The following journey into Arctic & Sub-Arctic Native American Literature is an installment in the author’s Broadening the Bookshelves column, seeking to examine topics like unconscious bias and diversity in reading
Twenty years ago, I went to visit Canada on a cushy trip with my parents. I walked away with a Qiviut sweater and a pile of Inukshuk charms to share with my friends and deep impressions of how much I like Arctic and subarctic environments. I also walked away with zero understanding of what it means to be Inuit, despite the strong Inuit presence in Canada. And although we’d visited Alaska many years before then, and I’d become enamored of the land, my knowledge of what it meant to be Aleut was limited to what I’d read in Scott O’Dell’s children’s classic, Island of the Blue Dolphins. (Ed. note: O’Dell is white.) Insofar as I knew, the Aleuts were ferocious otter hunters. The extent of my ignorance is stunning.
But late last year, I visited Quebec City and was surprised – and uncomfortable – to see doll figures of Western Plains Indians on the shelves of tourist shops in the Old City, meant as a nod to Canada’s Indigenous populations. Inuits dress very differently from the Plains Indians, and their physical features are different, so even in my limited awareness, I understood that this was far from appropriate.
For someone who is as interested in the northern regions as I am, it also felt wrong to not understand the peoples who live there, who have lived there for thousands of years. So I thought I’d better get learning.
Usually, we bring you an interview with someone who’s an expert, or a resource, in a literature you might not yet be familiar with. This month, I wanted to walk you through some online resources that have helped me to fill in my understanding of these ancient cultures. What I discovered was broad in scope and variety, and will keep me learning for a long time, which is more or less the point.
For a basic understanding of what comprises Inuit and what is Aleutian, I poked around in the Encyclopedia Britannica. (The Aleutians are subarctic, while Inuit lands are primarily within the Arctic circle.) From there, I visited the remarkable online guide of the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, which gave me further understanding of the history of the peoples and their history. I visited the website of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association to learn more about the Aleutian people, which is where I found out that “Aleut” is the name given to the Unangan (Unanga, plural) peoples by Russian fur traders and that the population prefers to be referred to by their original name, which means “coastal people.” From there, my learning became more specific.
1. Inuit Literatures Website
The Inuit Literatures website, under auspices of the University of Quebec at Montreal, is a compilation of Inuit writers and their work. The website lists individual biographies of writers who are Inuit and also lists and links to books and shorter works by folks who identify as Inuit. “Inuit themselves have been writing for two centuries in Inuktut (with variations depending on the territory), Danish, English and French. Their texts, from within the Arctic, are often little known, but they allow us to hear the voices of those who live in the Inuit world,” says the website, noting that for centuries we have only heard the voices of those who were explorers or missionaries or scientists. These stories, say the authors of the website, are “outsider” stories, whereas the stories highlighted at Inuit Literatures are “insider stories.”
2. Native American Literature, Language, & Newspapers
Michael Thompson, who helped me to navigate the Native American installment of this column, reminded me that nearly all Indigenous populations have their own newspapers and that we should also be paying attention to these current stories of the community. Following his lead, I looked at the website for the Nunatsiaq News, which is the newspaper for the Nunavut and Nunavik territories of Quebec. Learning about what matters to the populations there was another lens into a lifestyle and culture I’m not familiar with. The newspaper also publishes simultaneously in the Inuit language.
3. Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association’s Website
I heard sound bites of phrases and words spoken in the Unangam Tunuu language. It’s a whole glossary! And I also learned about the tribes that live in the area. I explored some Aleut artists’ work and read extensively about the history of the Unanga. That’s just a small portion of what’s available.
4. Inuit and Aleut TikTok.
Static websites and news are nice, but there isn’t anything quite like watching people be themselves. It’s a window onto the culture and heritage of people I’m not in contact with and whose lands are too far away for me to access on a regular basis. Through these searches on TikTok, I saw examples of string art and listened to Inuit throat singing and learned about Inuit and Aleut foods and traditional crafts and ceremonies. I’ve also been learning about what matters to Inuit and Aleut peoples – how they want to be perceived; what issues are taking up their brain space.
It should be said here that my research became humbling at this point. (I would argue most research ought to be humbling; it should uncover something you never knew.) Late in the process for this column, I shared a draft of this with a friend who is not Alaska Native but who lives in Alaska. She pointed out that this list of resources overlooks entirely the Yup’ik peoples, who are more populous in the region than either the Inuit or the Unanga peoples. I stuttered and stammered and had to admit that, because my previous knowledge had only included the Inuit and the Unanga, that’s what I thought to look for. Social psychologists call what happened to me bounded awareness, and we would all do well to remember that it can befall even the best-intentioned of us.
My friend and former editing client Fernando Gros once said that he believes we’re living in the best times ever – YouTube shows you just about everything you want to learn how to do; we have access to points of view from around the world; we can always be learning if we want to.
Native American Literature and Culture
Another surprising upshot of my research this time around is how quickly my search to learn more about Inuit and Aleutian literatures grew into an understanding that any literature is also about the culture itself. This may seem an obvious scenario, but I think it also illustrates how one cannot learn about the literature of a culture without also learning about the history and the culture of a people.
As ever, this month’s topic challenged my assumptions. But this is the first time I’ve taken the time to look closely at how how I’m learning is affecting the way I’m thinking. I hope my learning encourages you to do the same.
Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path university and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.