Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Inuit games on Nunavut Day

Yesterday was Nunavut Day, and I was excited to celebrate it. Yes, it was partly because I got the day off work. But I was also looking forward to checking out the traditional games that were being held that day.

Nunavut Day is a territorial holiday that was originally meant to mark the day Nunavut became a legal independent territory on April 1. However, it was changed to July 9 to mark the important Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. On this day in Cambridge Bay, the hamlet hosts traditional activities and games, as well as a free barbecue. Free barbecues!

our mayor opens up the festivities

It was a strange summer day, in that it was both chilly and buggy. Usually it’s one of the other: warm and buggy, or too windy for bugs and therefore chilly. I’ve discovered that the mosquitoes here in the north are Magical Mosquitos, much unlike their southern brothers. Where normally you could spray yourself with DEET products to repel mosquitoes, Magical Mosquitoes laugh at you and consider the spray to be a tasty marinade for your skin. Where normally you could don long sleeve shirts to protect yourself from the bugs, Magical Mosquitoes apparently grow vampire fangs and bite through your clothes. Where normally you could stand by the fire to keep warm and have the smoke keep away the bugs, Magical Mosquitoes fly right through fire to eat you. Where normally you could sit in your yard with an electric fan blowing at you to blow away the bugs (…actually, maybe I am the only one who does this…), Magical Mosquitoes grow hummingbird wings that can fight the fan’s wind. Unlike Koreans, Magical Mosquitoes don’t believe in fan death.

Despite the chill and the flesh-eating insects, everybody was in a good mood and having a great time. Companies were giving out awesome swag, T-shirts, bags, baseball caps. Kids were flying kites all over the yard. For the kids, they also brought back the bouncy castle that they call the happy train.

go fly a kite

A number of traditional games were already underway when I arrived.  There was a contest for elders to do animal calls.  There was tug-of-war for the kids, which I now gather is not a game that only Koreans play at church picnics.  There was a spear throwing competition going on, although not at live animal targets, to my disappointment, but at car tires instead. I am not sure that is traditional, but I suppose it might not be practical to be letting loose a herd of caribou in the middle of the town just for realistic target practice.

pretend the tire is a muxkox

There was also a game of Illupik going on, or what I call Full Contact Jump Rope. I suppose many cultures have their own version of jump rope. The Inuit version involves obtaining an avatuk, a bundle of sealskin that the hunters tie to their harpoons as a float so that the seals they catch will float after they are caught. Inuit jump rope is pretty hard-core, and not just because it involves the use of dead animals. From what I can observe, it seems rather adversarial. It’s like your friends turning the rope aren’t trying to establish a predictable pattern, but are trying to find a way to trip you up and smack sealskin into your shins. Pretty neat stuff to watch.

They announced the beginning of the tea boiling competition.

“Tea boiling competition?” asked I, the woefully ignorant southerner. “How do you compete in boiling tea?” Wild fantasies of Gloria the Excellent Tea Boiler raced across my mind.

“You have to build the fire yourself. It’s whoever can get the fire going and the tea boiling the fastest,” they told me. The visions of Gloria the ETB disappeared, as I began to understand why there were piles of rocks at each station. I would never stand a chance against the elders. After the ready-set-go mark, the Inuk ladies literally ran and built their fire within seconds.

After the Fastest Tea Boiler was declared the winner, we all got to try some of the tea, which was good for me, because I was feeling cold and weak. Probably because I was tired from being Mosquito Meat all day.

“This is delicious. What kind of traditional Inuit tea is this? Crowberry? Cloudberry?” I asked.

“Tetley’s,” they told me.

After the tea boiling competition came the bannock competition. My husband had instructed me to watch carefully so I could bring home the Inuit secret to delicious bannock, but it all happened too fast.

You might think it strange to that people would compete to be the fastest tea boiler or best fastest bannock maker, but if you think about the chilly days out on the land, where your fingers are freezing and you’ve set up your shelter, it really is a useful skill to be able to fix up some sustenance quickly. And I really was impressed at how efficiently folks worked. They gathered their ingredients within seconds, squatted on the dirt ground while mixing their dough, and dumped the dough into the melted lard in the frying pan, heated on top of the rocks.

melting the lard

frying the dough

There was one particularly impressive mother/daughter team, dressed in identical traditional parkas, with the little daughter mixing her own bowl of dough. And again, we all got to sample the bannock afterwards.

After the bannock-making competition came my personal favourite activity: the fish filleting competition.

I know, it's kind of weird: I've gone from abstaining from eating seafood for a decade because fish grossed me out, to wanting to get my own fishing rod or even better a fishing spear so I can be a true man of nature and catch (stab) my own dinner.  I wanted to see how the masters did it.

Just look at all that Arctic char 

Again, I wanted to see the competition so I could watch how they properly filleted the fish, but it all happened so fast. These ladies and their ulu meant business; they could cut up and gut a fish with a few smooth strokes in ten seconds flat. You'd miss the whole thing if you blinked.  Arctic char aren't exactly small fish either.

using an ulu (traditional knife for slicing meat)

Everyone was cheering their favourite contestant on.  A family gathered around one elder. "Go Nana! Go Nana!" they chanted.  One lady skillfully pulled a piece out of the fish guts and tossed it to her friend. Her friend laughed and dropped it right in her mouth. "What was that?" I asked her.  "Eggs!" she said gleefully. Others gathered around, asking for the liver or other favourite part of the fish. 


Meanwhile. I'm still not sure I'd be able to tell a fish's brain from its butt.  But this will all change, once I get my own fishing gear one day.