North

'Her face lit up': Ontario musician shares sign language in Nunavut

For around half an hour this summer, Gjoa Haven’s Martha Takkiruq didn’t have to work to express herself to a stranger. That’s when, in late August, an Ontario country musician knocked on her door, and said hello in sign language.  
Gjoa Haven's Martha Takkiruq shared a friendly chat in sign language with musician Marshall Dane when an Adventure Canada cruise ship stopped in the community Sept. 6. (Submitted by Marshall Dane)

For around half an hour this summer, Gjoa Haven's Martha Takkiruq didn't have to work to express herself to a stranger. That's when, in late August, an Ontario country musician knocked on her door, and said hello in sign language.     

"We'd never met before but as soon as she saw me start to sign in American sign language her face lit up," said Marshall Dane, a performer travelling on the Adventure Canada cruise ship Ocean Endeavour. The ship stopped in the western Arctic community of around 1,300 for a few hours, Sept. 6.

Dane had been asking in each community the ship stopped in, if there was anyone there who knew how to sign. He was told Takkiruq lived in Gjoa Haven, but wasn't sure how to find her. 

"As a sign language student, I recognized how important it was for them to be able to speak fluently in their language of sign," he said. "I thought it would be a beautiful meeting if I could meet up with this one person and we could have a chat."

But then, after finishing a performance with Gjoa Band at the Gideon Qitsualik Memorial Center, Dane ran into 22-year-old Gibson Porter, who was friends with Takkiruq and knew where she lived.

"He took me on his ATV. I had my guitar with me. I had just finished performing in the Gjoa Haven community centre so I was pretty excited," he said. "She was totally welcoming."

'How did you know that I was even here?'

Dane started studying sign three years ago, as a way to bring more meaning to his music and performances.

As a child, his mother used sign language to interpret sermons by his father, a pastor. "It really has opened up my ability to connect with people," he said. "Sometimes even in the middle of an English song I add in signs just to emphasize certain points."

Takkiruq learned American Sign Language as a youth, travelling to Edmonton to study. 

"Her first question was, 'How did you find me? I live so far away from where you come from. I'm alone out here as a deaf woman. How did you know that I was even here?' And of course I told her the story." 

They talked about their lives, their work and travel, their families. Takkiruq told Dane about her new granddaughter, and her daughter who also knows how to sign. 

"It was a beautiful chance for her to talk freely and openly without having to wonder if somebody could understand," he said.  

Dane, who has travelled through the North many times with Adventure Canada, could tell she was practiced at communicating with people who didn't speak sign language. Takkiruq told him she often communicates with community members one letter at a time, and through written notes. But that can make it difficult and tiring to have a detailed conversation, Dane said. 

"It was emotional to say 'listen I'm only here for a brief time and we're going to part ways,'" he said. "But as I've learned throughout my travels of Nunavut, there is no word for goodbye. It's just we will see each other again at another time."

Iqaluit elder Peter Irniq confirmed that tagvauvutit means "You are here," or "Even though you are leaving, you are always here." 

Dane and Takkiruq are keeping in touch. "I'll be back and her and I will see each other again.That is for sure and guaranteed."
 

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