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Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk: Sanaaq unikkausinnguaq (Sanaaq)

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk wrote this book in syllabics, a kind of shorthand invented by Wesleyan missionaries. Like her heroine, she had, unusually for a woman, become a hunter. The reason for this is that her parents had no sons and, when her father was no longer able to hunt, she did. Eventually, she married and, again contrary to custom, her husband moved in with her and her parents rather than the other way around. She started writing when a priest asked her to write down sentences containing as many different words as possible from daily life. She started doing this but found it boring so she created characters and stories, sometimes taken from Inuit legends, and essentially reinvented the novel, though she had never actually read one. The book certainly reads like a novel. We follow the life of Sanaaq and though much of it tells of her everyday life, obviously her everyday life is very different from ours. There are a range of characters, adventures, romance and lots of local colour.

At the start of the novel Sanaaq is a widow with a young daughter, Qumaq. Her husband had drowned. She lives with her younger sister, Arnatuinnaq, also single. We find Sanaaq hunting and generally looking after the other two. Early on we also meet Irsutualuk, an older man with an adult son. He is a widower and is determined that he will marry Sanaaq. One of the issues the Inuit face is regularly moving because of weather and to follow the animals that provide their sustenance. Early on, Sanaaq and her family move, though when she arrives at her new camping ground, she tells the people there that she has moved to escape Irsutualuk, as she really does not want to marry a much older man. However, Irsutualuk has followed her and tells her in what would seem to us a very unromantic way I’ll no longer take no for an answer. You’re going to be mine! Sanaaq is a strong woman and has no hesitation in telling him that he is unsuitable as he is too old, has lost his front teeth and might abuse Qumaq. She continues her insults and Irsutualuk retreats.

Meanwhile, her friend, Aqiarulaaq, suggests her brother, Qalingu, a young, handsome man and the pair quickly marry. We follow the adventures of Qalingu as he goes hunting, gets lost in a blizzard and sees his hunting companion fall into the sea and drown. He seems to be a terrible shot, frequently missing his target but manages to get enough food for the family and even manages to kill a polar bear. Arnatuinnaq wants to adopt a child and has been promised a child by another Inuit woman who has three daughters but is not too keen on her third daughter, who wets the bed and has fleas! Not surprisingly, the child is not very enthusiastic but she is taken along and soon fits into the family, despite her bed-wetting. Qalingu and Sanaaq soon have a child of their own, a boy.

The arrival of the whites is a key event. They first see a big ship offshore and are frightened. When the whites (whom they nickname Big Eyebrows) come, they are initially frightened but welcome the Western goods the whites bring. White medicine is also welcomed. Things get more complicated when the missionaries come and Qumaq is converted to Christianity. But gradually the whites have a greater influence over them. Both Sanaaq and her son have to go to hospital for treatment. The role of the missionaries becomes greater, with a certain rivalry between the Protestant and Catholic ones. Aqiarulaaq even becomes pregnant by a white man (who does not marry her).

As mentioned, one of the aims of the book is to use a variety of every day terms. Here, for example, is a list of the ingredients for a meal: siqruit, kuutsinaat, akuit, taliit, qimminguat, kiasiit, sakiat, tunirjuit, tulimaat, kujapigait, kuutsiniit, niaquit, alliruit, qungisiit, ittunguat, pamialluit, akitsirait, and ulunnguat. She also cooked the guts: kanivaut, tinguit, aqiaruit, qitsalikaat, qinirsikallait, matsait, qinirsiit, inaluat, uummatit, qalluviat, pavviit, umirquit, qaritait, puvait, iggiat, and turqujaat. Fortunately, there is a detailed glossary at the end to explain all of these terms. However, everyday life is what is important, from the problems with dogs (they are always stealing food, not least because they seem to be fed badly) to problems with the igloo, which has to be constantly repaired and, on one occasion, collapses in on them. Above all, we follow the life of a group of Inuit, with ups and downs, romance and romantic problems, struggles with weather and hunting and harvesting of a wide variety of foodstuffs. Indeed, if you think the Inuit live only off seal, this book could be something of an eye-opener. While obviously not a great novel, for a book written by someone who had never read a novel in her life, it is a very worthy and interesting work.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Association Inuksiutiit
First published in English 2014 by University of Manitoba Press
Translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure; translated from French by Peter Frost