This story might be a little bit different from what I normally see on r/nosleep, I wasn’t quite sure which subreddit to post it to, but I figured you guys would appreciate it the most. This is an account of my experiences as a researcher living among native populations in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut.
I’m an undergrad student from an esteemed Canadian university, with a major in political geography and a minor in anthropology. I applied for a work-study position last fall, and was offered an interesting opportunity for “field studies” (fellow anthropologists will understand the dubiousness of this term, haha). There’s an ongoing conflict in one of Nunavut’s southern settlements; the Canadian government had sold the water rights of a nearby river (not giving place names) to a hydroelectric company. This sell-out received powerful backlash from nearby inuit communities, resulting in a prolonged struggle between anti-hydro protestors and pro-hydro representatives of the project. Currently, many settlements in the area are supplied power by large generators, and the hydro project would be the first step towards a more reliable infrastructure. It would also be extremely profitable for the hydroelectric company: one man I interviewed told me that the protestors were trying to break a $2 billion contract. Anyway, this conflict escalated after hydro-representatives wearing yellow hardhats and orange safety jackets presented a “gift of water and tobacco” to the settlement’s elders, which was actually a case of Aquafina and a carton of player’s cigarettes. As you can imagine, the settlement’s population was pretty offended, and declared the area to be a no-go-zone for the men they call ‘the government’.
The conflict drags on for months. During the summer, the sun never sets. It circles around in the sky, dipping low enough to redden the sky, and then making its way back back to the other horizon. Winter comes, and the sun never rises, sometimes the sky is light blue, sometimes its dark blue, but mostly it’s black.
Ragged lines of yellow caution tape ring the entire perimeter of the settlement, as well as the portion of the river that is being contested. Prospectors who have come to survey the land are unable to pass the tape without violent confrontation, so they have set up a makeshift camp just outside it. The hydro company has brought in half a dozen shipping-containers; one contains a generator, another contains a water-treatment machine, there’s one for bathrooms, offices, ‘barracks’, and even a ‘meeting room’ which is closest to the boiler and thus the warmest place to be when Nunavut’s -40 celsius winds start whipping across the bare rocks. This is the environment where I’m conducting my “field study”.
Here’s the methodology of my study:
my research question is ‘how does each side of this conflict represent space (the river) as a means of legitimating their territorial claims?’ Basically, I wanted to know what was so important about THAT particular river; why were the inuit so intent on preserving it, despite the benefit of electricity (much needed heat) that they would gain from developing it? Why was the hydro company so intent on damning THAT river, despite the expensive and arduous endeavour that was involved? To answer this question, I would interview as many hydro-reps and inuit as possible in an attempt to form a complete picture of what exactly was going on. Funnily enough, my research was funded by a grant the Canadian government gave my university; I guess they wanted to know what was going on too! There were four other members of my team, but only one other anthropologist. The other three were journalism majors, and they would be scribing our interviews and ‘procuring documentary video evidence’. We were all looking forward to making a little documentary, we chatted constantly while waiting for our first flight. Five connecting flights later, landing in the settlement in a rickety cessna on a gravel runway, all the chatter was gone from us. The surrounding area was absolutely barren. No trees, no mountains, just miles and miles of snow-covered rock beside miles and miles of ice-covered ocean. We were greeted by a white man in a blue parka, he shook our hands and introduced himself as a Red-Cross worker sent to improve education. Basically, he was an underqualified elementary school teacher, but he functioned as a ‘bridge’ between the resident inuits and the white people who had come to take their river; he was someone both sides trusted, and hopefully we would be too.
