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Norma Dunning–The Writing of My Poems




There is something so delicious in the placing of a chocolate covered ice cream bar between your teeth and onto your tongue. There is something so delicious in the way your tongue happily accepts this act and how all of this deliciousness, and calorie-filled, mixture slides down your eager throat. You feel it freeze your intestines in the process, and shock your system into what is called, ‘a brain freeze’—this is how you know that this cold delightfulness is truly very chilling. It’s so very pleasing that you hear your throat involuntarily murmur in the near sensuous delight of it all. It’s fun.

This is also the way mainstream citizens related to the chocolate covered ice cream bar called, “Eskimo Pie.” This is not how I react to anything beginning or containing the word ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Esquimaux’ or any of the words that mainstream societies use to bring into the minds of their people, that image of an Inuit person, dressed in a fur-ringed parka, harpoon in hand, waiting with silent patience over a seal breathing hole. This is the image, which is super-glued into the consciousness of non-Inuit people, globally.

When I wrote ‘Eskimo Pie I” and a year later, ‘Eskimo Pie II’, I was asking myself, how many Inuit would have ever eaten such a thing? I was thinking of all the government-driven policy that removed from the Inuit of Canada traditional drum dancing and tattooing. I was thinking of all the Inuit who had their traditional names and naming systems removed by the Eskimo Identification Canada system, which in turn effected how Inuit view not only the continuing of life but also the ceremony involved in death. The E-number system was followed by Project Surname and later Project Correction, because having a singular, non-gendered name in Canada was prohibited.

I was thinking, most of all, about all the little Inuit children who were forced into residential schools in order to be able to ‘blend in’ or assimilate with the dominant Canadian society. Unless you are the child of a residential school survivor, you truly don’t know what was taken away from you because of the experience of your parent. So when I even see the words, “Eskimo Pie” I see humiliation, degradation and the demeaning of my peoples.

I see just another example of expropriation of my culture and the way the representation of the Inuit lingers on, into present day, as a smiling, innocently-stupid type of peoples who remain unable to care for or manage themselves in a way that’s meets the fur-ringed standards of the majority of Canadian society. For every bite of ‘Eskimo Pie’ by mainstream society, another attempt by an Inuit person to be more than the mainstream image, is chewed up and swallowed and dissolved into mush. All of the things that were slowly trying to imprison the Inuit, while the rest of North America was enjoying a treat, called “Eskimo Pie”. Good for them.

While an entrepreneur in the US was making and marketing a tasty, summertime delicacy Inuit children were being taught that their language, their beliefs and mainly, their very existences were of no true value unless they became a whiter shade of Eskimo. Therein lays the irony of it all, the pain and the hard truth that most Canadians don’t want to acknowledge and that is all I ever ask for, acknowledgement. So much time has stumbled past us all that it is too late for blame, or finger pointing or further repression, it is only time for Tukitaaqtuq, an Inuktitut word meaning, “they explain to one another, reach understanding.” It was my hope in the writing of ‘Eskimo Pie’ that the other side of a ice cream bar is explained and perhaps, understood.

The poem, “Mamaqtuq” was a different experience for me. I had written a paper on traditional Inuit hunting methods and found myself thinking, I can’t recall ever getting out of bed on any morning and saying to myself, “What am I going to kill for supper tonight?” Like everyone, I just drive over to a local meat counter and review what’s freezing up in it and take it home to thaw and later cook up.

I had read and written on the planning, the care, the building of cairns, and the waiting and waiting and waiting for that one sideways, shimmering, shadow on the horizon—the caribou herds. All of the preparation of arrowheads, the tightening of bows, the practice throws of spears spinning in the air, all of this done days and months in advance of this one small flash in time. All the work that goes into one meal, while at home the women who were not participating in the hunt went out and threw small stones at tiny birds to make sure their babies had something to eat today—just in case. Just in case that one moment in time didn’t pan out today or not at all, just in case they had to mentally prepare for another hungry winter.

But as all of this is going on, while skin tents are going up and water is being boiled, there lingers within every camp member that one hope, that on the wind they would smell them and that smell will be good and later it will taste good too. This is the one constant in traditional Inuit life, the never knowing. The one thing that kept us together, that made us share, that made us laugh, and together, way back then and into today—we survive.

This is the one thing that no one—Inuit or non—can take away from me—the memories that lie deep within my blood and stay fresh within my being. Although, the non-Inuit try through their words to claim what is mine—they can’t, not now, not ever. They don’t live it, they don’t roll out of their hides in the morning and put their feet onto the ground, knowing that there is someone out there who is going to try and tell you that they know you better than you do. They don’t own it. I do, and I forever will be ilnautuq.


Read “Eskimo Pie I” and “Eskimo Pie II” by Norma Dunning here


Norma Dunning is a beneficiary of Nunavut and currently is a 2nd-year MA student in the inaugural class with the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She has been awarded The James Patrick Follinsbee Prize for Creative Writing (2011) and the Stephen Kapalka Memorial Prize for Creative Writing (2012) through the U of A. Both prose pieces were written in an urban Inuit genre. Norma continues to write and explore poetry and prose from this vantage point—and always will.

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