By Courtney Edgar
June 6, 2016 – It was almost 53 years ago that Sytukie Joamie, now an Inuit traditional knowledge researcher, sat in his first kindergarten classroom in Niaqunnguu and was told by his teachers not to speak his language.
He’s been living in Ottawa almost two years now and he says that it took him about a year to adjust to southern life.
Although he says there are many differences between the city and his northern birthplace — mainly the weather, the people and the environment — he says he hasn’t experienced culture shock. It’s just different, he said.
He can still recite the disc numbers on his ujamiit or Eskimo ID tag.
Today Joamie is sitting in a conference filled with 100 educators and service providers who have asked him to share his language and culture with a roomful of educators and professionals in a setting very much like a classroom – only they are the students and he is the teacher.
“It’s come full circle,” Joamie said.
The Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre hosted The Inuit Way: Seeing The Light, a symposium that gathered 100 professionals, including front-line service workers, educators, and adoptive and foster families for a day spent learning about traditional Inuit culture to help them understand, and better serve, members of the Inuit community.
With workshops ranging from language and communication, throat singing, traditional knowledge, Inuit in the South, and historical trauma, there was plenty to learn.
In the workshop on communication, Tooneejoulee Kootoo-Chiarello, the OICC Inuktitut instructor and board member of Ottawa Children’s Aid Society, covered the importance of non-verbal language in Inuit culture.
“We never used ‘hello’ in our society,” said Kootoo-Chiarello. “We just acknowledged their presence. But we are a culture that adapts very well.”
In fact, because speaking a greeting was so new to Inuit, it inspired a nickname for non-Inuit anglophones. Haluuraaluk means “the big hellos,” Kootoo-Chiarello said.
Attendees learned that the eyes and nose, facial gestures and postures too, can speak volumes: scrunching up a nose for no, raising the eyebrows for yes.
She says southern teachers and adults unfamiliar with Inuit culture sometimes think a child is being rude or unresponsive when they are actually using physical instead of verbal language.
Non-verbals are a very important part of Inuit communication, Kootoo-Chiarello said.
“Quiet and humble is our nature,” she said. “We’re there to respect their face.”
She wanted people to know that if someone is quiet in your presence it doesn’t mean they’re not interested in the dialogue.
“Silence is okay,” Kootoo-Chiarello said. “We need to learn to respect each other’s silences.”
She explained that Inuit are very touchy. A two-handed handshake shows you are genuinely happy to be in their presence.
“And we don’t point,” said Dion Metcalfe, the Bridging the Gap Student Support presenter at the OICC and a popular cultural speaker since 2007. “It can be rude. We use our chin to point.”
He also taught the attendees that Inuit have no swear words.
“But you can always tell when a mom is mad by her tone and facial expressions,” he said. Metcalfe demonstrated an angry mom tone to laughter from the room.