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An Excerpt from Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel

An episode from Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk's novel about Inuit life. 

Book Cover Sanaaq

In the early 1950s, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was asked by a priest working in Kangiqsujuaq in northern Quebec to write down some Inuttitut phrases to assist him in the study of the language. At the age of twenty-two, Nappaaluk began writing but did not stop at mere phrases. She invented a group of characters and events and, over the next twenty years, wrote the first Inuit novel, simultaneously reinventing the novel form.

Due in part to the perseverance of French anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, Sanaaq was first published in syllabic Inuttitut in 1987. His French translation appeared in 2002. This English translation now brings this cornerstone of Inuit literature to Anglophone readers and scholars.

Sanaaq is an intimate story of an Inuit family negotiating the changes brought into their community by the coming of the qallunaat, the white people, in the mid-19th century. Composed in 48 episodes, it recounts the daily life of Sanaaq, a strong and outspoken young widow, her daughter Qumaq, and their small semi-nomadic community in northern Quebec. Here they live their lives hunting seal, repairing their kayak, and gathering mussels under blue sea ice before the tide comes in. These are ordinary extraordinary lives: marriages are made and unmade, children are born and named, violence appears in the form of a fearful husband or a hungry polar bear. Here the spirit world is alive and relations with non-humans are never taken lightly. And under it all, the growing intrusion of the qallunaat and the battle for souls between the Catholic and Anglican missionaries threatens to forever change the way of life of Sanaaq and her young family.

Also check out: Keavy Martin on Inuit & Indigenous Cultures, and the History of the Western Canada


The sea had not completely frozen over yet. This provided Arnatuinnaq with a chance to hunt gulls on the water with an ii.She recited the following charm: “My ii, my ii, swallow it, make a mouthful of it, stuff your beak with it, even if you have begun to spit it out! Stick into the inside of its throat, stick into it!”

This is what the Inuit recite when they hunt gulls with an ii.They say they want to make it swallow the ii.

“I got a big gull to swallow theii!” said Arnatuinnaq to herself. “Several times it tried to fly away, but it was firmly hooked to my ii!”

Here is how an ii is used. It is set down on the foreshore and attached to a long line anchored by a stone. A little piece of wood will keep it afloat and the hook is a metal nail smeared with blubber.

Arnatuinnaq headed to the big gull and took it back to shore. When she came home, Sanaaq said to her, “Arnatuinnaq! Is it really the first gull you’ve caught?”

“Yes! It’s the first gull I’ve caught!”

Sanaaq exclaimed, “We’ll quarter it! Let’s go!”

Qalingu went outside holding the gull in his hand and shouting to his camp mates, “Come and quarter!”

“Yes, we’re coming right away!” replied Aqiarulaaq. And she added, speaking to her old man, “He’s asking that we come and quarter!”

“Yes, with great pleasure!” answered Taqriasuk.

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk

All the people were outside and they began to quarter the bird: Taqriasuk and Jiimialuk each held down one of its feet, Aqiarulaaq grabbed a wing and Sanaaq the other wing, Qalingu held its tail, and Arnatuinnaq its head. Arnatuinnaq shouted, “Let’s go! Everyone pull on our side! This is really fun! i i i i i !But I haven’t got anything! It’s a really tough one to quarter, i i i!”

All the participants laughed heartily. Taqriasuk, the oldest of the group, got a foot and started to eat it raw while boasting, “I’m eating raw foot… uumm! Is it ever good!”

But no sooner had he eaten some of it than he felt sickened by the gull’s taste and began to throw up uncontrollably.

Ua! ua! Ua! ua!Water! I really feel sick to my stomach... I threw up something that’s got an awful gull taste... It’s really not meant to be eaten raw!”

Once they were done, the participants went home and undressed for bed.

At that moment Ningiukuluk’s family arrived within view of the camp, having been overtaken by nightfall during their move to the campsite. In her tent, Aqiarulaaq was scolding her adopted child, Aanikallak, who, though already a big girl, frequently wet her bed and still had fleas. “Aanikallak! Undress for bed and, since you often wet your bed, take this dog skin to put under yourself!”

They all undressed for bed. As they were falling asleep, their dogs began to howl in the black night, “Muu, muu, miuu, miuu!”… disturbed as they were by the arrival of strangers. Ningiukuluk’s family was approaching. Qalingu heard something and said, “Listen! There are dogs barking loudly. Sounds like harnessed dogs pulling on their lines!”

The members of Ningiukuluk’s family were pitching camp in the dead of night. They were erecting their tent, for the snow had melted in spots following a rise in temperature. Ningiukuluk said, “The moon is bright! Let’s put the tent up quickly. We’ll get our things in order tomorrow at daylight!”

Akutsiak and her younger sister were shivering with cold, having travelled at night. After raising the tent, they took their things in. Irsutualuk, their old man, was there too. They unharnessed their dogs, settled in, and undressed for bed, but not before having the tea they had made over a small fireplace for want of a camp stove.

At daylight, they were visited by Aqiarulaaq, who exclaimed, “Why did you do that? Why didn’t you come and have an arrival meal? You arrived without my even noticing!”

“We refrained from having one so as not to wake you up!” answered Ningiukuluk.

Meanwhile, everyone having left Aqiarulaaq’s tent, it was now being invaded by the dogs.

“Listen!” said Aqiarulaaq. “Sounds like the dogs have gone into someone’s tent... Yes! It’s mine they’ve gone into! Our home is full of dogs!” She chased the plunderers away. “Uuit! Pack of no-good mutts!” She hit the dogs with a stick, seriously hurting one of them in the spine, one of Irsutualuk’s dogs. She was very embarrassed about the injury and did not dare talk about it. Irsutualuk went to Aqiarulaaq’s place in a fit of anger.

“Who hurt our dog? Our only good dog… Someone had better get me another one! Were you the one who hurt it?”

“I hurt it, but not on purpose, when I was chasing away the dogs that had invaded my home!”

Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk (1931-2007) was an educator and author based in the northern Quebec territory of Nunavik. Dedicated to preserving Inuit culture, Nappaaluk authored over twenty books, including Sanaaq, the first novel written in Inuttitut syllabics. In 1999, Nappaaluk received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the Heritage and Spirituality category. In 2000, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from McGill University and in 2004 was appointed to the Order of Canada.

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