The Kitikmeot Heritage Society



The Canadian Arctic is a region increasingly defined by change, whether in terms of climate, politics, or patterns of natural life. In the midst of this transition, the concept of Traditional Knowledge has emerged as a touchstone of stability for Inuit populations; a firm anchor that binds their lives to a foundation of history, ancestors, and land.

After extensive land claim negotiations, the territory of Nunavut (meaning ‘Our Land’ in the Inuktitut language) was created in 1999 as both a new home and traditional homeland for a population of roughly 27,000 Inuit scattered throughout the Canadian Arctic in 28 isolated communities. The question of how to represent Inuit Traditional Knowledge in the modern world has since been foremost on the territory’s agenda. It was decided that the term ‘Traditional Knowledge’ conveyed too narrow an impression regarding the dynamic nature of knowledge and being in Inuit culture, and the term ‘Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit’ (IQ)—translated literally as “that which has long been known to the Inuit”—was chosen as a replacement.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

IQ, as a concept, seeks to link historic knowledge to both present Inuit society and to its future aspirations for cultural independence and fortitude in a globalized society. The only way Inuit can deal with the challenges of modern life, insists cultural advocate Mary Wilman in a 2002 speech, “is to understand the unique heritage that has made us the Inuit of today. This defines the importance of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. It is the priceless asset and tool that we can use to adapt to the world around us On Our Own Terms.”

While IQ remains an ideal in Nunavut, modern barriers to cultural learning continue to hamper the act of bringing Traditional Knowledge and skills into contemporary Inuit lives. In many parts of Nunavut, young people literally do not speak the same language as their grandparents, and the traumatic impact of residential schooling lives on through generational gaps in cultural knowledge. For many Inuit youth, the draw to navigate the world via the Internet is stronger than the urge to explore their surrounding physical landscape.

While the Government of Nunavut has created multiple policies and resources designed to bridge education, social wellness, and IQ, many of these have difficulty being translated from modern bureaucratic and political structures to the ground level realities of living and learning in a small Arctic community. The IQ Principles, a list of 8 explicit Inuit values to inform social policy—which include pijitsirniq, the serving and providing for family and community, and aajiiqatigiinniq, the making of decisions through consensus—has been one of the Government’s most widely-applied and controversial endeavours in this regard.

Kitikmeot Heritage Society

It was ultimately a desire to create more accessible cultural resources at the community level that originally gave rise to the Kitikmeot Heritage Society (KHS). Founded by concerned Cambridge Bay community members in the early 1990s, the group began to document oral history, gather old photographs and historical records, and develop cultural learning materials that were, in KHS President Kim Crockatt’s words, “not just written in books.”

The heritage group gained critical momentum over the years, becoming a registered non-profit in 1996, and spearheading the development of a self-managed facility in Cambridge Bay (the May Hakongak Library and Cultural Centre) which houses an integrated public library, museum, regional archives, and cultural workshop space.

On any given day, the Centre hosts youth sewing classes, after-school literacy and cultural immersion programs, research workshops, and an elders-in-residence circle, all of which aim to seamlessly combine traditional culture with modern learning needs and technologies. Perhaps more important than its in-house activities, the May Hakongak Centre doubles as a launching point for Traditional Knowledge projects that take place outside the confines of the town.

Regular land-based camps are held by the KHS to facilitate the process of repairing connections between people, Traditional Knowledge, and the engagement of natural resources. These camps typically focus on a skill or technology that teeters on the brink of collective memory, and which local elders have decided is essential to the maintenance of a healthy Inuit culture. Ranging from one to two weeks, these camps attempt to create the right social and cultural environment to ease Traditional Knowledge back into the everyday. A camp to reconstruct a traditional style of kayak, for example, is not simply about building a boat. It requires leaving the town behind so that participants can feed themselves with whatever the earth and the sea give forth. It is also about bringing together the right people: elders who fish details from the deep pools of their minds to feed adults and youth eager for a taste of their cultural past.

While experiential learning is the primary goal of these workshops, documentation plays another key role. Artifacts and associated stories from camps become exhibits in the May Hakongak museum, and are used as templates for further school-based workshops. A local 800-year-old gathering house has been reconstructed within the May Hakongak Centre and repurposed as a movie theatre to showcase the vast collection of interviews and documentary films created during the projects.

The Legacy of the KHS

Hovering on the 20th anniversary of the organization’s beginnings as a non-profit, the team at the Kitikmeot Heritage Society has recently been thinking hard about the legacy of their work. They believe that the most significant impact of the KHS in a community context is the creation of projects to restore traditional values, cultural awareness, and intergenerational relationships in a manner that is both relevant and accessible to local people. The organization envisions knowledge building as a community-oriented process that, when engaged through specific socially and culturally sanctioned ways, helps young people better position their lives and identities within the continuum of Inuit culture.