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Inuk artist and poet Alootook Ipellie (Iqaluit, Baffin Island, 1951-2007) might’ve thrilled to the vocal sounds – both traditional and progressive/highly original – of contemporary singer Tanya Tagaq (born 1975). The following poem, which Ipellie wrote in 1974, could’ve been referring to the future Tagaq – just substitute “singer” for “dancer”!
One of those Wonderful Nights
It was one of those wonderful nights
When we gathered at the dance house.
I recall the familiar sights
When everyone laughed and danced
And had a tremendous time.
The great drums were booming,
Hands were clapping,
And happy faces were rocking back
And forth with the rhythmic dancing
Of the woman who had four legs.
Happy were those days when this
Woman danced all night long without
Resting for a moment.
She gave us so much joy,
So much feeling for life,
That the hazards of the land were
On one of those wonderful nights
When we gathered at the dance house.
. . .
. . . . .
Alootook Ipellie (1951-2007)
“It Was Not ‘Jajai-ja-jiijaaa‘ Anymore – But ‘Amen’”
It was in the guise of the Holy Spirit
That they swooped down on the tundra
Single-minded and determined
To change forever the face
Of ancient Spirituals
These lawless missionaries from places unknown
Became part of the landscape
Which was once the most sacred tomb
Of lives lived long ago
The last connection to the ancient Spirits
Of the most sacred land
Would be slowly severed
Never again to be sensed
Never again to be felt
Never again to be seen
Never again to be heard
Never again to be experienced
Sadness supreme for the ancient culture
Jubilation in the hearts of the converters
Where was justice to be found?
They said it was in salvation
From eternal fire
In life after death
And unto everlasting Life in Heaven
A simple life lived
On the sacred land was no more
The psalm book now replaced
The sacred songs of shamans
The Lord’s Prayer now ruled
Over the haunting chant of revival
It was not ‘Jajai-ja-jiijaaa’ anymore
. . .
“How noisy they seem”
I saw a picture today, in the pages of a book.
It spoke of many memories of when I was still a child:
Snow covered the ground,
And the rocky hills were cold and gray with frost.
The sun was shining from the west,
And the shadows were dark against the whiteness of the
My body felt a chill
Looking at two Inuit boys playing with their sleigh,
For the fur of their hoods was frosted under their chins,
From their breathing.
In the distance, I could see at least three dog teams going away,
But I didn’t know where they were going,
For it was only a photo.
I thought to myself that they were probably going hunting,
To where they would surely find some seals basking on the ice.
Seeing these things made me feel good inside,
And I was happy that I could still see the hidden beauty of the land,
And know the feeling of silence.
. . .
“Walking Both Sides of an Invisible Border”
It is never easy
Walking with an invisible border
Separating my left and right foot
I feel like an illegitimate child
Forsaken by my parents
At least I can claim innocence
Since I did not ask to come
Into this world
Walking on both sides of this
Each and everyday
And for the rest of my life
Is like having been
Sentenced to a torture chamber
Without having committed a crime
Understanding the history of humanity
I am not the least surprised
This is happening to me
During this population explosion
In a minuscule world
I did not ask to be born an Inuk
Nor did I ask to be forced
To learn an alien culture
With its alien language
But I lucked out on fate
Which I am unable to undo
I have resorted to fancy dancing
In order to survive each day
No wonder I have earned
The dubious reputation of being
The world’s premier choreographer
Of distinctive dance steps
That allow me to avoid
Potential personal paranoia
On both sides of this invisible border
Sometimes the border becomes so wide
That I am unable to take another step
My feet being too far apart
When my crotch begins to tear
I am forced to invent
A brand new dance step
The premier choreographer
Saving the day once more
Destiny acted itself out
Deciding for me where I would come from
And what I would become
So I am left to fend for myself
Walking in two different worlds
Trying my best to make sense
Of two opposing cultures
Which are unable to integrate
Lest they swallow one another whole
Each and everyday
Is a fighting day
A war of raw nerves
And to show for my efforts
I have a fair share of wins and losses
When will all this end
This senseless battle
Between my left and right foot
When will the invisible border
Cease to be.
. . . . .
“Self-Portrait: Inverse Ten Commandments” (1993)
I woke up snuggled in the warmth of a caribou-skin blanket during a vicious storm. The wind was howling like a mad dog, whistling whenever it hit a chink in my igloo. I was exhausted from a long, hard day of sledding with my dogteam on one of the roughest terrains I had yet encountered on this particular trip.
I tried going back to sleep, but the wind kept waking me as it got stronger and even louder. I resigned myself to just lying there in the moonless night, eyes open, looking into the dense darkness. I felt as if I was inside a black hole somewhere in the universe. It didn’t seem to make any difference whether my eyes were opened or closed.
The pitch darkness and the whistling wind began playing games with my equilibrium. I seemed to be going in and out of consciousness, not knowing whether I was still wide awake or had gone back to sleep. I also felt weightless, as if I had been sucked in by a whirlwind vortex.
My conscious mind failed me when an image of a man’s face appeared in front of me. What was I to make of his stony stare – his piercing eyes coloured like a snowy owl’s, and bloodshot, like that of a walrus?
He drew his clenched fists in front of me. Then, one by one, starting with the thumbs, he spread out his fingers. Each finger and thumb revealed a tiny, agonized face, with protruding eyes moving snake-like, slithering in and out of their sockets! Their tongues wagged like tails, trying to say something, but only mumbled, since they were sticking too far out of their mouths to be legible. The pitch of their collective squeal became higher and higher and I had to cover my ears to prevent my eardrums from being punctured. When the high pitched squeal became unbearable, I screamed like a tortured man.
I reached out frantically with both hands to muffle the squalid mouths. Just moments before I grabbed them, they faded into thin air, reappearing immediately when I drew my hands back.
Then there was perfect silence.
I looked at the face, studying its features more closely, trying to figure out who it was. To my astonishment, I realized the face was that of a man I knew well. The devilish face, with its eyes planted upside down, was really some form of an incarnation of myself! This realization threw me into a psychological spin.
What did this all mean? Did the positioning of his eyes indicate my devilish image saw everything upside down? Why the panic-stricken faces on the tips of his thumbs and fingers? Why were they in such fits of agony? Had I indeed arrived at Hell’s front door and Satan had answered my call?
The crimson sheen reflecting from his jet-black hair convinced me I had arrived at the birthplace of all human fears. His satanic eyes were so intense that I could not look away from them even though I tried. They pulled my mind into a hypnotic state. After some moments, communicating through telepathy, the image began telling me horrific tales of unfortunate souls experiencing apocalyptic terror in Hell’s Garden of Nede.
The only way I could deal with this supernatural experience was to fight to retain my sanity, as fear began overwhelming me. I knew it would be impossible for me to return to the natural, physical world if I did not fight back.
This experience made my memory flash back to the priestly eyes of our local minister of Christianity. He had told us how all human beings, after their physical death, were bound by the doctrine of the Christian Church that they would be sent to either Heaven or Hell. The so-called Christian minister had led me to believe that if I retained my good-humoured personality toward all mankind, I would be assured a place in God’s Heaven. But here I was, literally shrivelling in front of an image of myself as Satan incarnate!
I couldn’t quite believe what my mind telepathically heard next from this devilish man. As it turned out, the ten squalid heads represented the Inverse Ten Commandments in Hell’s Garden of Nede. To reinforce this, the little mouths immediately began squealing acidic shrills. They finally managed to make sense with the motion of their wagging tongues. Two words sprang out thrice from ten mouths in unison: “Thou Shalt! Thou Shalt! Thou Shalt!” I could not believe I was hearing those two words. Why was I the object of Satan’s wrath? Had I been condemned to Hell’s Hole?
My mind flashed back to the solemn interior of our local church once more where these words had been spoken by the minister: “God made man in His own image.” In which case, the Satan could also have made man in his own image. So I was almost sure that I was face to face with my own image as the Satan of Hell!
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” the image said, his hands reaching for mine. “Welcome to the Garden of Nede.”
I found his greeting repulsive, more so when he wrapped his squalid fingertips around my hands. The slithering eyes retreated into their sockets, closing their eyelids. The wagging tongues began slurping and licking my hands like hungry tundra wolves. I pulled my hands away as hard as I could but wasn’t able to budge them.
