Inuit from Nunavut share culture at drum dancing festival in Greenland

The voices of Inuit singers and drummers soared through the Katuaq cultural centre in Nuuk, Greenland, last month — sometimes dissolving into laughter, sometimes ringing out with harmonies.

For days, the Katuarpalaaq drum dancing festival brought performers from Alaska, Canada and Greenland together to share their own ways of dancing and singing.

“We always have a lot in common with each other, and we always look up to each other,” said Sylvia Cloutier, a drum dancer from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, who spent decades living in Iqaluit.

“Sometimes we feel like there’s very few of us cultural performers, but when we get together in this kind of an event, we know that we’re many and we’re supported and appreciated.”

The first part of the festival ran from March 21 to 25, before continuing until April 6 in four other Greenland communities. Cloutier was one of several people from Nunavut who performed.

Arnakkuluk Kleist, the CEO of the Katuaq cultural centre and the organizer of the festival, said the planning for the festival started back in 2019, though the festival itself got delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was supposed to happen before, but I guess this was the right time to do it — the weather is perfect and people have arrived, and it’s just wonderful,” she said.

“It’s not often we come together, and it is important for us. It’s important for drum dancers … but also for the population of Greenland to get the chance to discover and rediscover drum dances.”

Kleist said the goal of the festival was to keep drum dancing as part of Inuit culture and “put new energy in [it].”

“I hope that this will be an opportunity for people to get more knowledge about drum dancing. It will be an opportunity maybe for more people to pick up the drum and start drum dancing,” she said.

Arnakkuluk Kleist is the CEO of the Katuaq Cultural Centre and organized the Katuarpalaaq drum dancing festival in Nuuk. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Sandi Vincent, who lives in Iqaluit, said she first began learning how to drum dance from Cloutier when she was 15. They prepared a 15-minute show for the festival with drums and throat singing.

“I think by sharing drum dancing, it gives Inuit a sense of identity, a sense of self [and] a sense of connection to culture,” she said.

“Everybody is on a different learning path and different place in their life with language or culture… and it’s important to share our pride as Inuit and share our language, and share our songs, because we’re proud of them.”

‘It’s such a beautiful thing’

Jerry Laisa, a drum dancer from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, said he still thinks about how Inuit were once told not to drum dance.

That little fear is still in the back of his mind, but drum dancing and singing connect him to his identity and roots.

“I love the stories behind these things — the ancient words that come with these songs,” he said.

“The way you use your voice in ancient songs, only when you’re almost out of breath is where the sentence [finishes], and that’s how you know. And then it starts to tell a story of travel, of animals, of sound. It’s such a beautiful thing.”

Jerry Laisa performed during the Katuarpalaaq drum dancing festival in Nuuk, Greenland last month. Laisa, who is from Pangnirtung in Nunavut, says drum dancing gives him a sense of identity. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Laisa, 26, has been drum dancing since he was in his teens. The songs teach him how much things have changed in Inuit communities.

“As we move from place to place, we change a little bit. Our knowledge changes a little bit, too — since our history is mostly oral,” he said.

“Only by listening to these songs from other people, you get a sense of how it was like. You hear songs of sorrow, of hunger, and singing these songs, it gives you a sense of identity.”

Exchanging culture

That sense of identity is part of why Keenan Carpenter drum dances as well. Carpenter, who recently moved to Iqaluit from Sachs Harbour in the N.W.T., said it’s also important because it is an outlet for emotion.

It makes him feel “happy from the core,” he said.

Sharing that part of his culture with Inuit from other regions of the North has also let him learn about the differences and similarities in how Inuit from Greenland or Alaska make drums and play them.

Keenan Carpenter, 27, is a drum dancer from Sachs Harbour, N.W.T. He says drum dancing makes him feel “happy from the core.” (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Carpenter recalls watching his sister drum dance and have fun when he was 11. That’s what got him interested initially, along with a little positive motivation from his mother — “I was shy, but she bribed me to do a good thing,” he recalled.

In Nuuk, Carpenter said he’s enjoyed performing inside a cultural centre designed for arts like drum dancing. He’d like to see something similar built in Nunavut.

“We do need a cultural centre [for] people to go and be themselves,” he said. “A safe space to go and express yourself, to create and to be a person — to be proud to be Inuit, to be proud to be Inuvialuit, to be proud whoever you are.”

Sandi Vincent, who lives in Iqaluit, started drum dancing when she was 15. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Vincent and Cloutier both agree. Cloutier recalled the time she spent in Iqaluit, constantly trying to find places where people could practise or perform shows, whether it be a school gym or the cadet hall.

“We aspire to having that in Nunavut. We have so much talent and so much creativity in Iqaluit, in Nunavut, but we are the only territory that doesn’t have a cultural house or performing space,” Cloutier said.

“We look up to Katuaq and what they’ve done. We also look up to Greenland, the people here and how they have incredible infrastructure to promote culture and just live through all the art that exists here.”

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