Unearthed
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Karen Kitekudlak: A Pillar Of Strength In The Arctic

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Where is your home?

The most beautiful community of Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada. Located within the Inuvialuit Settlement Region on Victoria Island (Canada’s second largest island and the world’s eighth largest).

Ulukhaktok is the traditional place name, it means the place where you find material to make ulus (ulus are traditional Inuit women’s knives).

We are officially Inuvialuit with ties to Inuvialuit and Alaskan Inuit to the west, but we are also Copper Inuit with ties to the Eastern Arctic.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Does everyone know each other in the community?

Everyone knows everyone in Ulukhaktok, either related by blood or marriage in one way or another.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

For those who aren’t from here, they’re usually adopted into another family. We like people to belong here if this is what they consider home.

What’s the hardest part of living in the Arctic?

Cost. Everything is so expensive up here. A liter of milk is just over $4, a pound of ground beef is about $7, a loaf of bread is just over $2. Gas, heating fuel, power — it all costs so much to live up here.

Traditional ulus (“woman’s knife”). Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

A few winters ago, I barely made it through January and February when it was super cold. I couldn’t keep up with the cost of heating fuel for the house.

Despite that, I have no plans on ever moving from home, my roots and family are here, and the land is too beautiful to leave.

How did your family end up so far off the beaten path?

My maternal grandfather, Jimmy Memogana, was originally from Alaska. But in those days, there were no borders. Inuit moved nomadically to wherever the hunting was best.

Traditional tattoos on Karen’s left hand to represent her paternal grandparents. Wrist: Pattern from her Grampa’s parka. Fingers: X to represent her Granny, who used to sign her name with an X or cross. Karen says she had the most profound impact on her life. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

During the Spanish Flu epidemic, his parents died, and he and his siblings were orphaned. His brother and sister were adopted out to other families; my grandfather/Dadak was adopted by Natkusiak, who worked on the Stefansson expedition. They traveled to the area where we now live, where he met my grandmother and started a family.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

My maternal grandmother was originally from around the Kugluktuk, Nunavut area. She was also orphaned at a young age and was adopted by a married couple. Both my maternal grandparents being orphaned at a young age played a huge role in how they lived their lives.

They experienced the fear of insecurity (for Inuit, having ties or kinship or connections is vital), so they learned the value of friendship and always had an open home to everyone, no matter status or circumstances.

Traditional tattoos on Karen’s right hand represent her maternal grandparents. Wrist: Dadak’s parka pattern. Fingers: Nanak’s parka pattern. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

For the budding Jeapordy! contestants out there, what’s an interesting fact about your community?

Ulukhaktok was known for its printmaking worldwide and in the past had put out collections to the art galleries for years. We also have the world’s most northerly nine-hole golf course and host the annual Billy Joss Open golf tournament, where it’s not unusual for ravens to steal golf balls in the middle of play.

Karen’s father finishing off a fishing hole. Gas-powered auger was used to start it, but the ice was too thick even with an extension and the hole was finished with a tuuk (chisel). Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

We are always known for our friendliness. Whenever we travel, others always recognize us as Ulukhaktomiut because of our smiles and friendliness.

What are the main languages spoken?

Inuinnaqtun is the traditional language here; English is also spoken. The fluent speakers of our language are elders and older adults. Most have lost the language due to The Residential School Experience.

What is your main role in the community?

I’m the coordinator for Ulukhaktok Western Drummers and Dancers.

Karen Kitekudlak in drum dance regalia. The hood and hassels are made from wolf and wolverine fur, sleeves are beaver fur (although traditionally the sleeves have no fur). Photo Credit: Stewart Burnett

How does it feel when you drum dance?

Once I start drum dancing, all the noise of life (work, stress, bills, schedules), fades away. It’s like finding your balance — everything is just as it should be.

Ulukhaktok Western Drummers and Dancers getting ready to perform on a cruise ship (after the Northwest Passage opened up, there was an increase in cruise ships passing through). Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

That drum starts beating then everything becomes right again, and once they start singing all the joys come up to the surface.

What’s something about you most people don’t know?

I love Metallica. I am a heavy metal fan; no one really likes that genre of music, so I usually listen to it alone. I also love rock and alternative rock.

Karen’s mother working on mitts. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

I noticed your beautiful craftwork on the Northwest Territories Arts website. How did you learn your skill?

We grew up around seamstresses: our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, siblings. We’re started off at a young age with scraps to “play” sew on, and always encouraged in a positive way.

Children are also taught the skills in school and in Indigenous Government programs. These are open to all youth, both male and female, as both need to learn the skills.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

It’s an essential component of survival. If a hunter is out camping by himself and something happens to his tent or parka or kammak (traditional shoes), then he needs to know how to repair it on his own.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

I grew up watching both my grandmothers sew. And my paternal grandmother would have me help her with her orders (she sewed items for the local craft shop for income). I would sit there and sew alongside her and it was the happiest time of my childhood.

Those stitches and that time spent together was priceless. After she passed away, I stopped sewing for over two decades.

How did you start sewing again after your grandmother passed away?

The pain and grief were too much, and I couldn’t pick up a needle until my heart and soul were ready for it. When my own nephews and nieces were becoming toddlers, I decided it was time to start sewing mitts and kammak for them, so I started relearning the skills again.

TikTok mitts made for Karen’s niece, Tanesha. They have beaded design and dyed pink seal skin with gox cuffs. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

I was extremely fortunate because around the time that I wanted to learn new things, a project started in town with a young university student and our local indigenous government called “Nunamin Illihakvia: Learning from the Land’’.

I was selected as a participant in adult sewing classes (i.e., seal skin parka making, sunburst or the “sunshine” fur ruff for the hood of parkas, wall hangings). I’m still learning new things and techniques from those around me.

What animals are caught or hunted for subsistence? Do you eat every part of what you catch or are there non-food uses as well?

We eat the meat of polar bears, but it’s very tough since they are a predatory animal. Hides are sold to taxidermists for income and, in some cases, made into clothing. When my Dad or nephews get a polar bear, we make sure to plan a whole day to flesh the hide — it’s so much harder to do than other animals and takes at least three of us to get done within a day.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

They are usually hunted in the coldest months, starting in December also January and February when the sea ice is most stable. Wolves are hunted by chance, and not eaten (but wolf skins are sold or tanned for clothing as they make beautiful, warm mitts).

Foxes are trapped (season opens in November), and the furs are sold for income. They were eaten in the past, but very rarely now.

Grizzly Bears and the hybrid Grolar Bears are killed when they can be, as they are an invasive species to our region. They are aggressive, dangerous, and a few have tried to make their way into town.

Processing meat with mother and sister. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Are large catches, like whales, shared among families and friends?

When someone is fortunate to harvest a whale, it becomes a great occasion. Whales are harvested every chance we can get (during summer and fall). We see beluga whales swimming by every year, but in most cases the ocean conditions make it difficult to impossible for hunters to get out in their boats to hunt.

People go down to help haul the whale to shore and to help butcher. It’s a large animal, more than any one family needs, so the hunter usually shares his catch with as many people as they can. It’s a happy occasion and people are so grateful as muktuk (the skin and layer of fat) is a great delicacy.

The meat is usually made into jerky and the fat is rendered, then aged a little to make mihugak — a tasty dip for other food. It tastes so good with dry fish and dry meat. Muktuk is aged for at least a day, so eating it too soon when it’s fresh can cause botulism (food poisoning). It can be eaten raw or boiled, or some people fry it.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

What’s your favorite meal?

Seals are one of my favorites (they’re hunted in the winter and summer). It is so rich and delicious. I love it with onions and pickles, and the soup is like drinking a bowl of luxury. We even eat the intestines! The liver tastes really good too, and pregnant women eat it because it’s so rich in iron.

For a rare delicacy, the flippers are cut off, put into a bag and buried underground to ferment.

Once they’re deemed ready, they stink like nothing else, but have a sweetness that’s so delicious.

In summer months, people usually butcher them at the shore and we can tell when it’s being done because a massive flock of seagulls gathers to greedily eat anything left over from the butchering. The skin is fleshed and once dried, usually sold for income.

In some cases, home tanned for clothing. Not many people home tan seals. We usually purchase seal skins after they’ve been professionally tanned to make hats, mitts, gloves, kammak, parkas, pants.

What kind of fish do you usually catch and how do you prepare them?

Trout from lakes, cod, and arctic char from Fish Lake (or the ocean). If we can, we make dry fish. I usually don’t get to store much for the winter because as soon as one batch is dry, the kids love to eat it with a dip of mayonnaise and soya sauce.

The fish head is a delicacy when eaten (love the eyes and cheeks!). My Dad said there was a story for each bone of the fish head.

Making biffy/dry fish lakeside in the summer to lighten the load. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Some people also still make kakkuk. They take the fish head, put them into a bag and bury them underground to ferment. I tried it once and it was okay, but I don’t really like it.

