In the land of the Inuvialuit
Of all Canadian destinations, the High Arctic represents the ends of the earth, a mysterious and wild land that’s untamed and untameable. Yet every year, nearly 300 tourists make their way to Victoria Island, which lies in the archipelago north of the Arctic mainland in the Northwest Territories.
With its surreal frozen expanses and rocky cliffs, Victoria Island is an oasis of peace and quiet. The tourists who visit the village of Holman on the island’s west coast do so for diverse and sometimes surprising reasons ― some want to experience Inuvialuit culture, while others show up mainly to show off their skills at North America’s most northerly golf tournament.
Most, however, come to hunt polar bears, muskox and caribou. Not many people know about the hunting around Holman, but those who do will go to great lengths to try it. About 50 people a year arrive here from around the world to hunt the polar bear, the most dangerous mammal on earth.
It’s certainly a unique experience. Led by local guides, hunters travel by dogsled to one of the outpost camps along the coast, where they’re in for two weeks of isolation, hiking and scanning the ice for bears or theirracks.
But going after polar bears here doesn’t come cheap. Ulukhaktuk Adventures, a Holman purveyor of sports hunting, charges roughly $15,000 for two weeks of guided polar-bear hunting. Hunting muskox or caribou in the area, on the other hand, costs a relatively paltry $3,200.
“Most big-game hunters have already hunted all over the world and what they’re really looking for is adventure,” says David Grindlay, director of marketing at Northwest Territories Tourism. This thirst for thrills has been highly beneficial to Holman; 60 of its 400 or so residents have jobs related to sports hunting.
For adventure-seekers who don’t want to spend that kind of money and aren’t keen on the idea of coming up against the Arctic’s biggest, baddest carnivore, Holman offers other pleasures, including getting to know people from what many say is one of the friendliest cultures in the world.
The Inuvialuit, or “real people,” are the Inuit of the Northwest Territories’ Western Arctic region. They live in six communities, speak Inuvialuktun and have managed to survive a host of threats to their very survival. Which makes them unique, according to David Morrison, curator and archaeologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. “These people figured out how to adapt to enormous cultural changes, probably the biggest changes in the entire Arctic,” Morrison says.
Between 1850 and 1910, almost 90 per cent of the Inuvialuit population succumbed to infectious diseases brought by the Europeans. But the Inuvialuit somehow survived the epidemics as well as forced settlement. Today their culture is lively, vibrant and colourful, as exemplified by the remarkable prints for which Holman is famous. You can see some of the artworks at the Holman Eskimo Cooperative art studio.
Holman is an extremely artistic community. Experts at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which houses the biggest single collection of Holman prints anywhere, admire the narrative character of the prints and praise Holman artists for their skill at the stencilling technique.
The community, which subsists mainly on hunting and fishing, also specializes in selling qiviut, the underwool of the muskox, whose value has soared in recent years. Local women carefully collect the wool, which is softer than angora. It’s then shipped south to be made into sweaters, hats and mittens. Apparently even global fashion centres like London and Paris have made qiviut their little secret.
Despite the harsh climate north of the 70th parallel, Holman residents always seem to be in a good mood. Yellowknife filmmaker Allan Booth has visited Holman many times to film the Kingalik Jamboree, a three-day June festival that celebrates the return of migratory ducks. And every time, he’s impressed by how welcoming the community is.
“These people are different, unique,” Booth says. “They are so hospitable. Visitors are treated like family. I actually sometimes find myself wondering why the people here are so nice.” Linguist Emily Kudlak, who comes from Holman, can’t really answer that question. “It’s probably because of how we communicate,” she says. “It’s hard to explain. Holman is Holman. It’s unique!”
When hunters come through, the community cheerfully organizes evening drum dancing and throat-singing events, and prepares feasts of muktuk (raw whale skin) and quak (meat that is frozen raw and then eaten). For visitors, such experiences add to the impression that this is a place where time stopped thousands of years ago.
Booth says he always feels very small in the middle of this immense land. “I always think it’s the most extraordinary place I’ve ever seen. There are so few people, and the place is so vast… It’s like you’re standing at the dawn of civilization.”
Still, modern ways have caught up to the Inuvialuit, who use computers, microwave ovens and gas motors. But their traditional roots are very much alive, sunk deep into the limitless ice of their land. The marriage of the two worlds is shaping new generations, including that of Kudlak, who just turned 40. “I was raised in the modern era and I’ve kind of lost touch with my historical reference points,” she says. “I know my mother was born in an igloo. The elderly have experienced so many changes!”
But while a few modern ways have arrived in the Arctic, visitors still have a sense of being in a dramatically different place and time. And the Inuvialuit are still “the real people.”
For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at www.travelcanada.ca.
Photo courtesy of Northwest Territories Tourism