Editorial: Know the Dog, the Land and the People
Chinook Project Returns to Labrador
Canadian Animal Assistance Team Returns to Baker Lake
Ghosts of Dogs Past
A Conversation with
Charlotte DeWolff of Piksuk Media and
Jake Gearheard of the Ilisaqsivik Society
Qimmivut: the Ilisaqsivik Society’s Dog Team Workshop
Media Review: Of Ice and Men (book)
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The Inuit Sled Dog International
The Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI) is a consortium of enthusiasts whose goal is the preservation of this ancient arctic breed in its purest form as a working dog. The ISDI's efforts are concentrated on restoring the pure Inuit Dog to its native habitat. The ISDI's coordinators welcome to your comments and questions.
A Conversation withSH: It's fascinating how so many aspects of Inuit culture and tradition seem to all revolve around the use of Inuit Dogs. In the media in recent years, the dogs seem to have been catching much of the interest/attention, but that appears to be expanding to interest in other traditions.
Charlotte DeWolff of Piksuk Media and Jake Gearheard of the Ilisaqsivik Society
May 8, 2011
JG: I think that the relationship of the Inuit to their dogs was central to their survival and to their whole livelihood and so it touches so many aspects of their culture that when we talk about it today, it triggers a lot of memories and a lot of other cultural aspects that you might not necessarily at first think are related to dog teaming. When we send youth out with dog teams, they're also learning about safe travel, winter camping, summer travel and summer camping. They're learning about harvesting. They're learning about hard work, teamwork, patience, responsability. They're learning about all these aspects that are part of Inuit culture and identity…all this through dog teaming. It was such a vital part of their livelihood, being completely dependent upon their dogs. That relationship was central and so to do it now brings back every aspect of their culture. With the work that Piksuk did regarding the alleged dog slaughter in their movie Qimmiit: A Clash of Two Truths, it also triggered a lot of bad memories such as moving into settlements, loss of livelihood or just cultural changes that have happened so quickly…it prompted people to think about those events which allowed them to start a process of healing as well.
1949-1950; Padlei, NWT
photo: Richard Harrington
Library and Archives Canada
SH: Charlotte, Piqsuk Media has really put issues relating to the Inuit Dog on the map, in the public consiousness. I am wondering if you have any comments on what long-term effects you think or hope will result in all of this.
CD: It appears to me that Elders wish to have their history passed on to the next generation because it's telling about their culture. I am sure this is one of the results of the work that Piksuk has done with Qimmiit: A Tale of Two Truths and the Nunavut Quest project. I think that the Nunavut Quest presents a picture of a lifestyle that I always say is enviable, that people can go out and do this. It is passing along pride in their culture and it's all about the history of the Inuit and the Inuit Sled Dog in the Arctic. I would say what it's done in Nunavut particularly has been a resurgence in an interest in dog teaming. Just look at the community of Clyde River in the last ten years and how many more dog teams there are. I think as a result of the race they just had from Qikiqtarjuaq to Clyde you might see, in a couple of years if they continue that race, more dog teams in Qikiqtarjuaq. In the Arctic hamlets there are not as many alternatives for recreation as there are in the South, so I think it's promoting a healthy lifestyle as well.
JG: We've always wanted to do a race to Qikiqtarjuaq which is the community just south of us. There are a couple of dog teams there and they're kind of getting excited about getting more into dog teaming, so we decided to organize a race from Qikiqtarjuq to Clyde River to try to get a dog teaming spark going in Qikiqtarjuaq. There were eight teams from Clyde River and two teams from Qikiqtarjuaq.
SH: Events like the Nunavut Quest, Ivakkak in Nunavik and the Qimualaniq Quest between Iqaluit and Kimmirut and the one that you just participated in, they all do much to encourage the dog teaming spirit, but what do they actually do for the preservation of/interest in the traditional Inuit Dog, what might be also known as pure?
