First aired on North by Northwest (13/11/11)
Michael Kusugak, the beloved Inuit storyteller and award-winning author of children's books, grew up listening to his grandmother's stories. "My grandmother told me some of the most wonderful stories I have ever heard," he said in a recent interview on North by Northwest.
You can listen to the interview here:
Kusugak was born and raised in Nunavut (formerly the Northwest Territories), and now lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. He relocated there, along with his wife, in part because living in the North made travel extremely expensive. As a writer, he travels frequently to make school visits and give talks, and flying back and forth from his home in Rankin Inlet, on the northwest shores of Hudson Bay, was costly.
Kusugak has been racking up air miles since 1988, when he published his first book, A Promise Is a Promise. He now has nine books to his credit, and is working on three more. But the focus of his school visits is telling stories, not reading from his published work.
"I like to talk about what it was like to grow up in a place like Repulse Bay. Repulse Bay is right up at the very north end of Hudson Bay and it's right on the Arctic Circle. I grew up there and when I was a little boy we lived in igloos and sod huts all winter long; we travelled by dogsled," Kusugak told host Sheryl MacKay. He went on to say that they would often travel with his grandparents, and he would beg his grandmother for a story every night. He described them as "these wonderful stories that had been passed down from generation to generation, for hundreds, thousands of years. So I tell stories, talk about what it was like to live in igloos. And then I tell traditional Inuit stories."
Kusugak's favourite story features Kivio, the most famous character in Inuit lore. According to Inuit legend, he was the first person on Earth. "My grandmother said Kivio is still alive today, but he's so old that his body is turning to stone. And some day when his heart turns completely to stone and stops, that will be the end of the world," Kusugak explained.
In Kusugak's story of Kivio, the character travels across the ocean, but gets homesick and tries to find his way home. His journey takes him through every part of the North. So there are stories about him everywhere the Inuit are — from Siberia to Greenland and Alaska, all across Northern Canada.
Kusugak shared his memories of what it was like growing up in Repulse Bay. "The sun barely rises in the winter, but in the summer it barely sets," he said. In the winter, they would travel all day, because they needed to get to places where there were seals, so they could feed themselves and their sled dogs. Every part of the seal had a purpose: the meat was eaten, the fat was rendered and used in lamps and for cooking and heating their igloos. "I still wear sealskin boots," Kusugak said. "They're waterproof, they're light and they're warm."
At night, they would stop and his father would build an igloo. "It's very calm and very quiet, regardless of how heavy the wind is blowing outside, because of the round shape," Kusugak explained. But it was cold: "A lot of the time you had to take your boots and had to put them under your pillow so they wouldn't be frozen solid in the morning."
Kusugak's first book, A Promise Is a Promise, was a collaboration with celebrated children's author Robert Munsch. Kusugak recounted how that came about. He was in the habit of putting his three sons to bed by reading a book to them. One night he instead told them an Inuit tale about creatures that lived under the sea ice, old women trolls, who would steal children. His sons liked it so much they urged him to write it down, and then said, "Dad, it's really scary, why don't you have it made into a book?"
Kusugak sent it to Annick Press, who turned it down. But the press showed it to Robert Munsch, and he called and asked if Kusugak wanted to work with him on the book. (They knew each other because Munsch had been to Rankin Inlet and had stayed with the family.)
When the book was published, it was an instant success. It occurred to Kusugak that he had lots of Inuit stories to draw from, and he decided to quit his job working for the government and became a full-time writer.
Another of his most popular books was written in the wake of losing his father. Kusugak decided to write a story about death, and how we handle grief. The result was Northern Lights: The Soccer Trails. "According to the Inuit, that's what the northern lights are, the souls of the dead playing soccer in the sky," he said.
The book won the Ruth Schwartz Award, a major prize that is chosen by children. "I get more letters about that book than any other book I've ever written," Kusugak said. "I even get letters addressed to Kataujaq, the girl in the story."
As a boy, Kusugak was sent away to residential school, but he managed to stay connected to his language and culture. He credits his mother for instilling pride and knowledge of the Inuit culture in him.
Kusugak notes that there has been renewed interest in Inuit culture and the Inuktuk language in the North. He attributes it to the Nunavut land claims agreement of 1993, which was the basis for the establishment of the new territory of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. "I always thought it was such a terrible deal because we gave away 82 per cent of Nunavut to the government for a total of $540 million, which was half of what our territorial government spent that same year that the agreement was signed," he explained.
But "a wonderful thing happened" as a result, Kusugak said. "Because there are so many Inuit in Nunavut, people seemed to take new pride in their culture and language... Even non-Inuit kids are speaking really good Inuktutuk now."
The resurgence of the language and interest in the stories heartens him. "For thousands of years they [the stories] sustained us, they taught us morals, they taught us how to live together...," Kusugak said. "And they're absolutely amazing."