'A window into our history': Kitikmeot drum dance book a new tool for language preservation

People from across the Kitikmeot region are using a new drum dance song book to relearn their traditional language and songs of their ancestors.

30 songs in Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut printed in song book created by Kitikmeot Inuit Association

Elik Tologanak beats the drum during a weekly drum dance singing group in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. A new drum dance song book is helping people relearn their traditional language and songs of their ancestors. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

When Elik Tologanak beats the drum, she's transported back to her childhood, living with her family on the land near Ulukhaktok, N.W.T.

Today the elder is rediscovering those songs by attending a weekly drum dance singing group in her community, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

"When we started singing again it was like I was a child waking up hearing the song," recalls Tologanak, who says it's been a transformative experience.

"But I was grown up. I was entering into elderhood."

The book contains more than 30 songs from the Copper Inuit and the Nattilingmiut dialect across Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Tologanak and others from across the Kitikmeot region are using a new drum dance song book to relearn the language and songs of their ancestors.  

Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit — Stories Told Through Drum-Dance Songs is a project launched by the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA) aimed at helping preserve the region's dialects, including Inuinnaqtun. It has seen a steep decline, though there was a small resurgence in the 2016 census: 675 people identified it as their mother tongue, up from 395 in 2011.

The songs date back to a nomadic way of life

"They are a window to our history," said Julia Ogina, the KIA's program coordinator for elders, language and culture, of the songs.

Julia Ogina's grandmother gifted her the voice of a loon, she says. The traditional Inuit tattoo on her forehead represents the loon's beak. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"In order for language to be strong again we have to understand language at its whole being." Ogina helped compile the songs in the new book by working with elders who remembered them. Several have since passed on.

"It's history, what it looked like, what it sounded like, and what events took place and we find that in the old songs," she said.

Traditionally, drum dance songs were most prolific when Inuit in the region were nomadic. People would gather together after the long, dark winter and tell stories of their travels, celebrations and struggles. Some songs end in a freestyle dance with one or two dancers — the lead singer taking the drum.

30 songs in Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut

In total, the book contains more than 30 songs from the Copper Inuit and the Nattilingmiut dialect across Nunavut's Kitikmeot region.

The songs are printed in Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut, both in roman text and syllabic writing styles. Some of the terminology is so old Ogina and others are still trying to decode them. They also listened to old cassette recordings.

"They are songs of having no food, not being able to catch animals, because the animals didn't come," she said.

'When we started singing again it was like I was a child waking up hearing the song,' says Elik Tologanak. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"We didn't have food. We didn't have clothing," Ogina sings from the book.  She suspects the song likely belonged to an unknown hunter.

"It's not always good, but hardship. That has a good message for us today. We don't give up on life because it's hard. Our ancestors didn't. Otherwise we wouldn't be here."

Once people settled in communities, Ogina says the gatherings became less common, and deterred by missionaries.

Fewer songs and stories were passed onto the next generation, and only a handful of new songs have been created.

"It's emotional. They created the song so the next generations could understand the kind of life they experienced," said Ogina.

Trisha Ogina grew up hearing drum dance songs from her grandparents and mother. She’s still making new connections with her language and culture. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

The next generation

In the boardroom at the Kitikmeot Inuit Association in Cambridge Bay that perseverance continues.

A small group gathers every week or so to practise the old songs. Julia Ogina's daughter, Trisha, is there with her two young daughters.

Unlike many people from her generation, Trisha Ogina grew up hearing drum dance songs from her grandparents and mother. Now in her 30s, she's still making new connections with her language and culture.

"I never really used to be interested in learning until a few years ago when my mom started the song book project," she said, while watching her own daughter recite the songs.

"It makes me feel proud that my daughters are here watching and listening and learning with me."

Trisha Ogina's daughters, Makaia, 12, and Kaylie, 10. 'It makes me feel proud that my daughters are here watching and listening and learning with me,' the mother says. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"Our elders have worked so hard to bring these songs back for us to learn. They have put it into a book in a way that the younger generation like myself and my daughters are able to read."

Julia Ogina says the KIA plans to hold another gathering with elders to review the song book to better understand the context of how singers began each song and who sang them. To date, 500 books have been printed and distributed across the Kitikmeot.

"They know there's so much more to learn and share in order for singers to thrive again to create new songs."

Already the number of young people attending the weekly drum dance has grown.

"A lot of young people are wanting to learn. [The book is] creating the tools for them to be apart of the learning environment."

A small group gathers every week or so to practise the old songs. (Kate Kyle/CBC)