JG: I'm definitely not qualified to talk about the other races you mentioned and I'm not an organizer of the Nunavut Quest, I just participate in it, so I can't give you any official stance on the preservation of the Inuit Sled Dog. What I can say is that there are rules for the Nunavut Quest and we used the same rules for this race from Qikiqtarjuaq to Clyde River and they spell out that the dog needs to be an Inuit Sled Dog. It doesn't need to have papers but there are certain characteristics it needs to have, like it can't have blue eyes, it needs to have pointy ears, it needs to be recognized by the other mushers as this type of dog. It can't be like a skinny-looking racing dog. And there's always, always, always controversy because somebody's dogs will be really fast and they'll look kind of like racing dogs and somebody will say, "Well those aren't Inuit Dogs." They're always arguing either yes they are or no they're not. It seems like the main rules are that the dogs have to belong to the owners and they have to be from the communities. You can't just go borrow somebody's dogs. There is no hard-core checking. There is no committee that inspects every dog to make sure that they are a pure breed. And I don't even know if there is that much interest in the Canadian Kennel Club. They just want the dog to have certain characteristics, not be a skinny little hairless dog but it should pull like it's supposed to pull and act like it's supposed to act.
SH: I'm wondering if Elders have any input because they know the dogs of their past and can help present a picture. Of course there's no pedigree, the Canadian Kennel Club has nothing to do with the traditional working dog. But aren't Elders in the best position to make a determination to describe the dog?
JG: My own personal observation about the racing is that especially racing with light qamutiit, which is what we're doing, it doesn't fit the traditional qualities of the dog and so in some ways, in my opinion, the use of light qamutiit for racing promotes the breeding of faster, lighter dogs than probably the Elders would recognize as the traditional Inuit Sled Dog, which is the heavy puller and not very fast, but has endurance and can pull heavy loads all day. That's not going to win the Nunavut Quest. I think for a while that the participants of the Qimualaniq Quest were loading their qamutiit so the weights were greater. So the winners of that race had to have strong, heavy-pulling dogs. The Nunavut Quest qamutiq has to be traditional and has to have certain survival gear on it, but at the end of the day it's super-light. So the dogs that win the Nunavut Quest typically aren't the ones that the Elders would say, "Yeah, that's what I remember." There are even comments by Elders and, this may be a good transition to talk about the Knowledge Base with Charlotte, that there are lots of reasons why the dogs today are smaller and look different than the dogs they remember. Some of this they say can be attributed to the fact that now dogs are picketed, not allowed just to run free, they aren't used as much and they're used differently. Some people may use them four or five times a week to go hunting but they aren't pulling the massive loads that they pulled in the past so their muscles aren't developed. Those are some of the comments in the Knowledge Base.
NOW: David Iqaqrialu during the 2010 Nunavut
Quest. Events such as the Quest may be one reason
why today’s Inuit Dogs do not look the dogs of
THEN: Group of Inuit traveling over ice with a heavily
loaded dog sled. West coast of Hudson Bay, ca. 1897-1912
photo: Capt. George Comer; © Mystic Seaport,
Comer Collection, Mystic, Conn., #1966.339.21
SH: With all this encouragement of dog teaming and new races, I see from my perspective here in Connecticut, that there is a real need for veterinary service which is so lacking, and I am wondering if there's any way to encourage the establishment of clinics in the North sort of like they have in Greenland, because with more dogs being used it seems like it's going to be needed. What do you think of that?
CD: In Iqaluit there is an Inuk girl and I believe she's just finishing up her veterinary training and she will be establishing a clinic in Iqaluit. Iqaluit has a larger population than all of the rest of the hamlets and it has a number of southern-based residents that have their little dogs and their cats and that will help to give her a bit of a basis for a practice. But I'm also sure that she may make regular trips to at least some of the communities, at least I would say in Baffin. I guess the other thing that you talk about is that I am sure there is a need for vets and Jake can speak about that in the more remote communities. But I think of my ancestors who lived on farms and looked after their cattle and very, very rarely would they call in a vet because they didn't have the money, so they'd call in a vet almost when there was no hope, which is totally different from today. I wonder if the mentality is still a bit like that in the North, because it is the way it has always been. You're right, there is a need for veterinarians and it appears that in Iqaluit that need is going to be filled to some extent.
