In my attempt to read more indigenous fiction this year, I picked up Life Among the Qallunaat by Mini Aodla Freeman. I didn't realize it when I took it out of the library, but this book was only just recently re-published, in 2015, after initially being published sometime in the 70s.
It has a very interesting history behind its publication, including controversial things about residential schools being cut out, and the government buying three thousand copies of the book and hiding them away for years. It never really got the attention it deserved, though, so a bunch of professors from the University of Alberta decided to re-edit it and put it out into the world again, this time attempting to respect the vision of the author in their editing. (If you do pick up this book, I highly recommend you read the afterword by the editors, which overviews the history and importance of this story to Canadian indigenous literature).
Anyway, Life Among the Qallunaat is a memoir about a young Inuit woman, Mini, and her experiences growing up in the north of Nunavut and her and her family's interaction with the "qallunaat" (the Inuktitut word for white people or English speakers; literally, "people who pamper their eyebrows"). It starts with Mini in "the South" (Ontario), and her experience feeling out of place in the unfamiliar culture of the South. Then eventually the story goes back to her growing up in Nunavut and the various ways her culture adapts to missionaries and other outside influences, as well as her experiences attending residential schools, and eventually leaving the North to be a translator for the Canadian government in Ontario.
The book is split up into little short stories with very fitting titles (which is apparently a change that Mini Aodla Freeman made for the republished version), and I ended up reading two or three of her stories every night before bed. I found reading about Mini's life fascinating and also comforting. Every night, I looked forward to reading another part of Mini's life and her take on it. I loved Mini's voice and found her so relatable, since she talked about how she was painfully shy. However, even though she talked about how she was super shy, I was amazed at her resilience and insight into her situations and other people around her. Her insights about cultural differences are so, so great. Here's a great section that really struck me:
[qallunaat] are nice and kind, but none want to see or understand my Native
culture. Some don’t want to know, some don’t have time, some try but find it
too deep to understand or accept. They all want to cover it up with their ways.
They always want me to be different, a novelty, and they refuse to see that I
am a plain human being with feelings, humanity, pain, joy, happiness,
gratitude, and all the other things that every other being was capable of
having, doing, thinking and acting. They think that the Inuit were nothing but
a bunch of smiley, happy people. They never stop to think that Inuit, too, are
capable of killing and murdering, just as their society is full of. They want
Inuit to dress and talk like them, and to forget their own ways. Yet they will
never really accept the Inuit fully. They want us to remain different from them
as cold is from hot.”- Mini Aodla Freeman, Life Among the Qallunaat.
Just, wow. I just think the way she analyzes the way people think about other cultures is so spot on, even today, thirty-eight years after its original publication. I think there are a lot of people (including myself) that need to realize these things about people from different cultures. Her story is so important and so relevant, and I'm so glad that it was republished in 2015 so that I had the opportunity to read this amazing woman's story.
Life Among the Qallunaat at U of M Press
Life Among the Qallunaat on Amazon
Life Among the Qallunaat on Goodreads