Gentle Activism and Sharing Joy

Una Huna? Ukpik Learns to Sew by Susan Aglukark

It was an honour to speak with Governor General and Juno award-winner Susan Aglukark about the creation of her book Una Huna? Ukpik Learns to Sew, the second of six books in the Una Huna? series, published by Inhabit Media. We speak about Inuit history and joy, as well as storytelling and reconciliation—and how all of these elements combine in this beautiful book with the most memorable closing passage.

Una Huna? Ukpik Learns to Sew is set in the mid- to late-1800s, during the childhood years of Susan’s grandparents and the adult years of her great-grandparents. It was a time before Residential Schools and permanent settlements were forced on Inuit and when, as Susan describes “we were starting to be exposed to the world beyond the horizon.”

Una huna? means “what is this?” in the Arviat dialect; it is through the main character Ukpik’s inquisitiveness that the reader is invited into what would have been firsts for Ukpik’s parents and grandparents and, as described by Susan, the “beautiful conversations between grandparents and grandchildren, parents and children” during that time.

In Una Huna? Ukpik Learns to Sew, Ukpik is eager to learn from her mother how to sew a pair of
mittens. But she is more eager to know what her mother has planned for the new beads from the south that she has just traded for. The story gently communicates the struggle to manage the influence of the outside world on Inuit children and to preserve tradition.

For Susan, it was important to share the joy of traditional childhood and to honour the wisdom of those generations as experienced through the eyes of a child; and, especially, to share these joyful stories during these times of reconciliation.

“Yes, it feels like each new thing we learn is changing us,” Ataata agreed. “We have a beautiful past and traditional ways. It is sometimes hard to see how much will be kept alive through them,” Ataata said, gesturing toward the children playing on the shore.

“Our ancestors were very clever people,” Anaana said with a smile. “I wish for my Ukpik to know that all the things she is learning come from her beautiful ancestors.”

Anaana and Ataata looked out towards the ship’s mast as it slowly glided away from the camp. At the water’s edge, they could see Ukpik, Anguti, and Qopak happily playing with Uumat, throwing stones out into the lake.

Gentle Activism in Storytelling

As described by Susan, the origins of Ukpik are rooted in a “gentle activism” that resonates with children—and adults.

One aspect of gentle activism in Una Huna? Ukpik Learns to Sew is language survival and encouraging the reader to connect to the Inuktitut language. Inuktitut is woven, and contextualized for meaning, throughout the story with a glossary and pronunciation guide for English-language speakers included at the end of the story. (Quvianaq! qu-VIA-naq = I am happy!)

Another is showing the agency and respect given to Inuit children by their parents and grandparents in an environment that was both very intentional in preparing them for adulthood and very free.

And, more broadly, as described by Susan, there is gentle activism in telling the story through the lens of joy.

“I realized in the last couple of years that the reconciliation conversation can’t start until we’ve talked about healing. And healing can’t really start until we know the scope of recovery work. For me, that work was listening to stories, conversations, and sitting in the company of a generation before me recalling their childhood and realizing, in listening to their stories, they had incredible childhood fun and joyful memories—and that we should be telling both of the hardship and the joy. So, the Una Huna? books have that kind of gentle activism for the ancestors’ story and every part of their journey. I want to gently keep our children aware that our ancestors where these incredible people who lived whole lives with hardship and joy.”

“We’re rediscovering our stories and, in the rediscovery, and telling of our stories, we’re also teaching the listener. There has been the constant comment, ‘we didn’t know.’ Now we know. This is what I call reconciliation and healing.”

Susan Aglukark is Canada’s first Inuk artist to win a Juno. She has also won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement and is an officer of the Order of Canada.

Una Huna? Ukpik Learns to Sew is the second book of six in the Una Huna? series. The third book, exploring Ukpik’s experiences during the Inuk winter celebration of the moons, a traditional winter practice, is set for Christmas 2024. The series will also be available in French from Éditions des Plaines. Una huna? Qu’est-ce que c’est? was released in January 2023.

Additionally, Susan is working on a book, outside the Una Huna? series, that explores basic emotions through expressive art.

Please check out the work of the Arctic Rose Foundation, founded by Susan, to support Northern Inuit, First Nations and Métis youth through the creation of Indigenous-led, arts-based after-school programs, and other engaging cultural and creative projects.

Please check out Susan’s website.

Contributed by Patti McIntosh

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