2 December 2009

When I came in to the small town of Arviat on the northwest coast of Hudson Bay I was disappointed at the lack of majesty I had been expecting. Instead the landscape was flat and full of grey ice. The town was a series of wooden cabins, expertly made to keep out the constant chill that tried to invade my bones with every gust of arctic air.

The driver of my snow mobile was excited that Arviat would once again be hosting an anthropologist. I was deposited with barely restrained enthusiasm at the front door of my temporary home.

I was adopted as the daughter of Jim Nirolopok. Jeremy, Jim’s son, had just turned seventeen and was navigating the new responsibilities that came with growing into an adult man. Nina was Jim’s youngest child at seven. She had a zest and exuberance for life that was tempered with the knowledge of a much more mature person.
It didn’t take me long to realise that this family was touched by grief. Evie, Jim’s wife, had died last spring and the family was still recovering. They hoped that by adopting meI would prove a joyful distraction.
That night I went to sleep in the guest bedroom with the generator humming and the wind whistling. It was so different to the obnoxious growls of cars that I never thought I would miss.

 

4 February 2010

Today I traveled with Jim, Jeremy and a half dozen other hunters to the floe edge. These first few weeks every place they took me to was just an unidentified blob of ice and snow. I always felt nauseous standing at the edge of the ice shelf with blocks of ice floating ominously on the uninviting expanse of sea. This place was a land of change outside the realm of anything I had ever experience. The winds and tide changed the sea to ice, the seasons determined what was liquid or solid.

The hunters would laugh at the expressions on my face. They didn’t understand my fears. Solid land could be covered by inches of sea water while water could look like solid land. But to them the sea and the land were one.

I would tentatively follow and fear for my life while they scrambled with a strange kind of grace over the ice floes with sticks feeling the way.

In contrast to my clumsiness at hunting I was beginning to form a deep bond with Nina and Jeremy. They confided that when they were with me, memories of their mother didn’t stab at their hearts quite so much. As someone who lost my father when I was young, I could help them navigate through emotions that see-sawed during times of incredible loss.

 

1 March 2011

Today we used the canoes to take us closer to our hunting spot. We travelled to a stretch of ice near a reef that was only distinguishable from the sound of laborious cracking due to the build-up of pressure. I remember smiling as I took in the world around me, made familiar through all the memories that had taken place during my time here.

Over there where that mound of ice looked like a polar bear had been water the month before and was when Jeremy had caught a fish as big as his torso. That island in the distance was where we had all been telling ghost stories around the camp fire. I had jumped when a polar bear had roared, causing the hunters to laugh.
We were doing our usual shamble over the ice when a crack sounded, chilling me to my soul. The crack echoed and was followed by a splash. Jim had fallen through the ice. We all rushed over to the hole as quickly as we could without following Jim into the water.

We stayed there forever trying to find Jim. Long after anyone could have held their breath or survived from the cold. That place by the reef would be imprinted in our minds as a bad place, a place for ghosts.

****

25 March 2011

Dear Professor Goldberg,

Enclosed in this notebook is the description of my experiences in Arviat. I hope they will serve to further the knowledge our discipline has on Inuit life and culture.

I have found a deep love for Arviat and the landscape it occupies. I have never felt more at home than I do here.

My adoptive brother and sister are now orphans in need of my help and guidance through a time of grief.The relationship I have built with them transcends my desire for anthropology. Quite simply we consider each other as family.

As a result I will not be returning to Toronto.

Thank you for all of your guidance.

Sincerely,

Meredith Saunders

 

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Inspired by an article by Martina Tyrell (2006) ‘From Placelessness to Place: An Ethnographer’s Experience of Growing to Know Places at Sea.’ Worldviews 10(2): 220-238. Arviat in Hudson Bay is a real place but the people and events are the products of my imagination.