Cousin Tammy tuuking a fishing hole by hand, which involves a tuuk (chisel) and illaut (long scoop). The ice is chipped and small pieces are slowly removed until the water is reached. The hole here was about five feet deep, but it was too hard to keep going. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

What other land animals are commonly hunted?

Muskox fur is usually sold for income. There’s qiviut from the fur as well, it’s like wool but warmer. It can also be home tanned to make mitts, and sometimes hide is kept for camping (as a mattress). The horns are kept for carving.

Really good meat to eat, we love it made into mipku/dry meat. It can be roasted, fried, made into soups, ground up for different recipes. Muskox are hunted year-round.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

And then there’s Caribou — the most sought-after animal. It’s our favorite meat to eat! Hides are kept for bedding, or in rare cases, summer caribou are butchered a little differently so the stomach area of the hide can be made for our traditional drums; the antlers are used for carving or the handles of ulus or drums.

What about birds? Is there a hunting season?

‘Fast ducks’ we call them. Ducks are so delicious and a sure sign of the start of summer (they’re hunted in June). We have an annual Kingalik Jamboree to celebrate their return.

It’s pretty much 24-hour daylight by that time in June, and we can hear shooting all day and night. King Eider ducks — the males we call kingaliks and the females are miteks.

We keep them in the freezer to last throughout the year, but those first fresh ones always taste the best. Kids usually start their hunting experiences hunting ducks because they don’t need that strong of a gun to hunt them.

And geese are the first sign of spring (hunted in May/June). Their annual return brings much excitement to the community, it means being out on the land will start and people will start harvesting animals.

Can you talk a little about common fishing and hunting methods?

We have to plan a little more carefully around here, we don’t have ice huts we can tow around with us to all the lakes. In the months that we use snowmobiles, we can tow sleds behind us to take extra equipment (ice auger to drill holes into the ice, and possibly a tent and stove for warmth), but for the most part we plan carefully to take only what we need.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Essentials are food, a thermos of hot water, our fishing equipment, inReach/satellite phone, extra clothing, and a gun. I just purchased an ice auger last year, before that we just took a long tuuks and illauts (long ice chisel and long scoop) that we used to chisel holes into the ice by hand. No small feat as the ice can reach 6–7 feet in thickness.

How do you pick your fishing spots?

Our ancestors have been traveling to fish at these lakes for generations and from our own personal experiences we know which areas of the lake we will have the most “luck”.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Who do you hunt or fish for?

People here harvest for themselves and their families, when it is possible for them, they also share with others. My Dad is now elderly and still practices sharing with others when he harvests caribou.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Can you tell us about the importance of Indigenous fishing rights?

This is a subject that brings up a lot of anger in me. I have experienced the raw and ugly side of racism firsthand, and it’s one of the major reasons I stopped attending university (as well as being broke and homesick.)

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

Inuit and Indigenous people have a long history of being exploited of our lands, culture, heritage and identity. We are still dealing with a lot of trauma caused by The Residential Schools Experience where many endured physical and sexual abuse, on top of the shaming of who are we as a people. Our language was almost completely wiped out within a generation.

Karen’s niece, Tanesha, enjoying spring fishing. Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

The hate of racism is unnatural to Inuit people. We look for connections, similarities to recognize others as we are — to see others as just as human as we are.

We have a great respect and dependency on the land and waters; they provide the food that we rely on for survival. We take care of it as much as we can and only take what we need to ensure the resources (i.e., animals) are there for future generations. If there is a decline in certain species, we follow recommendations of both scientists and our own elders’ traditional knowledge, so that we give them a chance to repopulate and grow.

Ihuuk (large trout). Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

How have you noticed global warming affecting your community?

Years ago, the elders were saying that the stars moved from where they usually are. Inuit have always watched the land carefully and noticed changes before it was announced in popular media.

Inuit used to be able to predict the weather by noticing signs and patterns, but they can’t do that with any certainty anymore, and I think it has to do with global warming.

Our sea ice is no longer reliable in the winter months. Additionally, over the past few years, there have been some areas where permafrost was exposed.

And finally… What makes you happy?

My family of course, my nieces and nephews especially — I wasn’t able to have children of my own, so my nieces and nephews are so dear to my heart.

Drum dancing brings me great joy, peace and contentment. Sewing is a great outlet for creativity since I can’t draw. Fishing is also up there in the things that make me happy, I don’t hunt so it makes me happy to help my family in providing some of our traditional foods and being out on the land is the absolute best.

Courtesy of Karen Kitekudlak

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Jana Meisenholder

Jana Meisenholder

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Independent journalist focusing on culture, true crime, and human interest stories. Editor @unearthedstories. Living in the US with a Vegemite accent.