JG: I guess I want to be careful because I don't want to sound callous. I think there's less of a need for vets and more of a need for a loosening of the regulations that govern veterinary practice in Canada. If dog teamers choose to vaccinate their animals, we should be able to get vaccines, and we can't do that right now unless we break the law because veterinarians are not supposed to send you distemper vaccines unless they've actually seen your dog. We can't fly our dogs out to see a vet. Most of us dog teamers, we're just talking about sled dogs, not pets but working animals, we are like farmers. We are perfectly capable of giving our own shots and other medications, taking care of our own dogs. I think that even if a vet was available in Clyde River, very, very rarely would any dog teamer ever call that vet for one of their dogs. We need dogs that are the strongest and healthiest and some of that has always happened historically through survival of the fittest. Again, I don't want to sound bad but if there was a dog that was weak and sick, we're going to do what we can…feeding it, giving it rest, protecting it from the other dogs, even bringing it into a warm place to help it get better. But apart from that I don't know how much further we would be able to go with a vet or even want to go to save that dog. But vaccinating dogs is another matter, although dog teamers definitely don't all agree on this as lots of dog teamers don't and for lots of reasons wouldn't vaccinate their dogs even if they had access to vaccines. They want dogs that have built up [natural] immunity to these diseases, don't want dogs that are immune to the diseases because they're vaccinated. They think that vaccines affect their dogs in certain ways that are negative, like for their pulling and their working ability. I myself vaccinate my dogs for distemper and rabies. Rabies vaccines we can get in our hamlet because it is a public health concern, so we go to the health centre where we can get rabies vaccines and that's great. And to run in these races like the Nunavut Quest you are supposed to have vaccinated your dogs against rabies. But the problem is that vaccines like distemper you can't get unless you know a vet who has seen your dogs or you know a vet who will break the rules. Some puppies died of distemper because there is a critical point when they're not immune any more from their mother and they're totally exposed and you need the vaccine in that certain time window and we couldn't get the vaccine because we couldn't find a vet who would send it. We tried getting it from the States – you could order anything online in the States – but they wouldn't let it cross the border. We tried all these ways to get the vaccine and we couldn't and we had dogs die of distemper a few years ago when we lost about five or six dogs and about four puppies. So I would say that more than vets, we need to change the law about access to vaccines.
SH: How can you do that?
JG: I think that since the Inuit Sled Dog is Nunavut's Official Mammal, with all sorts of identity attached to the Inuit Sled Dog and the way of life that it represents, the Government of Nunavut should change the rule about access to vaccines in Nunavut.
SH: I wonder if dog teamers can form a coalition, a big voice that can speak to the Government of Nunavut about this need.
JG: Well, I just don't know how many dog teamers are on the same page about vaccinating. I'm from the South so I grew up with dogs as pets and with the routine of you get a puppy and you go to the vet every two weeks, so I think differently, although I am learning from other dog teamers here, but I do think differently in some ways because of my culture and the way I was brought up.
SH: Charlotte, what I find very interesting is that from what Jake has said, the Knowledge Base portion of the Nunavut Quest website will be open-ended and can always be added to. Is that correct?
CD: Oh, definitely! We don't consider that as a finished project. We can develop it much more. And it's also very, very interesting.
An instructive scene from the Traditional Knowledge resources
Courtesy of Piksuk Media/Ittaq Centre
SH: The way you have done it with the little video vignettes in Inuktitut with English on screen translations is beautifully done! I know that in many communities there are video taped oral history projects underway but these don't seem to be accessible to the general public, so what Piksuk and Jake are collaborating on is absolutely a treasure! And I am very grateful to you both for doing it.
