Making a Whole Person: Traditional Inuit Education
Making a Whole Person: Traditional Inuit Education
As if saying, “make way for us”, “here we come”, the parka-clad, jubilant Inuit children, dashing across snow, seem to be running right off the cover page and into the storied world of Making a Whole Person: Traditional Inuit Education. This is a refreshing and decidedly strength-based book that documents and shares, as the title indicates, some central values of “traditional Inuit education”—the nourishment, and propellant of Inuit resurgence. Without doubt, this memoir is a gift from, and to, Inuit and all Canadians!
Brought to us by the Qinuisaarniq, meaning resiliency, – “a program created to educate Nuavummiut and all Canadians about the history and impacts of residential school policies of assimilation, and other colonial acts that affected the Canadian arctic” – this book draws on the early life of the author and speaks convincingly about lived knowledge of socialization processes and goal of Inuit children in their own communities—that of making a whole person.
In computer-generated cartoon style illustrations, the book opens with an endearing double-page spread of happy Inuit children playing collaboratively with their dolls, under blue skies, unconfined, in a wide-open space, not far from an open body of water, suggestive of the freedom they enjoyed while learning on the land surrounded by the natural beauty of/in their communities. Throughout, text and images meld nicely to present seven vignettes that center specificities about Inuit education when it was in their hands, an education intended to construct well-rounded human beings, whole persons.
For instance, in the first vignette, readers learn that pre-contact Inuit education for children was family-centric and relied on modelling and demonstration, guided practice, gradual release of responsibility, and the use of games. One such game was “Uat Tamanna” which required use of a “blindfold” and was used to teach the children the “different parts of the qarmaq”, the Inuit’s winter home, through loving and joyful play that validated the children’s humanity and maturity levels while nurturing a positive perspective on learning. Depictions of Inuit children playing such games are captured in sensitively rendered, cartoon-style illustrations showing ebullience and beauty, evocative of reclamation, and hopefulness
The second vignette showcases another game, “Hide the Thimble”, that “taught” alertness and “hunting skills”, skills such as being able to identify a “white animal on the snow, which can hard to find even if it’s not hiding.” Such was the value of hiding and finding the thimble—preparing the children for life in their community. When colonization showed up, there was quick uptake of some new ways as is illustrated in the remembered practice of covering the qarmaq’s walls with pages from magazines which enabled a game called “Hand and Pull” in which, the children tried to “find … many capital H’s” and also the “letters, which looked like a snake.” Ultimately functional, the games stressed the importance of “searching” because Inuit “had to do a lot of searching on the land when…. hunting” (p. 10).
Thus, this illustrated book places high valence on games-based learning of culturally relevant practices. Games such as “play real”, where the children learned “everything that the adults did”, prepared them for success later in life. The author recalls her father making her “a family of wooden dolls—mother, father, daughter and son.” Girls took on the gender-based roles of their mothers (e.g., girls sewing an amauti, the parka worn by the women). Ittusardjuat also foregrounds that “[l]ittle boys used to have toy dog teams, just like their fathers. They used the femur bones of a seal as the dogs, and they were harnessed with real dogs. Their fathers helped them make the harness.” (p. 12). Through guided assistance, patience, and kindness, children were initiated and apprenticed in the technologies, arts and crafts of their parents and wider communities. The accompanying, complementary illustrations show the curiosity and engrossment of Inuit children in the immersive learning experiences of their families.
Ittusardjuat, for instance, explains that:
Boys would come along with their male relatives on hunting trips at first, just to watch and learn. When a boy’s father decided it was the right time, he would guide his son along. The most important thing they were taught was to respect the animals and not to hurt them as a game, but only to kill them for food and clothing and other things we needed. They were taught to only kill as many animals as they needed to eat. (p. 14).
Also highlighted are those teachings that were “important for both boys and girls”, teachings such as the value of “sharing”, thoughtfulness and generosity. For example, boys were guided to give the “first choices of meat” of their first animal to the “midwife who helped at [their] birth”, and “little girls were taught to give their first pair of mitts or kamiik to someone they respected …so that she would want to keep sewing and make more clothing to share” (p. 16).
Through fervent annunciation, the author emphasizes that “cultural and traditional values” were taught by “example, through trial and error”. These truth-memories are depicted/captured in the illustrations, such as the one depicting the author’s visit to an Elder, indicating that teachings about “respect and honour” for Elders were not abstract concepts. Rather, they were lived, experienced, acted upon, mindfully modelled and fondly remembered, and through this book rendered explicitly with images to enhance understanding and internalization of these cultural practices by readers and viewers. We see the author as a young girl moving eagerly into the open arms of a smiling female Elder while her mother looks on, thereby ensuring the passing on of a foundational social practice while expressing mutuality and interdependence.
According to the teachings of Making a Whole Person, traditional Inuit education centralized and continues to centralize humanization, i.e., a life-long ethical journey, beginning in childhood, one that emphasized[/es] sharing, taking “responsibility and accountability, looking out “for one another,” and where “[e]verything was/[is] done for the good of everyone, and you had to do your part, no matter how small” (p. 18).
Making a Whole Person is an Inuit authored post-colonial gem of a picture book that signals a significant shift in power relations in the settler state where Inuit education is now solidly in Inuit hands. These hands now rightly privilege documenting and sharing information about the primary tenets and values of traditional Inuit education. This noteworthy contribution is emblematic of the space Inuit and other Indigenous Canadians have opened for education—truth and reconciliation— for self and others. A work of resistance, it does not grant much space to the trauma’s inflicted by colonization; instead, it directs mindful attention to what undergirded Inuit life as the author knew it and now proclaims its resilience, endurance, and sustainability.
Rich in teachings, Making a Whole Person: Traditional Inuit Education is energetically illustrated, via computer, by Yong Ling Kang who uses warm hues of bronze and a complementary palette of muted colours evocative of the arctic biome, the tundra, where considerable time is spent indoors during the long winters of subdued lighting. Yong Ling Kang’s muted colours are offset by the snowy-white of arctic winters/snowscapes and glints of yellow and light blue that are abundant in spring. Words and images walk and work well together in this important and memorable work of re-membering traditional Inuit education!
Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan.