People of A Feather (Joel Heath & the Community of Sanikiluaq)

people of a feather

It’s hard to imagine that a bird—even a flock of birds—no bigger than the average housecat could sustain a people for centuries. But that is exactly the nature of the relationship between the eider duck and the Inuit people living in Sanikiluaq on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay.

For centuries, the eider have been a food source—eggs, meat—and provided protection from the elements: their feathered skins sewn together to make the most exquisite traditional anoraks, and their warm downy feathers fill modern anoraks.

It’s a human/animal relationship similar to that which the Gwitchin peoples of northern Canada and Alaska have with the Porcupine caribou herd. But how can this be understood in a modern world of WalMart, Target, Old Navy, and meat packaged in Styrofoam and tight Cellophane. In the circumpolar world, this reliance on the bounty from the wilderness is not foreign—some First Nations affectionately refer to the land that surrounds their communities as “the fridge” or “the supermarket”.

Canadian biologist-turned-film-director Joel Heath was studying the eider duck, when his research brought him to the Belcher Islands to help the Inuit figure out what had caused the mass death of thousands of ducks in one season. Though the film never solves the mystery, People of a Feather explores the challenges faced by these birds who don’t migrate, but winter in the Arctic version of an oasis: a pond in the ice. A co-production by Heath and the community of Sanikiluaq, the film switches between footage of the reality of life for the Inuit now and reenactment of life before European contact.

The end of a species (and cultural practices associated with the species) is often said to be beginning of the end of an Aboriginal people. This is a difficult idea for many non-Aboriginal people to comprehend, and watching this movie about the intricate relationship between the Belcher Island Inuit and the eider will perhaps make this concept more tangible.
As the ducks’ habitat is threatened by the warm fresh water from the hydro dams that flood into the cold salty Hudson Bay every fall and winter reversing the seasonal temperatures of the water and reducing the salinity, so do rap music, Kentucky Fried Chicken (eaten with a side of seal meat) and mod-cons flood into this remote community. An example of the cultural shift is the musical gangsta rap interlude performed by a group of Sanikiluaq youth part way through the film (note: listen to the lyrics, they are good).

Published in Arcticamag.ca 22/04/2012

The Klondike (Drawn and Quarterly) by Zach Worton

In the graphic novel, The Klondike (Drawn and Quarterly) author and illustrator Zach Worton sets out to tell the story of the Great Klondike Gold Rush that to this day remains one of the largest voluntary movements of people in the history of the planet. This puts the telling of the story in perspective: it’s an undertaking as large as the event’s historical significance.

Worton attempts to show what transpired during the Klondike Gold Rush through the experiences of a variety of real and fictional characters and their stories en route to and in the Klondike. Skookum Jim and George Carmack, the men who first discovered gold at Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, Frank Reid and Belinda Mulrooney make up part of the cast of “real” characters. In his author’s note, Worton admits to using a variety of fictional characters and subplots to convey the story he wanted to tell. This is the crux of The Klondike: there is no defining narrative thread and it lacks a unifying plot. The stories occur independently and rarely weave. There are so many characters who are similarly drawn that’s it’s hard to differentiate one character from the other. The Klondike has a beginning, lacks a climax and the end, when it occurs, brings to a close the life of the most interesting character in Worton’s tale, just when the reader is warming up to the character’s eloquent dialogue and wicked complexities.

Published in Arcticamag.ca 19/10/2012

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Werner Herzog)

Not that long ago, but in a land far enough away, there is a village populated by people leading simple lives regulated by the rotation of the seasons: spring flows into summer, which in turn gently eases into fall that then folds, ever so quietly, into winter.

During the 12 calendar months, happiness reigns in the mysterious and stunning Siberian Taiga that is resplendent with spruce trees, a majestic river and nature’s bounty.

The scene sounds idyllic, and in the hands of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Happy People: A year in the Taiga, portrays the village of Bakhtia as a fairytale come to life. (Personal disclosure: Move aside Dos Equis man, I consider Werner Herzog to be the most interesting man in the world.) But in the true sense of his storytelling predecessors die Gebrüder Grimm, Herzog delves into the darkness of the fairytale.

Post-Soviet era, Bakhtia appears trapped in time with lingering Communist nuances. The villagers came to the “collective farm,” (as one interviewee refers to the village) from various parts of Soviet society: as one trapper navigates his narrow and long wooden boat upstream, Herzog’s calm narrative voice explains that the man is a relation of famed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Nostalghia). The indigenous peoples of the community admit to having trouble with alcohol and work. During the filming, the last of their protective spirit dolls are destroyed in a house fire started by a cigarette.

The hero of Herzog’s tale is a man whose rough-hewn face could easily grace the cover of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Having arrived at the life of a trapper as a young man, he nearly died of starvation during his first winter working as a trapper in Siberia, and then never left. He could be 100 years old, but is likely closer to 50, and for most of the film he calmly shows Herzog the elements of his, and his fellow trappers, sustainable and independent life: stocking cabins on the trapline, making skis, setting traps.

Filmed in a style reminiscent of 1970s Canadian Film Board documentaries, it might come as a surprise that Herzog’s film was made in 2010.

Without explosions, hardly a raised voice, very little drama, Happy People is a meditation on a way of life that few people experience, but will be familiar to many people who live in the circumpolar region.

Published in Arcticamag.ca 19/10/2012

The 120 Days of Simon (Top Shelf Productions) Simon Gärdenfors

There might not be more of an unlikeable protagonist in the history of the autobiographical graphic novel (a niche genre) than Simon Gärdenfors in The 120 Days of Simon (Top Shelf Productions). During his odyssey across the Swedish countryside the couch-surfing sex-crazed consumer of hallucinatory drugs mild and wild and unrepentant drinker is by every definition a sinner. But, Gärdenfors is also a Swedish rapper, cartoonist and TV personality who may be known outside his homeland by followers of Scandinavian hip-hop (another niche genre) as one-half of the duo Las Palmas. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re familiar with Gärdenfors upon opening the pages of The 120 Days of Simon, by the end of his autobiographical graphic novel, you will be perhaps more intimate with Gärdenfors than you’re comfortable with.

The 120 Days of Simon begins with this Scandic modern-day and carefree Ulysses deciding to travel around Sweden over a period of four months with two self-imposed restrictions: 1) a limit of two nights in the same location, and 2) he can only return to his apartment in Stockholm at the end of his journey. It’s a monumental stretch to compare Gärdenfors to Ulysses, but to compare his book to the similarly titled depravity The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, which I’m sure Gärdenfors is hinting at, requires an even greater extension of the imagination. (Though hedonism, sexual exploitation, etc., are common themes in both books.)

Gärdenfors sets off on his journey with a list containing addresses of some fans and followers on whose couches he will sleep. Just before he leaves the capital, he meets a woman, also a cartoonist, who just may be his Penelope. But the development of true love doesn’t quell his behaviour. The mishaps and sexual conquests begin, continue and eventually come to an end.

Gärdenfors’ one-dimensional black and white illustrations hearken back to a romanticized era when a man wore a three-piece suit and fedora, and a woman was acceptably wearing an apron and safely ensconced in the home. The innocence of these drawings contrasts with Gärdenfors’ free-for-all attitude, and visually amplify the humour: a Simple Simon, he is not.

At times, the narrative might make you squirm—Gärdenfors’ choices remind me of the story scenarios in which the character says “yes” to everything that comes his or her way—but mostly The 120 Days of Simon is silly fun. It’s not profound, and if read backwards, doesn’t contain a Satanic message.

Published in ArcticaMag.ca 13/11/2012

Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition, By Sheila Nickerson (Tarcher/Putnam)

In the modern era of arctic adventure, the heroes who ski, kiteboard, or even swim to the North Pole carry personal locator beacons (a SPOT), satellite phones, GPSs, and a seemingly endless list of communications gadgets to record, blog, or tweet their adventures: laptops, batteries, solar panels, battery chargers. They also travel small, near stealth-like in the landscape, unlike their Victorian predecessors who headed out in great BIG ships with literally tonnes of supplies that could include libraries and grand pianos.

Back a century or so ago, arctic adventure was something of a crap shoot. Rescue not a few hours away, but weeks or more likely, months, if ever. The risk factor was considerably greater than it is now. Frostbite might be the only thing that Victorian and twenty-first century arctic adventure have in common. In Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition (Tarcher/Putnam)—a book which should be added to the list of books with extraordinarily long subtitles—author Sheila Nickerson sets out on an expedition to bring to life the story of Tookoolito (Hannah), an Inuit woman who, along with her husband Ebierbing, was a guide for nineteenth-century arctic explorers and survived one of the most harrowing expeditions ever: The Polaris Expedition led by Captain Charles Francis Hall.

The Reader’s Digest version: Captain Hall dies (possibly poisoned by his crew) and the expedition ends up splitting into two groups. One group (including Tookoolito and her husband) survives with limited supplies on an ice floe from October through March of the following year: almost five long winter months.

As Nickerson explains it, there is very little known about Tookoolito, a baptized Christian, though (along with her husband) she was a valued guide for and companion to Captain Hall. Nickerson’s task with this book is to discover and bring to light Tookoolito’s contribution to arctic exploration.

The story of the survival of the Polaris Expedition is incredible and Nickerson tells it in an enthralling way. This expedition should be more famous than Franklin’s: celebrate success and survival. But the few first-person accounts of the expedition hardly mention Tookoolito at all, which Nickerson acknowledges, so her importance to the expedition isn’t really evident in MTTN.

During her research on Tookoolito, the author’s mother’s health was declining and Nickerson attempts to make a connection between her mother, herself and Tookoolito. The link is tenuous, and it feels like the author’s experience with her ailing mother deserves a book of its own.

Tookoolito’s life post-Polaris Expedition in Groton, Conneticut, was close to mundane. The evidence Nickerson dug up reveals the life of a rural American housewife: trips to the store, caring for her husband and daughter. A life very much divorced from her experience guiding and surviving in the Arctic.

Published in ArcticaMag.ca 14/11/2012