Uvajuq's Legend
An old and almost lost Inuit story is preserved

David Pelly
Northern News Services

CAMBRIDGE BAY (Sep 13/99) - Sept. 23 will be a big night for the people of Cambridge Bay.

That evening, a film premiere and book launch will be held which will preserve for posterity an old and almost forgotten Inuit legend.

The 1,350 residents of the Victoria Island hamlet will gather at the community hall to watch as the local Kitikmeot Heritage Society unveils the products of its last two year's work: a documentary film, a newly- released book and an exhibition of Inuit prints depicting the legend.

"The idea grew out of the oral-history projects we do," said KHS research assistant Martha Angulalik. Three years ago, the KHS began gathering information from the few remaining elders in the community. They remembered parts of the old story of Uvajuq, a giant who led his family on a quest for survival by walking across Victoria Island. The family of giants all perished. Today, the flat landscape is marked with prominent hills where they collapsed from hunger.

The story goes on to describe how others, facing starvation, fought among themselves to the death. There were also those who shared and lived.

It is a powerful allegory that reveals much of the Inuit philosophy, which gave them the strength to survive the centuries and recently establish their own territory, Nunavut.

"It is an important story, passed down through generations," said Angulalik, "and now it will not be lost."

The story formed the basis for a series of 20 stencil prints, created by internationally-acclaimed Inuit artist Elsie Anaginak Klengenberg. She was born before the Inuit moved into communities, and has lived all her life on Victoria Island. The prints will be unveiled at the celebration in Cambridge Bay later this month. In October, an exhibition featuring the prints will open for a three-month run at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, one of Canada's foremost public galleries for Inuit art in particular.

The prints are assembled into a book entitled Uvajuq: The Origin of Death, co-published by the local KHS and the Toronto publisher Betelgeuse Books. The latter is known for its dedication to northern and native literature. In addition to the prints, reproduced in full colour, the legend is told in both English and Inuinnaqtun (the local dialect of the Inuit language, Inuktitut). The book also contains biographies of the story-telling elders, local history, archival photographs, and some stunning landscape photography of this remote arctic region.

The book will be available in bookstores across Canada after the Sept. 23 launch.

The prints were also used in a documentary film recently completed by the award-winning Quebecois filmmaker Vic Pelletier. The film features two of Cambridge Bay's elders telling the story, revisiting the site of the giant Uvajuq's legendary death, and explaining the importance of the oral tradition to their people.

It is one of a three-part documentary series on the region produced by Pelletier, in association with the local heritage society. The film is to be premiered in English in Cambridge Bay at the grand celebration of the Uvajuq Legend on Sept. 23.

It promises to be an unforgettable night in Cambridge Bay, as the people celebrate what is for them a fundamental part of their heritage. With a book, a film and a collection of prints all telling the story, the legend of Uvajuq will be well preserved for many generations to come.