Life among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman

North America Project 2022

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.

see also:
Mini Freeman, The People and the Text (here)
Revisiting a Classic, Atticus Review, 3 June 2016 (here)

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22 thoughts on “Life among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman

    • Well they – Northern Affairs/Indian Affairs – had a lot to be worried about. It took another 30 years, to 2008, for the Prime Minister to formally apologise and to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which found that the policy of isolating Indigenous children away from their communities amounted to cultural genocide, as well as uncovering countless instances of sadistic behaviour by the churches charged with running the schools. The Pope recently apologised for the Cultural Genocide, but not as far as I could see, for the sadism.

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  1. Fascinating Bill. “Loved”the story of its publication. Love the fact that you sussed this out to listen to. I’m guessing she hasn’t done a follow up?

    Canada is so much ahead of us. Look what’s happened since our apology!!

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    • I think Canada is mostly ahead of us. Their apology was similarly timed to ours but their follow through seems a bit better. The Canadian Inuit and First Nations seem to have more self governance (and treaties). I think our Indig.Lit is better!

      Freeman is a poet and playwright. I didn’t see another book. Interesting that all the Canadian Indigenous books that were suggested for this project seem to be Non.Fic. I was really hoping for some Literature.

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  2. You’ve done a fine job of explaining all the details and I suspect that you’ve spent more time reading about the relevant language dialects than I have (although I have tried and periodically revisit to add to my vague understanding), so I don’t see any mistakes to correct, as you’ve mentioned. In my mind, that’s how I “hear” the “q” pronunciation too and, as for eyebrows, I’m sure, if mine could speak, they would say they deserve some/more pampering! (I’m betting Naomi’s brows will chime in with that chorus LOL).

    The current separation into First Nations and Métis and Inuit seems fraught to me, because First suggests primacy, and I’m not sure all members of those communities are in agreement about nomenclature (let alone about who arrived first). Some, even today, for instance, still opt for the term “Indian”, at least in certain circumstances, whereas it’s offensive for others. But I believe terminology has changed over “there” for you too, recently, and I suppose that’s simply language and culture evolving (or cycling or spiralling).

    It sounds like we had a similar response to her voice/perspective on the world. One of the parts I really enjoyed was about her experiences returning to her home after she’d been south. I’m going to look for the audiobook because the way you’ve described the tone of the reader sounds very satisfying indeed. Now that I know one small scrap of land in western Australia, I feel like I know alllll the places you’ve mentioned here for parallel narratives (well, ok, not quite).

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    • Why, thank you Marcie – breathes sigh of relief – my eyebrows are quite Scots, the barber is always begging to attack them with his shears. I wrote the first two or three paras early, so I’d be ready to write and post when I got home, but most of what I discovered elsewhere Mini discusses during the book anyway.

      I think it was written too early for ‘Indian’ to be problematic, and maybe even for the Inuit to be making a fuss about ‘Eskimo’. And of course outsiders are not always given permission to use the names peoples use amongst themselves.

      Yes, listen to the audiobook. It’s beautifully done. Have you been to a reading by Mini Freeman herself?

      In fact, KSP’s Goldfields trilogy – and I’ll link to your review at the end of this comment – positioned you well to read Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis. Her family was up on the NT border, but all the people from there (European names) Warburton, Docker River, gravitate towards Alice Springs to their east or Kalgoorlie to their South West, the only two large towns (and those 2,000 km apart). The Ellis’s came down to Laverton and then Leinster, on the northern edges of the Goldfields.

      https://australianwomenwriters.com/2022/07/katharine-susannah-prichard-goldfields-trilogy-review/

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  3. I’m impressed by your diligence in researching the different indigenous peoples and the meaning of the book’s title. I think I’d have found the descriptions of her childhood the most interesting elements

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    • I thought her two adult years were the better writing. But I didn’t do her childhood justice in my review. Mini’s values and her family’s values especially in relation to education were quite middle class. But through all these ordinary growing up and going to school things, she’s living through amazing winters; going on multi-day excursions by (outboard motor powered) canoe; living on whale and seal meat and so on and so on. Just fascinating!

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  4. I’m not sure if you follow Anne @ I’ve Read This. She’s a Canadian blogger, and every so often she highlights some Indigenous lit that I’ve never heard of. Canada is good about spotlighting authors who are trans, Queer, Indigenous, immigrants, etc. Anyway, Anne introduced me to Dawn Dumont’s work, and I enjoyed the first book I read. Then, about a week ago, Anne pointed out that Dumont and her daughter are both MISSING. Seems like not much changes when a Native person goes missing…

    Your note about the government buying up 3,000 copies of the book reminds me of how bestsellers are often made, at least to my knowledge about the U.S. Someone trying to influence book sales and get a book on the New York Times bestseller list will buy thousands of copies right away and then store them to sell later. The book looks popular because so many copies were bought, even though it’s not. I don’t trust bestseller lists, personally.

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