Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


The Tales We Tell

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In a big tent under the warm June sun, I had a chance to hear Inuit master storyteller Michael Kusugak. In under an hour, we ran alongside dogsleds on snowy tundra and we curled up in igloos lit by seal oil lamps to hear a grandmother’s stories. We were mesmerized by tales of a mythical wanderer, and we cheered on a boy who became a seal to teach his bullies a lesson. We watched animal creations emerge from a simple loop of string, and we laughed when elaborate knots around the wrists of a young audience member fell away as if by magic.

I have been tracking Kusugak for several years. He has some terrific picture books, including the popular Baseball Bats for Christmas, a middle years novel called Curse of the Shaman, and a recent collection called Arctic Comics. He’s the co-author, with Robert Munsch, of A Promise Is a Promise, an Inuit tale that inspired “Qallupilluit,” a composition on Steve Kirby’s recent recording All Over the Map.

An experienced storyteller offers something you simply can’t get from a book. You watch the gestures and hear the voices—so much is communicated by a quick grin or eyes widening in surprise. With Kusugak, we also heard the ripple of Inuktitut weaving through each story. It’s a beautiful language, fluid and tactile and expressive. Imbedded so gracefully in this master’s telling, the language connected us immediately to certain moods and sensibilities—we could almost divine the meaning of the words!

I didn’t realize before that Inuktitut is a circumpolar language common to all the peoples of the Arctic. Dialects change from place to place, but people from Nunavut share language and traditional stories with inhabitants of Greenland and Russia. It’s a good reminder that national boundaries are not always the best indicator of relationship, common purpose, and shared experience.

Kusugak is a treasure in every sense of that word. He’s funny, generous, encouraging, warm, and absolutely gifted. He’s also a messenger, bringing lived experience of the traditional nomadic life of the Inuit which is fast disappearing with changes in both climate and technology. He moves with ease between languages and culture. He can reminisce about curling up on a pile of furs in an igloo, then check his iPhone for messages.

When I listen to Michael Kusugak, he becomes my guide to times and places I have never been. I encounter characters I don’t know facing challenges I cannot imagine. I see their wit, their kindness, their resourcefulness, their ignorance, their viciousness, their love. I hear their dreams and I glimpse their spirit world. I try on experiences and belief structures that are unfamiliar, I consider my own experiences and belief structures from another vantage point.

We’ve been lulled into valuing storytelling—and I’m including books, movies, plays, and songs within that term—primarily as entertainment. I believe we do so at our peril. I’ve found that the kind of displacement I experience through powerful narratives challenges and refreshes me. It shifts my perspective, tests my assumptions, restores my courage. It helps me to understand my own self better, to become sensitized to the ways I am blind and deaf to others, and to realize that all of us on this fragile planet are ultimately more alike than different.

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