what rights do I take on? Who determines that? The American government? The Canadian government? Do I keep my general hunting and fishing license? How do I avoid losing my rights simply because of my ignorance of them? Do I have to have an actual band formally recognize me as a belonging to a Native American or First Nations people? These are only a few questions, and already the thought of them makes me feel more like a specimen than a person.

Maybe the questions I've posed above are rhetorical; I already know the answers to them, because I've already gone through the hassle of exploring them. But imagine how it must feel for the elderly among us, those to whom such bureaucracy can only be a confusing blur. To them, it all seems like silly stuff, hardly worth their time; and yet their rights pass them by every day, like flights of tiny birds passing, unnoticed, overhead.

Probably the most galling tendency of governments, wherever they may be, is to lump all Aboriginal peoples under one Act. I'm always asked the question, "Do you have a band number?" for accessing medical coverage. I'm stuck with explaining to every pharmacist that even though Inuit are considered "Natives," we don't have band councils and, no, we are not Indians that were long ago "forced" to live in the north because of intertribal warfare. Actually, we have what are called "N" numbers. (Good luck in finding a pharmacy that can correctly bill for your drug charges.) Where are the Northwest Territories? Up near Alaska? Past Hudson Bay? Believe it or not, I once had a lady ask me exactly where the Arctic is.

"No, we're not called 'Eskimos' anymore."

Somewhere, someone must surely have written this stuff down. Do Inuit lose their "status" when they marry a "non-status" person? And I know that governments and organizations have been hashing out who can hunt and where for what seems like an eternity, because I've worked on the issue from the Inuit side.

Time and experience have taught me that most of my answers are already out there. I just have to access them. But it's hard to believe that those answers are very definitive, since even today our organizations seem constantly forced to sue for Inuit rights. And my suspicion is that many of the answers haven't been hammered out yet. How did it happen that Inuit came to need an instruction manual on how to be "Inuit"?

I look forward to the day when we can freely share information, goods and services with our circumpolar neighbours. After all, common bonds of language and culture bind us together. When that happens, will we need our own "inter-governmental affairs" office? Will we be able to sort out communications via electronic means, through a common writing system? Will we be able to sit across a table and share "Inuit" humor?

Despite the criticism sometimes levelled at it, I'm pleased at the progress toward Inuit self-definition. Labels can be a good thing - but only when one is empowered to label oneself as desired. Perhaps one day it will be Inuit who state what "Inuit" are, and all that such a label entails.

One of my little nephews was once heard to say while playing Cowboys and Indians,

"I'm not an Inuk or an Indian. I'm a cowboy."

I guess that makes me the cowboy's aunt. Can I be a cowgirl?

Pijariiqpunga.

(That's all I have to say on the subject.)

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.