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The Ancestors Are Happy: The Story Behind the Book

Author and cultural historian David Pelly’s latest book, "The Ancestors Are Happy," shares the oral histories of Inuit Elders from across Nunavut. Here, he tells us of the many journeys he took through the North, the people he met, and the stories he heard that inspired its writing.
David Pelly and Inuit elders Mackie Kaosoni and Frank Analok 2001

© David Pelly

David Pelly (centre) with two elders, Mackie Kaosoni (left) and Frank Analok (right), in camp at Iqaluktuuq during an oral-history gathering project in 2001.

When you undertake a journey, especially one beyond your personal frontiers, it is perhaps as close as we can come today to being an explorer.

Exploring what? A wise person once said to me, “When you go on the land, you go into yourself.”

In the Far North, that journey takes on a unique dimension. It presents an opportunity to walk upon a unique cultural landscape. Having done so, you will never be the same.

I think of the North as a landscape of stories. The land itself is comprised of rivers, tundra, glacial scrapes in the bedrock, eskers, sea coasts, and so on. All these fundamental elements are woven together in a tapestry fabricated of ancestors, animals, and the land. But it is not constrained by geography. The tapestry is held together by the stories of the people who walked there over the last few thousand years. Beyond mere survival, it’s the story that has tied the people to the land, preserved their place in it, and carried their history down through the ages.

David Pelly on barrenland tundra 1989

© Laurie Pelly

David Pelly surveying a vast stretch of the barrenlands, the land he loves, 1989.

So omnipresent is the story that nowhere in all the thousands of miles I have travelled on the land with Inuit friends, have they ever been without a story to tell—about that hill over there, or the riverbank down below, or the island out there, or even that large boulder just beside. Travel routes themselves are often described in terms of the stories they represent.

Perhaps old Aupilarjuq put it best, when he said to me, “This is our land, this is our home, which means that it actually ties up with our lives and we become one.” (It was even more eloquent, of course, in his original Inuktitut.)

Beyond this perceived ordinary sense of the land, there are special places, each with their own story attached, scattered all over the Arctic map. My recently published book, The Ancestors Are Happy, celebrates and preserves some of those stories.

The ancestors are happy book cover

I have my own connection to this land, having travelled thousands of miles by canoe in several corners of the barrenlands. That’s a very personal part of my own being. It also gives me a valuable lens for appreciating the much more profound relationship that really defines those Inuit who view this vast tundra world as their homeland.

I can never share in that connection; but I have acquired some insights into it, thanks to the generosity of scores of Inuit elders, friends, and informants I have met over the past forty years. I’m immensely grateful for the richness this has offered to my life. That’s where this book is coming from. It has been a long and rewarding journey.

David Pelly canoeing Thelon River 1992

© Laurie Pelly

David Pelly in his canoe on the Thelon River, 1992.

A very significant step in this long journey occurred one evening forty years ago. With a group of friends, all of us from down south, I had just finished a fifty-two-day canoe trip on the Kazan River that ended at the Inuit community of Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake). Here is a short excerpt from the book:

Four decades ago, in Qamani’tuaq, an older woman told me an amazing tale. Fascinated as I was at the time, I had almost no understanding of the cultural backdrop to her story. Nor did I know then that I’d be spending much of my life recording oral-histories from Inuit elders. Fortunately, I wrote her story down in detail later that evening, back in my tent. All I could do, as Iquginnaq actually spoke, was listen with rapt attention, while sitting at the kitchen table of a new friend who translated for me. I remember the scene well, including the strong sweet tea and Joan’s homemade pineapple upside-down cake.

Iquginnaq’s story is in the book, of course, along with other individual profiles that collectively stand to represent the transition of Inuit life over four or five generations during the twentieth century.

Inuit elder Iquginnaq 1982

© David Pelly

Iquginnaq, at her family camp near Qamani’tuaq, 1982.

There are also many tales from the land which are larger than any one person. Usually, for me, these arose from experiences involving multiple people and places. Time and again, these encounters led to my digging more deeply into the Inuit perspective on the land itself, both physically and spiritually. By way of example, it became evident that even the traditional methods of navigation are rooted in the stories from the land. All the lines of travel that weave across the tundra are like so many pieces of the narrative thread.

It’s compelling to explain the origin of the book’s title. You can read more, of course, in the book itself. But to offer a glimpse of what it means, here is another short excerpt:

Some years ago, I attended a very special mid-winter evening with Inuit elders who had gathered to celebrate old stories and traditional knowledge. There was much talk of the generations which had gone before, and the wealth of stories and knowledge that had been passed down through the ages. When it ended, I remember stepping back out into the frigid Arctic air, drawing an icy breath, and looking up to see the northern lights dancing across the southern sky overhead, as if celebrating the event. An older, very perceptive Inuit friend, who was standing close by, stopped to look up with me and reflectively said, “Our ancestors are happy.”
Dogsledding travelling on the land

© David Pelly

Travelling on the land with Inuit, especially in winter, is an experience which underscores that the lines of travel that weave across the tundra are like so many pieces of the narrative thread in this landscape of stories.

The land, we are reminded, is a tapestry fabricated of ancestors, animals, and the land. Those ancestors are happy, say Inuit elders, when stories from the land are told, and retold, and preserved.

About the Author

David F. Pelly

David led his first Arctic expedition in 1977, beginning a northern career spanning the decades since. During that time he published eight books and countless articles about the north, the land, its history, and its people.

Much of David’s work has been rooted in the collection of oral-history and traditional knowledge from Inuit elders. In 2012 he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal "for dedication to the preservation of Inuit oral history and traditional knowledge [and for his] many works to help increase Canadians' understanding of the North."

His latest book is The Ancestors Are Happy: True Tales of the Arctic.

Currently, David spends much of his time managing the Ayalik Fund, which gives Inuit youth who would otherwise not have such opportunities a chance to build self-esteem and confidence through challenging outdoor adventure. For more information or to donate, please visit the Ayalik Fund website.

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