CD: What we hope to do with the Nunavut Quest series as well is secure an educational distributor to promote it as an educational series. Hopefully school districts across the country, across North America or even including Europe want to study about the Arctic and about the Inuit and their lifestyle and the series can enhance a curriculum.
SH: And with that in mind, I would be delighted to do a media review in The Fan Hitch.
CD: We're pretty close to being finished. We're working on the last bit of closed captioning and the creation of the masters are happening right now. What we then have to look at is our contract with the broadcasters. We can't do anything [about general sale to the public] until they've had the first broadcast. That would be the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network [http://www.aptn.ca/] and we still don't have a first broadcast date with them. But we will definitely let you know and thank you for having the interest in doing that. The Qimmiit: A Clash of Two Truths DVD is probably only a month away from being officially released through the National Film Board of Canada. I think that's an important historical piece for Nunavut. The comments we got from people who have reviewed it were that it was balanced, not defending anyone in particular and showed both sides of the story and reveals quite accurately the confusion of that time period for Inuit. It explains the dynamics of the relationship that existed between the white bureaucracy and Inuit.
Regarding the Nunavut Quest game, I will let you know when we have a version very close to completion. It will combine the Knowledge Base with a bit of fantasy as well.
JG: I should add a couple of things about the Knowledge Base. At the community level, we're really excited about it. The dog teamers are really excited about the Knowledge Base, too, and about their participation in it because it's a chance for them to share their knowledge and experience in a way that their kids and grandchildren will be able to see. The Knowledge Base is part of all the neat projects that Piksuk is doing. But the Knowledge Base is also going to be available in the community at Ittaq, the Heritage and Research Centre [http://ittaq.ca/] that is under Ilisaqsivik Society [http://www.ilisaqsivik.ca], a community-based wellness organization. We want to build a display so that anybody from the community any time of the day can come in and watch these clips, or the teachers who come into the community that are teaching the kids the different classes can take the clips into their classroom and can do a whole series, set up a curriculum based on them, like Charlotte was talking about. Because dog teaming touches on so many different aspects of traditional Inuit livelihood and lifestyle and also Inuit identity and what it means to Inuit just by watching these clips, it can inspire all sorts of different conversations about different cultural topics. At the end of the day it's also a literacy project for us. There's not a lot on TV in Inuktitut and anything we can get in a multimedia format, like a movie or a video game or in particular these little Knowledge Base clips, that are in Inuktitut is good for us because it helps us promote the language and helps kids learn Inuktitut. This way the kids in Clyde River who are watching these clips are learning in Inuktitut about important cultural stuff from their parents and grandparents. Certain words spoken in these clips are not what the kids are used to hearing on a daily basis in town. They might never have heard the words. It's easy to take it for granted right now that Inuktitut is still the language of the playground in Clyde River, but all you have to do is go to the western Arctic where very few kids speak their language and even adults don't always speak their language – they speak English – to know how easy it is to loose it. So any project we can be involved with that helps promote Inuktitut is good for us.
Aisa and Raygelee Piungituq
Courtesy of Piksuk Media/Ittaq Centre
SH: Charlotte, when starting down this road, had Piksuk imagined how profound an effect and all of the many benefits it would have, as Jake just described?
CD: No! We knew that the Nunavut Quest and the sled dogs particularly were such precious and invaluable elements of Inuit culture. We didn't realize the full potential for educating as well as entertaining, particularly with the game we have in development. There were times during the development when I would kind of sigh and think, "Oh, I just thought we'd be making a nice little game!" For the Quest, for us it's a real feel good project. And I'm so glad that there's such a wealth of knowledge in it that can benefit not only Inuit but the entire world as well. There are a lot of messages in there that I think are so vital to Inuit and to society in general.
