Igluminimnut ailirama: Returning home

In the Inuinnaqtun language, the word ‘iglu’ directly translates as ‘home.’ The Igluminimnut ailirama project was designed in 2012 to help Cambridge Bay residents familiarize themselves with igluit as both physical buildings and a former way of life for Inuinnait people.  

Program History

Despite its common association with snow houses, the word iglu, translated directly from the Inuinnaqtun language, refers to the place in which one resides. During interviews recorded at a 2011 Kitikmeot Heritage Society land camp, elders lamented the fact that the two meanings of the word are no longer the same: in the words of one elder, “nobody really lives in snow houses no more.” While most local elders were born and raised inside of traditional snow houses, the use of such structures was largely abandoned in the 1950s due to government programs of community settlement. The subsequent removal of Inuit youth to distant residential schools ensured that the knowledge of snow houses—as well as accompanying cultural practices—failed to be passed on to the next generation. Local residential school survivors have often lamented that they have no knowledge of their ancestors’ sense of ‘home.’

Later in 2011, during discussions regarding the healing of residential school survivors, a committee of local elders decided that a return to living on the land would be the best form of cultural re-education for residential school survivors and a new generation of local youth. While Inuit and heritage organizations in Cambridge Bay frequently sponsor cultural camps, they commonly take place only in the summer months. The necessity of living outdoors in all seasons was a reality for traditional Inuit life, and Elders felt that a winter component of winter camping was essential to introduce the fullness of traditional cultural activities. “I was born in an iglu,” noted Elder, Mary Avalak, “and I want to go home.”

In early February, 2012, a gathering of elders and residential school survivors was held by the KHS to make arrangements for a winter land camp. A team of twenty-five participants discussed the logistics of the upcoming program and shared stories and memories relating to their experience with iglu living. A survey indicated that all but four local elders had been born and raised inside an iglu. Despite this fact, many of the elders had not set foot inside a complete domestic iglu within the last three decades. Participating women spoke of the importance of the traditional qulliq, or soapstone lamp, to iglu life and indicated their desire to hold a preliminary lamp-carving workshop. Local men discussed the need for youth to gain knowledge about carving small-scale igluit for use during overnight hunting trips.  According to these discussions, the Igluminimnut ailirama Project (which translates as ‘Returning Home’) was designed in three distinct phases of qulliq lamp making, iglu building and iglu living, each one lasting for a period of one week.

Phase 1: Qulliq Building

The Igluminimnut Ailirama Project began with a weeklong soapstone lamp and pot workshop, designed to both reproduce the artifacts and explore their significance to traditional Inuit culture. Elders spoke of how the light and heat produced by soapstone lamps were once essential to Inuit survival throughout the long, dark winter. Food and water would be boiled in soapstone pots placed above the lamps, and wet clothing dried on racks hung above the flames. Due to their traditional importance to daily life, the soapstone lamps continue to symbolize the heart and hearth of Inuit culture.

Using only non-electric hand tools, a group of seven elders led participants through the steps of creating soapstone lamps and pots: visualizing the form of the vessel inside the raw soapstone block, cutting the exterior shape, chiseling out the inside, and smoothing the finished product. This process was accompanied by personal stories and memories relating to traditional life on the land at a time when the use of such lamps was still a necessity.  At the end of the workshop, two lamps and one boiling pot had been completed for use during the iglu land camp.

Phase 2: Iglu Building

The second phase of the iglu project took place between the 13th and 20th of February. The first day of the iglu building camp was spent in search of good snow. A team of twelve headed out on the land to find appropriate snow conditions for building. After several hours of searching a spot of hard packed snow was discovered on the bank of a coastal bay approximately 6 kilometers from the town.

The initial plan was to construct a qarriaq, a traditional structure in which a large community house was affixed to individual residential units. A large iglu of this variety has not been successfully constructed within recent memory of the community. A team of twenty participants worked over the course of three days to erect the building. In the end, the building collapsed due a combination of unsatisfactory snow conditions and the lack of specific iglu knowledge in the local cultural repertoire. It was decided that the project should resort to a more manageable scale, and four smaller igluit were slated for construction. A visiting guest from the community of Igloolik—where traditions of iglu building remain strong—helped participants with subtle details of snow block cutting and joining. Despite the cold temperatures, which ranged between -30 and -50 degrees with the wind chill, all four structures were completed by the end of the week.

Throughout the course of the first week on the land, many activities took place besides iglu building. Elders taught youth participants how to prepare land food and bannock using traditional qulliq lamps and soapstone pots. Holes were chiseled into the ice for tomcod fishing, and frequent breaks were taken for tobogganing and traditional games. Being outside on the land was a hugely cathartic experience for many of the participants, and much of the time was directed towards group healing. The team worked with a professional cinematographer to document land activities and gather interviews.

Phase 3: Iglu Living

The final week of the land camp (February 20th-27th) concentrated on skills associated with winter life and domestic living in igluit. The interiors of the finished igluit were furnished with animal skins and traditional implements. Lessons were given by elders on how to maintain the fire of qulliq lamps, and how to use their heat to dry belongings and melt ice for water and tea. Numerous visitors from town attended the camp and learned the skills of winter camping. Field days were arranged with the local schools and students brought out for four hour stretches to play traditional sports and experience the workings of igluit for the very first time. The clearing of an ice road from town facilitated the transportation of elders and residential school survivors unable to otherwise get to the site by skidoo and komatik. It is estimated that approximately two hundred people visited the igluit over the course of the week.

Project Outcomes and Benefits

There are numerous ways in which the Igluminimnut Ailirama Project has served to benefit the community of Cambridge Bay. Foremost, the program created the opportunity to bring residential school survivors and youth together with elders to both teach and learn about their culture in a traditional setting. The chance to spend time out on the land was equally beneficial to numerous other Cambridge Bay residents—particularly those with less mobility— who did not normally have access to a traditional lifestyle. Residential school survivors frequently spoke about the cathartic experience of leaving town in order to participate in iglu building, harvesting and eating land food, or simply spending time outdoors. At times, the camp became quite emotional, with participants simultaneously lamenting the fact that traditional knowledge has been absent from their lives, and rejoicing in the opportunity to once more regain valuable skills from their culture and past.

With the process of iglu building now fully documented and accessible to community members through personal experience, photography and video, it is anticipated that the structures and their associated skills will once again become an integral component of living in Cambridge Bay.

Project Sponsors

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society would like to thank the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for their generous funding of the Igluminimnut ailirama program. We would also like to thank the Municipal Hamlet of Cambridge Bay, the Cambridge Bay Wellness Centre and the Kiilinik High School for their contributions to the program.