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Spreading the word

John Thompson
Northern News Services

Arviat (Mar 30/05) - Polio changed the course of Mark Kalluak's life when he was only six.

Before then, he lived inside iglus and tents with his family on the land outside Arviat. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by the sterile walls of hospitals in Churchill and Winnipeg, and when he asked for a glass of water in the only language he knew, nobody understood.

"That's when I began to pick up bits of English," remembers Kalluak, now 63.

He has spent much of his life since those four years in the hospital as a translator.

His accomplishments include translating the New Testament into Inuktitut and editing the Kivalliq region's first newspaper, Keewatin Echo, during the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, he received the Adult Language Award from the Nunavut government.

But ask Kalluak about his award and he'll be quick to downplay his achievements and say plenty of others who deserve it more.

"I just do things because they're needed," he says. "I had a lot of support from my own people."

The first newspaper he started, called The Messenger, was a monthly publication that printed a mixture of current events and traditional stories, in both English and Inuktitut. The Keewatin Echo followed, linking the region together with printed stories for the first time.

Kalluak was also heavily involved in creating modern Inuit syllabics, adapted from the existing syllabics system developed for southern aboriginals.

"We started reworking it and making it better," he said. "It was a way of at least keeping record of a lot of stories. There was some way of protecting that."

And for two years he hammered away on an old typewriter deep into the night, rewriting the New Testament in Inuktitut.

An Inuktitut Bible already existed, but it was written in the dialect of Labradorians. An old teacher approached Kalluak to ask if he could make biblical verse more easily understood. He credits his wife for the finished translation.

"She never complained about all the noise I'd be making during the night," he says.

Turning hardships into gifts

Today Kalluak remembers his childhood disease as something that robbed him of his muscles, but gave in return a new gift.

"I always say, 'Good thing I got polio,'" he says with a grin.

While he hears the deterioration of his language every day, with the ending words often skipped over and English words replacing Inuktitut, Kalluak sees hope for the Inuit culture as it evolves.

"People think of old stuff, but it's not. You could be developing video games that have to do with the culture."

Kalluak says he feels the biggest difference between the old times and now when he first awakens.

"I don't have frost all over my face in the morning," he says. "I wake up warm and happy."