One bit of a spinoff with the Knowledge Base that Jake has talked about is having a display at Ittaq where the community can come in where the knowledge is always there for them to plug into, so to speak. But the display at Ittaq Centre could be an attraction where visitors can go as well. We've had some interest from a group that brings in tourists from Quebec and France for home visits and an immersion in the culture as well. And some of this interest in Clyde as a community, potentially for some of these eco-tours, sprang up as a result of what they had read about what was happening with Piksuk, Ilisaqsivik and the different projects, particularly the Nunavut Quest. So some of the spinoffs could generate economic development within the community based on the culture and providing knowledge.
SH: Well, congratulations to Piksuk for the ball they got rolling!
CD: Thank you. And also to Ilisaqsivik and the community of Clyde River, because the success of the projects are very much based on being embraced by the community. The community seems to come together with Ilisaqsivik Society in a very healthy way.
SH: And I think the information you're providing is coming from the right source. I don't know if that makes sense. One can read an awful lot of books about the Arctic written by people outside of the Arctic, but their perspective isn't always the kind of perspective that you want to read about. And so what you are doing, from the Inuit perspective, I find very compelling!
CD: It certainly is and it's something that can easily be lost, even in Nunavut. Living in Iqaluit, I see so many examples of that.
SH: Jake, thanks for sending me the description of Qimmivut, the dog teaming workshop in Clyde River. What a program that is! I don't know if it has preceded or come about as a result of Piksuk's work. It seems like a very solid program which encourages that kind of learning experience of traditional culture and dog teaming.
JG: It's been going on now for five or six years. It's not a sure thing every year because we always need to find a funder every year and the funders change. So we write proposals and we've been successful. Sometimes the workshops run for a few weeks and sometimes for a month, depending on how much funding we're able to get.
I want to comment on what Charlotte said about possible other spinoffs, tourism and stuff, and it has to do with money. The real practical, not the romantic, part of dog teaming is that it costs a lot of money. Even up here for Inuit it costs a lot of money. In Clyde River nobody lives a completely traditional lifestyle and uses their dogs in a completely traditional way. Nobody completely depends on their dogs right now to feed themselves and their family. Everybody to some degree buys food from the Northern Store and everybody to some degree has to pay rent and has to pay for their heating fuel and all these bills and stuff. And they've got kids and they have to go to school…so you need money, dog teamer or not. And as you know, dog teaming is more than a full time commitment if you want to have good, healthy dogs that are in shape and well fed so they can work. And you're also trying to breed good dogs. It's a twelve-hour-a-day job, a lot of work! If we're interested in having good dog teams, not just staked out on the ice most of the time then are just used some times, we need to find ways to get paid to have those dogs. Either we work in tourism or we take out sport hunters or we get employed by organizations such as Ilisaqsivik that are trying to promote the culture or offering educational projects to teach youth about their own culture, or healing projects where we take people out on the land with dogs, talking about the way they used to live and the transition to today, how the cultural transition has been and what's been painful about it, what do they miss - sort of like grief and loss. So activities we do with dogs are like a little bit of all of that. We're looking for ways for dog teamers to get paid for their knowledge, for their experience, for their dedication to having dogs and for teaching youth all they know about dog teaming and dogs. You can see in Clyde River an increase in interest in dog teaming, the number of dog teams and also in an interest in taking really good care of dogs, having good dogs, because if you don't have a good dog team you won't be hired by Ilisaqsivik to go out on these trips that we do. Also the Nunavut Quest has had a positive impact on good dog care. You can actually win $10,000 dollars if you have the best dogs in the Quest. On this last race from Qikiqtarjuaq to Clyde River you could win some serious money. $10,000 dollars is enough money for you to do some things like feed your family for a few months or buy a skidoo which will allow you do go out and hunt. That's my little spiel about why we need money to have dogs. When I'm talking to people about dog teaming, sometimes I get the impression they think that for Inuit, dog teaming is a traditional lifestyle and doesn't cost money. But it's super, super, super expensive! We're not running the Iditarod so we don't have kennels of a hundred dogs or anything like that, but it is still very expensive.
