Long banned, the Inuit legend of Kiviuq comes to the stage

The legend of Kiviuq has wandered the country in search of a stage.

The story of Kiviuq Returns begins in Iqaluit in the office of the Qaggiavuut! Society.

As Ellen Hamilton, the co-founder and executive director of Qaggiavuut!, says, we “wanted to invigorate the Inuit theatre community in Nunavut.”

They work without a performing arts space in the territory, that’s something that the society is also working towards. But the community in Nunavut needed a piece of theatre too and so the members if Qaggiavuut! decided, “let’s do this ourselves without a space. We’ll bring in some people who want to be involved as actors and get them to create theatre,” Hamilton says.

So that’s what they did. They put out a call for interested performing artists who had the time to spend a few months producing and touring a production.

The response was great and a group was assembled that began work on play based on the stories told by Inuit elders. Over a few months the group would interview elders whenever they came to Iqaluit.

“We identified some elders who were great storytellers.” After several sessions, the group settled on the stories the elders told of the hunter Kiviuq.

“He is this normal man who somehow gets lost and he is very resilient and he has to survive. We don’t really know if he ever ends his journey. He is like Homer’s Ulysses. It is totally that story,” Hamilton said.

There are hundreds of Kiviuq stories, Hamilton says, told across the Arctic from Greenland to Alaska to Siberia.

“The legends around Kiviuq are uniquely common to Inuit around the Arctic world,” she says.

“The story of Kiviuq begins in a hunting camp where there is an orphan who is being bullied. Kiviuq is the only one who does not participate in that,” Hamilton explains. “A shaman grandmother of the orphan gets tired of the bullying and so she transforms the orphan into a seal. The seal swims into the ocean, speaks some magical words and causes a storm. The  hunters who bullied orphan are all drowned. The only survivor is Kiviuq but now he is lost, alone and floating on the ocean in his kayak.”

Kiviuq has different adventures while he tries to return to his home.

A scene from Kiviuq Returns.

As Hamilton explains, it is common in Inuit myth that animals and humans can interact and have relationships. People can transform and shamans can work their powers to cause things to happen by controlling the elements.

In the end the play tells five Kiviuq stories that were sketched out by a writing team that included Hamilton, Taqralik Partridge, a well known Inuit storyteller, Vincent Karetak, who produces a TV show in Nunavut and Looee Arreak, a musician and educator.

Once the structure of the play was sketched out, a group of 10 Inuit actors were brought together along with two elders in Iqaluit in April. The elders, in a way, became the dramaturges for the evolving script, Hamilton says.

“The elders gave the actors a master class on the stories … what to keep and what could go. They were so enthusiastic. These elders had protected and remembered these stories that they had been told by their parents in the igloos and sod houses across the North when they were little kids. They have kept these stories alive despite them being discouraged and “basically banished” by the Christian missionaries who came North in the 20th century to try to convert the Inuit.

The story is all too familiar to anyone who has paid attention the the residential schools scandal. The missionaries wanted to end the Inuit’s connection to their stories. They did not want the Inuit to perform their drum dances, Hamilton said.

“These stories have not been heard in public,” Hamilton says. “In the North these stories hold the language, beliefs and values of the Inuit. The cultural perspective of the Inuit is in these stories.”

So, in a clear way, the title Kiviuq Returns, reflects the stories being returned to the Inuit of today, she added.

The other parallel story  to the journeys of Kiviuq is the journey of this production.

When word of it emerged the Qaggiavuut! team were offered the opportunity to rehearse their production in Kingston, Ontario, at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts and at the Banff Festival in Alberta.

The show, as it has evolved, is a mix of stories, drum dancing and throat singing, Hamilton says, all done in Inuktitut.

“The stories and songs are very ancient. We are using traditional music and an old version of the language that is not used today. It would be like speaking Shakespearean English.

Ellen Hamilton

The final cast features six actors, including the well-known Inuit actor Pakak Innukshuk, who starred in the film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and other movies and has become an elder expert in tradition drum dancing.

“Pakak is the foremost proponent of Inuit drumming in Nunavut right now. He learned right from the elders. He’s taught the songs. He chose the songs that would be in the show. He also supports the rest of the cast in Inuktitut because he has a very high level of understanding of his language.”

Two teachers from the National Theatre School have mentored the younger actors and director Vincent Karetak was assisted by the well-known theatre artist Martha Burns.

Hamilton says the show has become a performing arts school for everybody involved.

“We knew right from the beginning we would have to go to sources and would have to train everyone. We didn’t want people to feel they didn’t have the skills to do the project so we brought in really good people who would mentor but not take over.”

The educational aspect of this production truly fits Hamilton’s own northern journey.

“I am from the western Arctic. I came to Iqaluit after graduating from Carleton University’s journalism school. I worked at the Nunatsiaq News as a reporter. I had lived as a teenager in the western Arctic on the Beaufort Sea and this was my first foray into the Eastern Arctic. I met a guy and ended up moving to Igloolik where I became an adult educator.”

Her first years as an educator were frustrating because her students weren’t learning.

“They gave us these standardized American programs to teach literacy and it was absolutely useless. I noticed students had been in literacy class for three years and were not progressing.” Out of the frustration she decided to start a theatre group for fun.

“No one was literate in English in the theatre group, but we did this play about what had happened to their culture over the past 100 years called Changes. We were talking in English and Inuktitut and writing notes occasionally. People heard about it and we were asked to perform in Yellowknife.

She tested her group again for literacy in English and found they were all reading at a Grade 7 level. They were all literate.

“I hadn’t taught them anything. It all came from the theatre.”

Hamilton pursued a Masters in adult education to find how this seeming miracle had happened.

“It’s clear we all teach ourselves to read and write by just communicating and figuring out these symbols and writing it down. We were making a play using a language they knew already. Out of that they made connections to English. I have always used performing arts after that to break down barriers to learning even in the prison system.”

Hamilton was recently made a member of the Order of Canada for her work in education in Nunavut.

Kiviuq Returns will tour Nunavut after the shows at the National Arts Centre. Hamilton says they have performed it once in Iqaluit and the response from the audience was power.

“We performed in Iqaluit to a packed house of Inuit who were all crying. There was a woman in the audience who said after the show that she was very emotional. She had heard Kiviuq stories as a child when her family lived on the land.

“She had never heard the ending because she would fall asleep before her father finished the story.

“We (white Canadians) don’t believe we were a colonizing nation but of course we were. We committed a forced occupation on someone else’s place and forced them to shut up and change the way they educated their kids.”

Kiviuq Returns
Canada Scene
Where: Azrieli Studio
When: July 21 at 7 p.m., July 22 at 4 p.m.
Tickets: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.