Youth and speed are no match for old age and treachery - Old saying
C'mon little creatures, time to clean up. C'mon pet slaves." A call to clean up at our house in Gjoa Haven was like trying to command a crew of pirates, inviting mutiny at every turn. Especially with my younger brothers in the summer. Perhaps even more so with me supervising them.
On this day, like any other, my call was met with various versions of, "Awww, can't I just finish this?" or, "Wait, I'm not done yet." None of my little brothers even bothered to look up at me from their respective activities.
"Up and at 'em!" I cried. "Who's turn is it to anit the qurvik?"
It was always someone's turn to attend to this most dreaded of jobs, in the days before indoor plumbing. One didn't even want to think about the qurvik, euphemistically called the "honey bucket." Let me tell you, there was nothing reminiscent of honey about it. But even from the youngest age, we had been into borrowing English metaphors, mixing them into our Inuktitut. I'm still not sure who invented the honey bucket thing. I do remember, however, how old Abe Oopik used to call nouveau riche Inuit who had lost touch with tradition, "honey-bucket kids."
"Okay," I said, making up a new rule (one had to keep younger siblings off balance), "this week, we'll start taking double turns at anit-ing the qurvik. Whoever did it last week does it this week."
"So how come it's never your turn?" someone piped. But he was drowned out by, "It's not fair ..." and other futile whines of dissent.
"I'm telling Mom."
"Go ahead," I said. "Just don't come to me next time you need money." The monetary threat was always a good tool.
"Tell you what," I said, shifting tactics, "I'll pay you a buck to empty it. Think of all the candy you can get."
My younger brothers were growing into an uncertain world, one where Inuit would depend more than ever upon money. And, like the children of any generation, they were learning the culture of money faster than any other.
Someone quickly said, "Okay, but only if I don't have to do the dishes."
But then I noticed that my other, less gullible brothers had taken off, knowing somewhere in their male brains that there wasn't a thing I could do if they just flew the coop. Yelling wouldn't help, and too many complaints from the boys would eventually reach some higher authority's ears. As it was, I was pretty much left to bustle around in an indignant huff, throwing and complaining as I picked up clothes, toys, and boy treasures that had been dragged in from who knew where.
"I'm never having brothers again," I muttered venomously.
My monetary bribe had worked only to a limited extent, and even my "hired help" soon abandoned ship under the pretext of going to help my dad. The dishes only got partially done.
How did those guys get so slippery? I wondered. Where did they learn this avoidance of chores? Was it a brother thing, or a general kid thing? Did other kids in other families do that?
I had yelled, "Don't come back to me when you need more money!" at my departing brother. I was barely rational now. Their natures just didn't make sense to me. Maybe, I reasoned, they knew that if they peed me off in just the right way, I might actually be grateful for their departure.
Even among people who know me well, many do not realize that I was not at first raised in a traditional female Inuit role, but in a male one. Before he had sons, my father used me as a sort of son-substitute, as help while he was hunting. I got to learn things most females do not; but at a price. While out on the Land, the traditional relationship between father and boy (but in this case, me) is akin to that of a U.S. Marine Corps drill sergeant and a new recruit. It had to be this way in old times. There was no time to be tender while on the Land, which occasionally swallowed up even the most skilled hunters.
My father later mellowed with the years. By the time he had a few actual sons, his child-rearing practices had become more southern in flavour. I think he had felt that they would have to master southern customs anyway, so there was no point in being traditionally rough on them. But I think, when he saw their behaviour at times, he wondered if he had chosen the right way.
When I was done cleaning, I found my father fixing his nets at the shore. My report was that I had had to do all the work myself, as no one would help me. By the way ... could I go for a spin with him in the boat? The answer was yes.
I was reversing the engine, pulling away from shore, when I spotted my brothers running toward me. They were waving their arms for me to wait. I waved back as I sped off. It was my turn.
Now that we are all grown, I realize that my father needn't have worried about his sons. Each adapted to the world in his own way. And their culture is still here, as is their language. In the end, they were not the "honey-bucket kids" old Oopik used to fret about. Some Inuit are, but not my brothers. They have my father to thank, since he struggled for such balance between the traditional Inuit world, and that of the South.
Sorry my brothers. As you had suspected, it had actually been my turn to anit the qurvik. I may have been raised as a boy, but I'm still female. And it was just one of those things so gross that only a male should touch it.
(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. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.