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Canada's Aboriginal Day in the Arctic Far North: Canada's Northwest Territories on the Looney Front, Part 3

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Every June 21 Canada marks National Aboriginal Day throughout its vast territory, celebrating 'the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding achievements of the nation's Aboriginal peoples,' the so-called First Nations - Amerindians, Inuit, and Métis of mixed blood with interwoven cultures.

Thus little Inuvik, comprising all three legacies 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is holding an afternoon-long celebration in Chief Jim Koe Park right in the centre of 'downtown,' with a barbecue of mainly modern foods - hamburgers and hot dogs - and a programme of Inuit drum dancing, traditional northern sports, and jigging contests

Getting ready for National Aboriginal Day in Inuvik





It takes the emcee some time before he can find anybody to say grace before meals in Inuvialuit and Gwich'in, a sad commentary on the loss of traditional culture. Finally two ancient ladies mount the stage. I can recognise the last word in both languages - AMEN!

Grace before meals

As this year's Aboriginal Day falls on Father's Day, the emcee wishes 'all you father's a Happy Father's Day - and a Happy Father's Day to all you single mothers,' a pointed commentary on the state of the family.

The most annoying commentary for crusty old me, though, is the laugh of a toothy, bespectacled Caucasian lady who insists on guffawing exaggeratedly at everything the emcee says, engaging in hyped applause at any and every reference to aboriginals. Could it be that she's salving her conscience for the deeds of her forbears?

The nosh up




Of greater interest, appearing stage right by the drinks stand, is a large man in a pleated khaki kilt, a sporran, kilt hose, a tam o' shanter with a red and white tartan band, a very bushy beard, a dirk in his belt instead of his hose - one infant in a frame on his back, another in his arms, and a young wife by his side.

'Are you Scottish,' quoths I.

A Scottish laird?



'No, but my family came from Scotland,' replies he. He turns round fully and I notice that he's wearing a black clerical shirt with a nice white dog collar. Oh goodie, Aboriginal Day also includes fancy dress.

'How come the clerical shirt and dog collar,' quoths I, racing on where angels fear to tread.

'I'm the Anglican pastor,' quoths he, straight-faced.

Oops! It's the vicar

Oops, Your Grace, so charmed to meet you. His Grace is indeed telling the truth. He's Rev. Stephen Martin, Dean in Charge of the Church of the Ascension of the Diocese of the Arctic.

He's a fascinating man with a varied history. Before he found God - or was it the other way round? - he was a biker and a bouncer. He was also an expert in Akademisches Fechten or, for the non-Krauts among you, academic fencing as Heidelberg student swordplay is known.

Other than that, everybody's going round wishing each other 'Happy Aboriginal Day.'

The audience

The Inuvialuit drum dancing is rather boring - seated men banging a broad tambourine-looking thing with a stick, and both women and men performing mainly hand movements, accompanied by some stomping. I suppose if you know the tales it portrays, it means something; if not, it's tedious.

The drum dance








The jigging is much more fun. Originally part of the Métis culture as derived from the Scots and French, it has been warmly adopted by the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in. Everybody's having a wonderful time, stomping with alacrity and expert precision. The contestants are divided into age groups, and the first prize is $600 for each pair.

In the 15 and under group one fat kid keeps on grabbing his trousers to stop them falling down. The pair wins first prize. Go figure!





The most interesting event is the demonstration of Northern Games sports derived from age-old Inuit pastimes, including such favourites as the Bum Hop, Knuckle Hop, Two-Foot High Kick and Blanket Toss.

The Bum Hop is like skipping rope, except that you do it seated. You raise your bum off the ground just long enough for the rope to pass freely between it and Mother Earth. He who can do it most times gets the gold.

The Bum Hop




In the One-Foot High Kick, you take off from two feet, try to kick a ball hanging from a rope with one foot, then land back on the kicking foot. The ball is continually raised. The record kick is nearly 10 feet.

One-Foot High Kick







In the Two-Foot High Kick, you try to kick the target with both feet, then make a two-foot landing. Another variation has you launching yourself from a single-handstand and landing back on the same hand.

Two-Foot High Kick





Handstand variation




In the Knuckle Hop, with only knuckles and toes touching the floor you try to travel the furthest.

Then there's the Pole Hang. Here you hang onto a pole carried by two colleagues with only one hand, the other clasping the wrist. In a second version, the Toe Hang, you hold on upside down by your toes alone. He or she who travels the farthest wins the gold.

Pole Hang

In the Stick Push, you hold a pole and, without letting go, manoeuvre it under each leg and over your head until you get it in front of you again. You continually shorten the distance between your hands until you do yourself a right nasty. He or she who performs with the shortest length of pole gets the gold.

In the most spectacular, the Blanket Toss (Nalukatuk), you climb onto a skin which pullers rhythmically raise and lower. On a signal, they pull it taut and you're tossed into the air, sometimes more than 20 feet. You have to keep your balance and return upright. The sport originated with Inuit hunters who were tossed on seal or walrus skins to spot caribou, whales, or other prey from afar.

Stick Push





Unfortunately, our demonstrators show us everything except the Blanket Toss and the Knuckle Hop.

Meanwhile the emcee thinks he's being funny when he says today's festivities will go on until sunset. That won't be for over another month at 2.36 a.m. on July 20. That golden orb up in the heavens has been going round in a circle above my head 24/7 for the last two weeks, and I'm longing for the dark night rising.

Toe Hang




On a less energetic note Inuvik's Visitor Centre display other traditions, including making bannock, a kind of flatbread. Two Inuvialuit Inuit ladies are in charge outside the centre and there's a nice little wood fire and chairs all around.

On a table repose such modern supplies as flour, eggs and lard, which those wishing to learn are kneading together, wrapping round twigs and holding over the flames. Yours Truly, true as ever to his anti-social persuasion, prefers to treat this as a spectator sport. I'd probably set the nearby forest aflame, anyway.

Time to make the donuts





Centuries ago, before fur traders arrived, the Inuit and Gwich'in made this delicacy, quick to prepare and easy to carry for nomads, with moss and lichen for grain, geese grease and geese eggs. The ladies insist such bannocks are both tastier and fluffier than those with modern ingredients.

They can't remember what it's called in their own Inuvialuktun, but in Gwich'in it's 'xluu chuu.' Get your tongue around that before you break out into a rousing Kumbaya.

[Upcoming blog on Saturday: The grizzlies roam into town - and are executed]



By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.