In Saqiyuq, 3 oral histories read like great fiction — full of suspense, drama and revelations

The book starts with a few pages from the academic Nancy Wachowich, who describes how she got the idea to create an oral history book of three generations (from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples), and how she started recording stories with Apphia, Apphia’s daughter Rhoda, and Rhoda’s daughter Sandra in Pond Inlet in 1993.

But very soon, we enter the world of Apphia herself.

“Okay, yes, I will start talking now. I am Apphia Awa.”


Apphia’s voice casts its spell immediately. She starts with a complex list of family relationships and ancestors, then turns to the extremely personal, explaining how her father decided she would be adopted out, against the wishes of her mother, who continued to breastfeed Apphia for her first month, “up until when I could smile.”

Soon, she is telling a story of herself at age five, somewhere in northern Foxe Basin in 1936. “It was kind of windy that day,” she says, describing how she went to eat caribou meat with her younger brother and naming the hunters who shared the meat. Afterwards, the children pretend they are walruses “defending the shore from each other.” A loaded rifle has been left inside the igluvigaq. A brother from Apphia’s adoptive family spills a cup of water on the floor.

Suspense, drama, detail. And family tension to which this five-year-old is highly attuned.

“My own mother always kept the floor clean,” says Aphhia, who reveals more of herself with every sentence, “but at that time it was slippery from the water that my brother had been carrying before I shot him.”

The brother dies. In response, Apphia’s birth parents, who had been living nearby, flee the area, afraid there may be consequences from the RCMP. As for the family Apphia’s now been left with: “I became their slave.” Neighbours feed her and clean lice from her hair. An elderly blind woman shelters her from her adoptive mother, who has terrible nightmares after the shooting.

From a novelistic perspective: it gets better. Apphia’s adoptive mother dies of illness when she is eight, leaving Apphia alone with her adoptive father. Now we get a glimpse of their relationship, which improves with time.

“People were trying so hard to make us become Christians, my father and me, because we were both murderers.”

Apphia was born in 1931. She was part of the generation of Inuit that moved their families off the land into settlements with no way to grasp the finality of this act, and if that description of her seems pallid and uninteresting compared to how badly you’d like to know why her father was also a murderer, then you’re getting the point of this whole book.

Apphia describes a life of adventure, danger and complex relationships, and she describes it from her early childhood on up so that, as in any great coming of age story, we experience it with her as she discovers this strange world.

Her story reveals much in the telling. For example, the power dynamics governing her life at the time. Apphia describes taking her first airplane ride to get tested for TB. Arriving where the doctors are and told they want to photograph her lungs, she imagines they’ll first somehow take them out of her body. But she still goes in the tent — too afraid of the qallunaat to do otherwise.

Apphia’s story is the longest in this book, the most detailed and, let’s say, unrestrained in the way it describes others. It was with some sadness that I moved on to Rhoda’s story, which is much different in tone. But Rhoda’s story is also fascinating, especially for the light it shines on the previous tale.

“I remember one of my mother’s tantrums,” Rhoda says, early on in her narrative.

This temper didn’t come up in Apphia’s version, but apparently Apphia was prone to screaming fits — a delightful discovery to a reader in awe of Apphia’s strength and endurance.

Other stories shed more light on the teller than the subject. So far, we’ve come to understand Apphia’s husband Mathias as a man skilled in every art necessary to feed a family in the Arctic (when he makes dog booties in the springtime, he uses a bit of sealskin and cuts holes where the claws go so they stay on). Rhoda tells a story of the time Mathias scavenged a tin of Vienna sausages from the garbage dump at the DEW Line site near Hall Beach. It’s Rhoda’s first time eating wieners and a fond memory. The story should in no way denigrate Mathias but Rhoda fears it might, and so she tells it carefully, as though expecting us (the qallunaat, in the form of Wachowich) to disapprove.

By the time we start the story of Sandra, Apphia’s granddaughter and Rhoda’s daughter, times have changed. Suicide immediately enters the picture. So do “sniffing” and drugs. But once again, the backdrop is far outshone by the story.

Sandra passionately details her teenage grief when a small coffee shop that had been operating out of the back of the co-op closes down. She talks about school, and how at various points she studies hard and gets good grades, then drifts into other projects, like counselling friends having troubles at home. The saga of her eczema — central to how she exists in the world, in clothes, in the medical system — is masterful.

But what wows even more in this section is once again the light it sheds on the previous two. Apphia re-emerges as a fanatical chain-smoker, only a slight shift on the character we’ve come to know and love. But Mathias, the great hunter, is described here as the driver of a garbage truck. “That is how I had known him my whole life,” Sandra says.

This is an amazing book. This shift in perspective, the cumulative detail of three lives seen from inside the people living them, captures the great transition from life on the land to life in town in a hugely compelling, personal way.

I can’t believe I didn’t read this while living in Nunavut. I had the privilege of working with two of Rhoda’s sisters, meeting one other sister and one brother, and interviewing two more brothers multiple times (a fact which helped me keep track of the many people in this book; Apphia had twelve children in all). Though I had an abstract sense of where they had come from (and a vivid impression of just how distinct each character in the Awa family is), I would never have been able to imagine the actual experience of their lives without this book.

Why didn’t I read it before? A vague impression, let’s say, that it might be too earnest and wholesome to actually be interesting. Once again, dead wrong. Readers: don’t make this same mistake!

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