Research tells me [Please correct my mistakes!] that there are three distinct indigenous peoples in Canada – First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Mini Aodla Freeman (1936- ) is an Inuk woman which is to say she is a member of the Inuit. The Inuit live across northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland; there are related peoples (‘Yipuk’) in Siberia and Alaska; and a third related people, the Aleut, from the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Siberia. .
Life among the Qallunaat is basically the memoir of a woman looking back a decade or so on her first venture south, to ‘civilization’, as a young woman. The title has the meaning Life among Whitefellas, or as I live in (Western Australian) Noongar country, Life among the Wadjela.
I subsequently found ‘qallunaat‘ literally means “people who pamper their eyebrows”’. I’ll leave Marcie and Naomi to answer that! (I’m no linguist. The best I can say is that that ‘q’ sounds something like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’). Incidentally, the author’s name, ‘Mini’, in Inuktitut, means “gentle rain”, and the best I could gather, ‘Inuk’ and ‘Inuit’ mean one human and more than one human.
Towards the end of the book she says she is now – at the time of writing – married to a white anthropologist, so I guess that is where the ‘Freeman’ comes from.
The book was released in 1978 to excellent reviews, but half the print run – around 3,000 copies – was bought up by Northern Affairs and stored away in a basement while they checked it for criticisms, specifically of Residential Schools. It wasn’t particularly critical, and I think now that Freeman wishes it had been, but the government were no doubt happy to stymie sales and the book didn’t take off until it was re-released – with a lot of earlier editing reversed – by the University of Manitoba Press almost 40 years later.
Having listened to it last week, I can only give you my impressions of the work, and of the author. The reader, Taqralik Partridge, has a lovely soft voice which conveys exactly Mini’s shyness and gentleness. We begin with Mini arriving in Ottawa in 1957, aged about 18, to commence working for the Northern Affairs Dept as a translator.
She is driven to a residence for 300 women from where she can walk to work, and her impressions of life and work from there on are conveyed in a series of brief chapters with vivid headings.
The invariable question she gets is “How do you like the weather?” not that Ottawa seems so far south of Moose Factory on James Bay where she comes from – not to me anyway; followed by “Where are your clothes?” ie. sealskins.
Which of course leads to “Eskimos”. Inuit are rare ‘down south’ in 1957. Mini gets called Eskimo without complaining and only later explains that Eskimo is a Cree put down meaning disgusting people (who eat raw meat). They say it something like SquishMo while pulling the appropriate face. Conversely, Freeman uses ‘Indian’ throughout unless she is explicitly talking about the Cree.
Over time, Mini begins to make friends, settle into her work, and to be flown to remote centres to interpret. She discovers that there are dialects of Inuktut, which she hadn’t known, though through moving around northern Ontario and Quebec she is well aware of, and fluent in, a number of dialects of Cree. Through her schooling, especially with French Catholic nuns, she is also fluent in French and English.
After these first two years we return to Mini’s beginnings, and what was looking like being an amusing coming of age in the big city, reverts to an ordinary childhood memoir. That’s an ordinary memoir, it’s a far from ordinary childhood.
Yet, the life Mini describes seems perfectly comfortable, despite the snow and tents (no igloos!) and canoes. She and her brother are brought up by their grandparents, after the death of their mother. The father, who in any case is away throughout the summer as the navigator on a trading ship, seems remote, though he plays a bigger part later, after the grandfather dies.
Throughout, which I keep forgetting, and Mini too, is the young man to whom Mini was betrothed at birth. She is meant to pay him small attentions during their childhoods, then, at around 14, she should be married. Luckily, Grandmother regards the young man as unsuitable, “too lazy”, and sends Mini off to school, and later, to work down south, to keep her out of the way of his family.
Mini goes away to a residential school at Fort George (now Chisasibi) where she is taught by French nuns. She is not always happy, there is a girl she calls ‘the Instigator’ who goes out of her way to make trouble for her, even into adulthood. But the school, as described, seems no better or worse than all the middling boys boarding schools in the books of my childhood. In particular Cree – although not Inuktut – is spoken, and the children have frequent contact with their families.
I do not doubt the horrors of the residential schools system, but I cannot tell from this account whether the relatively small – around 40 pupils – Fort George was an exception, or if Freeman chose not to highlight the worst aspects. School ends at year 8, as it did for most rural people I’m sure, in Australia and in Canada. Mini goes on to a hospital where she begins training as a nurse, which is interrupted by her getting TB. It is not made clear why she goes back to Fort George as a teacher rather than completing her nursing. But there we end, just as Mini is more or less shanghaied into working for Northern Affairs down south.
The closest parallel to Life among the Qallunaat in Australian Indigenous.Lit that I know is Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’s not very well known Pictures from my Memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman, which describes her traditional childhood on the border of WA and NT, her schooling at Karalundi mission (850 km north of Perth) and her life as a nurse in Alice Springs.
There are other, better known works – Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence and Sally Morgan’s My Place – both also Western Australian, but neither of which captures the disconnect between remote Indigenous childhood and adulthood in the big smoke.
After its uncertain start, Life among the Qallunaat is now a classic in Canadian Lit. and Freeman is apparently a well known poet and playwright, and of course, Inuit elder.
Next month (later this month) I will definitely read Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Mini Aodla Freeman, Life among the Qallunaat, first pub. 1978. University of Manitoba Press, 2015. Audible version read by Taqralik Partridge. 14 hours.