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