Secret Life of Canada

Atuat Akittirq has dedicated her life to keeping Inuit culture alive

Atuat Akittirq is a knowledge keeper. Following her family's forced relocation, she's used traditional skills and artistry to keep Inuit culture alive.

Multi-talented elder uses traditional skills and artistry to keep Inuit culture alive

As Nunavut marks 20 years as a territory, Leah and Falen shout out mother, grandmother, educator, knowledge keeper and award winning artist Atuat Akittirq. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on.

Nunavut is celebrating 20 years as a territory this Nunavut Day. The Secret Life of Canada team wanted to celebrate by highlighting the amazing life and work of one of its living legends: Atuat Akittirq.

Akittirq, who was born in Aggu in 1935, is a mother, grandmother, educator, knowledge keeper and award-winning artist. 

Here are five things we learned about her. 

1) Her family was forced to relocate 

The Canadian government relocated many Inuit families in the 1950s, often to extremely remote or unfamiliar locations.

Prior to these relocations, many Inuit maintained a nomadic and traditional lifestyle, hunting and moving on the land freely. This forced sedentary lifestyle would have devastating effects on Inuit culture as many traditional practices were threatened by relocations.

Listen to The North, a back episode of The Secret Life of Canada that takes a deeper dive into Nunavut's history

2) She fights to preserve the Inuit worldview

Akittirq, along with many other Inuit elders and knowledge keepers have worked tirelessly to ensure that traditional skills and methodologies remain intact and are shared with the community. 

She has been vocal for years about not just the preservation of language and culture but also of Inuit worldview. She lent her voice and helped to contribute to the book Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: What Inuit Have Always Known to Be True.

She also has contributed to an edited collection called Determinants of Indigenous Peoples' Health, Second Edition: Beyond the Social.

3) She is an Inuit elder professor

Akittirq has travelled across Nunavut to teach Inuit traditional knowledge. She tells her students to grab the knowledge with their hands. (CBC)

Akittirq is a member of the  Elder Advisory Committee in Nunavut and since 2004 she has been instrumental in helping to develop curriculum that helps to preserve, maintain and celebrate Inuit culture.

She also continues to teach at Piruvik Centre in Iqaluit as an Inuit elder professor. She even assisted with the creation of a Teetl'it Gwich'in language dictionary and taught the language for almost 25 years. 

4) She's been cast and crew on film sets

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first feature film made entirely in the Inuktitut language, is widely considered a movie masterpiece. (Odeon Films)

Akittirq has an expansive film biography working as an actor, director, and costume designer. She often does double duty on set.

For instance, she both acted and did costume design in the award winning film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. In 2010 Akittirq won a Genie for her costume design in the feature film Before Tomorrow

5) She received a very special award this year

Akittirq joined the ranks of such renowned Indigenous people as Murray Sinclair, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Norval Morrisseau when she won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Indspire Awards.

The pretigious honour was announced in 2018 and Akittirq accepted the award in June. 

She has also received the Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee Medal.