The rapid motion of their sharp tongues cut through my skin. The cruelty inflicted on me was unbearable! Blood was splattering all over my face and body. I screamed in dire pain. As if by divine intervention, I instinctively looked down between the legs of my Satanic image. I bolted my right knee upward as hard as I could muster toward his triple bulge. My human missile hit its target, instantly freeing my hands. In the same violent moment, the image of myself as the Satan of Hell’s Garden of Nede disappeared into thin air. Only a wispy odour of burned flesh remained.
Pitch darkness once again descended all around. Total silence. Calm. Then, peace of mind…
Some days later, when I had arrived back in my camp, I was able to analyze what I had experienced that night. As it turned out, my soul had gone through time and space to visit the dark side of myself as the Satan incarnate. My soul had gone out to scout my safe passage to the cosmos. The only way any soul is freed is for it to get rid of its Satan incarnate at the doorstep of Hell’s Garden of Nede. If my soul had not done what it did, it would have remained mired in Hell’s Garden of Nede for an eternity after my physical death. This was a revelation that I did not quite know how to deal with. But it was an essential element of my successful passage to the cosmos as a soul and therefore, the secret to my happiness in afterlife!
When Inuk illustrator and writer Alootook Ipellie died of heart attack at the age of 56 in 2007 he had only just unveiled a series of new drawings at an Ottawa exhibition – this, after a decade of artistic silence. Paul Gessell of The Ottawa Citizen wrote: “Ipellie’s technical skills are unbeatable. His content ranges from playfully innocent to devilishly searing. These pen-and-ink drawings, although often minimal, carry a wallop.”
Born in 1951 to Napatchie and Joanassie at a nomadic hunting camp on Baffin Island, Ipellie’s family moved to Frobisher Bay (later Iqaluit) when Alootook was a little boy. As an adult the shy and thoughtful Ipellie lived in Ottawa for most of his life, and that was where he completed high school in the late 1960s. Although he enrolled in a lithography course at West Baffin Co-op, he dropped out of it in 1972 and took a job as both typist and translator for Inuit Today magazine. He also began to do one-box cartoons for the magazine, commenting on social issues with a wry humour that Inuit readers appreciated. He would wear many hats at Inuit Today, eventually becoming editor. In the early 1990s he drew a popular comic called “Nuna and Vut” for Nunatsiaq newspaper where he also penned a column called “Ipellie’s Shadow”.
Not one to travel – although he did plan to return to Nunavut in 2008, having grown tired of southern life – still, Ipellie had ventured as far as Germany and Australia to tour with his pen-and-ink drawings which were slowly gaining recognition – slowly very slowly, because the art collectors’ preference continues to be for the beautiful bird images of Kenojuak Ashevak (bless her!) over those of Annie Pootoogook – where the here-and-now ‘real-ness’ factor is paramount.
A poet and short-story writer as well, Ipellie explored a vividly creative imagination in his 1993 story-book with illustrations: Arctic Dreams and Nightmares.
In the preface he wrote: “This is a story of an Inuk who has been dead for a thousand years and who then recalls the events of his former life through the eyes of his living soul. It’s also a story about a powerful shaman who learned his shamanic trade as an ordinary Inuk. He was determined to overcome his personal weaknesses, first by dealing with his own mind and, then, with the forces out of his reach or control.”
In Arctic Dreams and Nightmares bawdy humour and frank descriptions of sex and violence give Ipellie’s stories much in common with the Inuit people’s stories from olden times. Ipellie writes of his main character’s encounter with his Satanic other self; of his crucifixion, too, complete with hungry wolves; of Sedna, the Inuit Mother of Sea Beasts’ sexual frustration and how shamans came up with a plan to help satisfy Her so that she would release walrus and seal once again for the starving ice fishermen and their families; a hermaphrodite shaman who is executed via harpoon plus bow-and-arrow; and a sealskin blanket-toss game for the purpose of throwing a man all the way up to ‘heaven’.
Alootook Ipellie’s perspective on his life as an Inuk was this:
“In some ways, I think I am fortunate to have been part and parcel of an era when cultural change pointed its ugly head to so many Inuit who eventually became victims of this transitional change. It is to our credit that, as a distinct culture, we have kept our eyes and intuition on both sides of the cultural tide, aspiring, as always, to win the battle as well as the war. Today, we are still mired in the battle but the war is finally ending.”
We thank John Thompson of the Iqaluit weekly Nunatsiaq News for biographical details of Alootook Ipellie’s life.
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