SH: I'd like to comment, as a total outsider and maybe I have no business even suggesting this, but the Qikiqtani Inuit Association put an awful lot of effort into their Truth Commission. And I don't know where that has gone as far as restitution, if there is going to be any. If there is, and I didn't think they were even asking for money, but if there's any financial aspect of all of this, couldn't some of that money be directed towards the sorts of things that you, Jake, were talking about, in support of some of these projects? If the truth commissions started out as mostly about the dogs, then why shouldn't dogs and dog teaming benefit from it?
CD: In Nunavik I know that was included in the final report and recommendations. In Nunavut, I do not have a clue to what's been happening regarding the report and recommendations. But I'm sure that if the dog teamer beneficiaries of the Qikiqtani area were to present a request in that nature, the Qikiqtani Truth Commission would certainly give it due consideration. I'm not a beneficiary, I'm not part of that organization but I know they are extremely responsive to recommendations from their beneficiaries.
SH: Is there anything that I can do through The Fan Hitch to help with anything?
During Qimmivut 2011, instructors and youth work together
to load a ring seal caught using a seal net onto the qamutik.
photo: Joelie Sanguya
JG: Like Charlotte was talking about before, I would like to move to a route where promoting, Clyde River as a spot for people to come to learn about a lifestyle that involves Inuit Dogs…a kind of cultural tourism, to attract the kinds of tourists from the South and from everywhere that want to come to Clyde River, want to come to watch the Nunavut Quest documentary series and want to talk to Elders, want to go dog teaming, want to learn about all the cultural aspects of Inuit in Clyde River, visit the new whale sanctuary, really learn about the culture and go and use dogs. In that way it becomes a more sustainable way to earn a living for people with dog teams. We get lots of tourists now, but they're often ones who come to base-jump off the cliffs that are near us, or who come to hunt polar bears. They aren't necessarily interested in the culture and in the livelihoods of people here. I would like to try to promote this other kind of tourism I'm talking about. I think one of the ways to do that is through The Fan Hitch and through Piksuk's Nunavut Quest project.
SH: Please understand that both of you have an open invitation to submit articles and photos to The Fan Hitch. You are welcome to write continuing feature for every issue, maybe tie the topic to the season, to talk about what Clyde has to offer. It does have to relate to Inuit Dogs in some way or Inuit culture. We know that people all over the world are reading us and have an interest in this.
JG/CD: Thank you!
SH: You are most welcome. We are helping each other. I know that it is not my place to come stomping into the North and say, "This is what you must do to save this primitive aboriginal dog." This approach never works. But I'd like to be a cheerleader and help you in any way I can to promote the interest from the outside with the hope that people in the North will see how important their dogs and their culture are to people on the outside.
Thank you, Jake, for facilitating this three-way conference call and thanks so much to both of you for taking time from your busy schedules to chat with me. Bless you both for the work you're doing. It means the world to me as well as others with a keen interest in the primitive aboriginal Inuit Dog. We're all looking forward to the website, the traditional Knowledge Base and the Nunavut Quest game.
* * *Charlotte DeWolff, based in Iqaluit, fulfills senior producer obligations for Piksuk Media Inc. and oversees project administration and management.
Jakob Gearheard is the Executive Director of Ilisaqsivik Society, a non-profit Inuit organization dedicated to community wellness in Clyde River, Nunavut. For over twenty years, he has been involved in community development and wellness work. Since 2004, he has been committed to Inuit and northern issues through his position at Ilisaqsivik and on several territorial boards including Ajjiit Media Association, Nunavut Film Development Board and the Archives Council of Nunavut. Jakob lives in Clyde River with his wife Shari and 24 sled dogs