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Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Performing Arts

At specific times of the year — when the sun returns to end the long, dark winter night, at the beginning of springtime and when summer finally arrives — communities all across Nunavut stage celebrations and games. These events include traditional Inuit performing arts such as storytelling, throat singing and drum dancing. During these times, Inuit participate in many traditional Inuit games, which are athletic competitions of strength, agility, dexterity and stamina based on critical skills honed for excellence in hunting and Arctic survival. These festive events often feature live music, dancing, theatrical performances and circus acts. Along with the games and arts come communal feasts of traditional Inuit foods that are prepared for everyone to enjoy.

Music

Traditional Inuit music is based around drums used in dance, music and storytelling, plus a vocal style known as katajjaq in Inuktut and throat singing in English. This music has become popular in Canada and abroad. The technical characteristics of Inuit music include story singing, complex rhythmic organization and a relatively small melodic range.

Traditionally, Inuit did not have a specific word for what English-speaking people call music. The closest word in Inuktut is nipi, which includes music, the sounds of speech, wild animals, the forces of nature and noise. Unlike most cultures, traditional Inuit music is remarkable for its lack of work-related songs and love songs.

Until the arrival of Europeans and Americans and the advent of music recording technologies, Inuit music was traditionally only used in spiritual ceremonies, often to ask the spirits for good luck in hunting, as well as in simple lullabies for children. Inuit musical traditions were modified with the arrival of foreign sailors, especially those from Scotland. The Inuit soon learned to play these whalers’ musical instruments, the accordion and the fiddle, and learned to dance jigs and reels.

Inuit musical traditions were modified with the arrival of foreign sailors, especially those from Scotland.

Inuit throat singing is a type of traditional competitive song, considered a game, usually held between two women. It is one of the world’s few examples of overtone singing, a unique method of producing sounds vocally. When competing, two women stand face-to-face and sing using a complex method of following each other, so that one voice hits a strong accent while the other hits a weak one, melding their voices into a nearly indistinguishable single sound. They repeat brief motifs at staggered intervals, often imitating natural sounds, like those of geese, caribou or other wildlife, until one runs out of breath, trips over her tongue, or begins laughing, at which point the contest concludes. This vocal game is unique to the Inuit.

Traditional Inuit drum dancers.
Traditional Inuit drum dancers.

The main Inuit percussion instrument is the wooden frame drum called the qilaut that is made from bending narrow strips of wood into a circular frame with a protruding handle. Originally, caribou skin was stretched across the frame, but today synthetic membranes are most common. These drums can reach a metre in diameter but are usually smaller. The qilaut is struck on the edge of the rim with a qatuk — a wooden stick, wand or beater. The sound is a combination of the percussive whack on the wood and the resulting deep vibrations from the stretched membrane.

Today, acoustic and electric guitars are now played everywhere in the territory, producing folk, country, pop and rock music in Nunavut with a distinctly northern artistic flair. Sounding as if it were perhaps invented specifically for another modern musical form adored by youth, the Inuktitut language is brilliantly suited for hip-hop lyrics!

Arviat, Nunavut, has particularly strong musical roots and traditions and is the home of renowned Inuit performers Charlie Panigoniak and Susan Aglukark. Each fall, Arviat hosts the Inuumariit Music Festival.

Acrobatics

When visitors witness Nunavut athletes performing traditional Inuit games for the first time, with huge jumps and dazzling acrobatic skill, the visitors see how these powerful abilities have now been incorporated into the repertoires of dance groups like the Clyde River Hip Hoppers and in circus troupes like Artcirq from Igloolik, Nunavut. The troupe gained international fame when it performed during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. 

Theatre

Renowned throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

The performance art of staged live theatre in Nunavut is culturally based in the ancient Inuit traditions of storytelling and shamanic ritual. The unique and often very contemporary worldview of the Inuit people is a truly fresh perspective in the dramatic narrative arts.

The most famous theatre group in Nunavut is Tununiq Arsarniit Theatre Group, based in Pond Inlet. Since its founding in 1987, members have developed their plays and performances by consensus, involving Elders as both actors and writers and always weaving Inuit language and traditional culture into every dramatic issue they tackle for the stage.

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