Elders pass on Inuit traditions to the next generation in Nunavut schools | Polarjournal
Innait Inuksiutilirijiit transmit a wide board of traditional knowledge that are still relevant and useful for the young generation. Image: Department of Education

In Nunavut schools, Elders teach children and teenagers traditional Inuit knowledge and skills. In addition to transmitting the knowledge that constitutes Inuit identity, the goal is to turn individuals into global citizens and experts in Arctic living conditions.

On September 18, the Department of Education published a message on the Government of Nunavut website calling for people in Nunavut schools to become a “certified Inuksiutilirijiit”. “Do you know about hunting, stories, games, sewing, tool making, drum dancing or traditional Inuit uses of plants?”, the public service announcement states. But what is an Inuksiutilirijiit and what is its role in schools? Insights are provided to us by Rebecca Hainnu, Deputy Minister at the Department of Education.

The origin of Innait Inuksiutilirijiit, which means “elders at school”, dates back to the late 1990’s when Nunavut established its own education system: “We separated from the NWT which had adopted a southern-school model inspired education system. When Nunavut was created in 1999, for the first time in Canada an Indigenous group created an Education Act based on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit,” notes Ms. Hainnu. This term, abbreviated IQ and which could be translated as “what the Inuit have always held to be true” refers to traditional Inuit knowledge and the belief system specific to Inuit culture: “It’s our foundation in all the ways we conduct ourselves, in the way we behave at school, in the language we speak. IQ is first and foremost the basis and the foundation for achieving culturally-relevant schools.”

Rebecca Hainnu, Department of Education’s Deputy Minister. Image: Department of Education

In this context, the young territory’s Education Act has included the Innait Inuksiutilirijiit project since 2009, which aims to provide cultural continuity, contribute to leadership development and pass on traditional knowledge and skills. “It’s very pertinent to Nunavut. We need to survive minus 60°F (-50°C, editor’s note), we can’t rely on store-bought food only, we still have to maintain subsistence hunting. It’s the only way to attain food security. But we have to learn that skill. That’s why Innait Inuksiutilirijiit were created, to educate our children and allow them to become successful contributors of the community.”

Teaching the skills and passing on knowledge that allow someone to survive in the Arctic environment but also the traditions and language that have long been prohibited during colonial times is the role of these elders who work in Nunavut schools. The system is unique and Nunavut is the only territory that offers this approach funded by the Department of Education.

The Inuksiutilirijiit recruitment process, however, lies within the responsibility of the schools and each District Education Authority. Identified within the community, elders who have skills, knowledge or abilities and who are likely to teach children can be approached by a teacher or contact the establishment directly. Certification is granted by the department on the basis of a file which then allows Inuksiutilirijiit to be regularly employed and remunerated to provide support and skills to students, particularly in Inuktitut.

Contrary to what the term elder might suggest, the Inuksiutilirijiit are not necessarily the oldest members of the community. Anyone with skills or knowledge can apply regardless of the age: “For instance, some of our communities still have dog sledders. Some of them are not even in their late 20’s but they’re experts in their field and would qualify to be Innait Inuksiutilirijiit.”

The project also allows non-Inuit teachers, representing nearly two-thirds of teachers in Nunavut, to discover Inuit culture. The Inuksiutilirijiit’s work is in fact carried out in collaboration with the teacher. A telling example of this approach and its importance in the education of students can be found in Biology class: “Instead of dissecting a frog or a piglet, a seal is brought in and an Innait Inuksiutilirijiit stands beside the teacher who will name all the major organs and muscles. At the same time the Innait Inuksiutilirijiit is teaching in Inuktitut how to process the skin, preserve it and turn it into clothing. How the food is distributed, who gets which part of it, how it’s used and how it’s preserved, the cooking methods and the taboos that surround the food. It’s an overall system that allows a child of a community to be immersed in the culture and to learn Western skillsets. It’s a rich experience and that’s what we’re aiming to achieve.”

There are currently 327 Innait Inuksiutilirijiit in Nunavut which exceeds the 235 teachers speaking Inuktitut. The Innait Inuksiutilirijiit are present in all schools in the 25 communities of Nunavut and teach students from kindergarten to high school.

The lessons taught by the Innait Inuksiutilirijiit can take place both inside a classroom and at the elder’s home. Often, the courses take place outside, sometimes as a two-week camping trip where students will be taught hunting, shelter construction, navigation or moving on the ice. Inuit medicine, the use of plants, the lighting of the qulliq, throat singing and storytelling are also among the various teachings provided by the Inuksiutilirijiit: “We’re raising global citizens. Our students should be able to live anywhere in the country or in another country if they choose. So arithmetic is as important to learn as hunting and thriving on the land,” says Ms. Hainnu.

Due to the definition by the Nunavut Education law and the Inuksiutilirijiit project, schools can incorporate Inuit culture and language within their curriculum. This is crucial in building an Inuit identity : “This new Nunavut allows us to be ourselves, to be accepted as Inuit, with our culture and history, with our rich music, our dance, religion and shamanism. With all of that is embraced in our educational system and consolidated in itself,” mentions Ms. Hainnu. “We are the narrators for a change.”

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
error: Content is protected !!
Share This