he technical translation of nunavut
is simply "our land." The emotional, spiritual, deeper
meaning of nunavut or nunavun is "our homeland."
The unspoken meaning stresses "home." To some Inuit,
with deeper knowledge of the language, when nunavut is spoken,
the silent understanding means "we share in this together,
unconditionally," and there is an intense gratitude.
We have gone through a lot in a short time. Among those who
have left their mark on us are whalers, Christian ministers,
traders, police, teachers, scientists, and southern politicians.
Some of these people had good intentions, and our ancestors welcomed
them because tradition and belief ruled them with good manners,
kindness, and curiosity. Inuit today inherited both the good
and bad effects of these influences.
I grew up knowing myself as an Inuk simply translated,
a human, breathing being. Later, I learned I was called an Eskimo .
I never identified the word Eskimo as an insult. In fact,
when I was travelling outside of Nunavut I would voluntarily
and proudly offer the information, "I am an Eskimo."
Today, I am back to Inuk.
Traditionally, it was up to elders to name babies after relatives
or favorite people, and many given names had long been used
names like Aniqmiuq, Annogakuluuk, Annogaq, Arnaquq, Kimalu,
Aitii, Maatu, Quvianatukuluk, Makivik, Yutai, Aiuula, Suu, Yugayugausiq,
Arnaguatsaaq, Angusimaajuq, Qiilabaq, Nuiijaut, Ikilluaq, and
thousands more. When the missionaries came, some could not pronounce
these ancient names properly. They gave our people names from
the Bible Joanasie, from John, Jamiesie (James), Olutie
(Ruth), Miali (Mary), Salamonie (Solomon), Noah, Jonah, Ipeelie
(Abel), Ilisapie (Elizabeth), and so on. Among ourselves, we
always used our ancient names. So when I was baptized, I became
Annie, but to my parents and elders, I was Lutaaq, Pilitaq, Palluq,
To the Canadian
government, however, I was Annie E7-121! In the early 1940s,
Inuit had to be counted and identified for government records
so that our parents or guardians could receive family allowance.
E stood for east and W stood for west. We were given a small
disc looped on a sturdy string, brown with black lettering. I
only learned about last names when I went to school in Toronto
in the early 1960s. My foster parents let me use their family
name, so in Toronto I went by Annie Cotterill E7-121 was
not a very attractive name for a young girl! And when I came
back home, I certainly did not want to be Miss E7-121 as a secretary
in a government office, so I took my father's first name, Meekitjuk,
as a surname.
I was not alone in disliking the number system. By the late
1960s, Simonie Michael, our first elected Inuk member of the
Northwest Territories legislative assembly, stated that he no
longer wanted to be known by his E7- number. Thus, Project Surname
was created. Abe Okpik, a respected Inuk from the western Arctic,
headed the project. Between 1968 and 1970, Abe visited every
Inuit home and asked the families to choose a name. The head
of the family picked a surname often a relative's given
name and we were no longer known by numbers.
Place names, just like our own traditional names, are indigenous
and meaningful. Kimmirut, or "heel," for the shape
of a rock outcropping there, the community I am from, has always
been Kimmirut. Until just a short time ago, however, it usually
appeared as Lake Harbour on maps. Initiatives like the South
Baffin Place Names Project are slowly returning Nunavut's communities
to their names of old: Frobisher Bay officially became Iqaluit
("school of fish") in 1987, and in November 1998, Broughton
Island became Qikiqtarjuaq ("big island").
But most importantly, there is the word nunavut. Now the same
word, meaning our homeland, is being capitalized as Nunavut,
to become a place name, a new inuksuk (directional beacon)
for the world to see, and for us to share and to pass on to our
children. What joy!
Ann Meekitjuk Hanson is a freelance
writer living in Iqaluit.