Beds had been set up for us on the floor of the school’s only classroom. It was poorly heated and we froze the first night. The next morning (if you can call it that, as it was dark as night), we geared up and went over the schedule we’d put together during the 2+ days spent in airports and airplanes of decreasing size. We were going to talk to the inuit population first, so as not to appear preferential to the hydro company (we knew we were on thin ice, three of us were white and white= land-grabbers). We decided to just walk around town and try to interview as many people as we could find. It was a clear ‘day’, no precipitation, just dry cold and breezes filled with dust-like snow. There were many children outside, little bundles of parka and snow pants. A few of them danced around us asking questions, “will you send us socks from walmart when you get back?” We asked about their parents, and we gathered that most adults spent the ‘light time’ hunting rabbit and fishing, and the ‘dark time’ crafting various items in their homes from the components of what they’d caught. Traditional ‘employment’, in which one receives money in exchange for services, was understandably limited. The only employment opportunities were offered by the Co-op, the school, and the generators/ water system maintenance. We tried to ask a few of the children about the hydro-electric company, though most of them were obviously disinterested. A ~ten year old boy explained that the river ran through ancestral land, and that it couldn’t be dammed. I asked why not, but he didn’t seem to understand the question. “It runs through special land.” was his repeated answer. We shared some chocolate with him, and he guided us to the Co-op.
As we stepped into the Co-op, we were greeted by a very young pregnant woman and a rush of much-welcome warm air. A man sat with his feet up on the counter beside her, they had been chatting. We greeted them awkwardly, and asked if they would like to be interviewed. When we explained that we were trying to understand the hydro-conflict, their faces brightened. “You will show the government why they have to leave the river alone?”
“We hope so, we want to understand.”
“They have to leave the river.” I knew I had to choose my words carefully in this interview. My fellow anthropologist asked a few questions as the journalism-majors set up their cameras and recording equipment. With the young couple centred in the frame, we began the interview.
“Tell us about the river.”
“It is a special place. An ancestral place. We believe the past is sacred, our ancestors did not create this land, but they taught us how to use it. The river is the home of our ancestors. If it is dammed, then another piece of our past will be taken from us by the government.” The man spoke english with a heavy accent. The native dialect, Inuktitut, was more commonly spoken here: only schools operated in English, as most of the teachers had to be imported from other parts of Canada. The woman seemed to speak English a bit better. “There is energy in the river. The government wants to take it from us. That energy belongs to us. It is the energy of our people.” The remainder of the interview followed the same lines; the river was ancestral, the movement of the river was important for the movement of the people. They never fished in the river, never hunted along its banks. Once a year, after a successful narwhal hunt (we were told that each settlement is permitted one narwhal kill per year by species-protection regulations), the village would gather along the banks of the river and offer the whale’s horn (ground into powder) to the waters as tribute. The village water supply came from the ocean, and was desalinated and purified. They never drank from the fresh water of the river; to do so would be a violation of its sanctity. We thanked them for the interview, and asked if they had any suggestions of who else we should talk to. The couple agreed that we should see one of the village elders, since they are the keepers of the river’s oral history. The elders each lived with their sizeable families, and one of these dwellings was right next door to the co-op. Reluctantly, we returned to the bitter cold, crossing a small, icy path to the front door of the neighbouring house. A young boy, maybe 14 years old, shivered on the porch with a cigarette. We asked him if this was the home of an elder, and he confirmed that it was. We introduced ourselves and asked him to share his thoughts on the hydro-company conflict. Here’s what he told us (in point form, as we didn’t get it on camera).
-he would have no problem with the hydro-reps if they didn’t drink from the river
-they have a water purification system, but it can’t desalinate ocean water, so they need the river’s clean water.
-the river is mostly frozen over, the ‘riverbanks’ are actually snow dunes, formed on the meter-thick ice that covers most of the river.
-because of this, the river is far wider than it appears. The flowing water we see is only a fraction of the water flowing underneath the icy banks.
One of the journalists gave the boy two cigarettes for his time, and we were ushered into the house. We were introduced to an elder, I wrote her name as Nanuk, since it was the closest spelling I could guess. The boy offered to translate, since she spoke very little English. He spoke clearly into the camera as Nanuk told us of her past; she had given birth to fifteen children, eight of which had died before the age of 5. Two had perished in the snow, which happens very often in the winter when white-out blizzards trap people outside, stumbling blindly around the village until hypothermia overwhelms them. She had three daughters, each of whom had several children of their own, living cramped together in this little three-bedroom house. One of her sons lived in the settlement with his wife and children, and the other son had moved to the nearest township. The boy was one of her daughter’s sons. I asked her if it was hard to lose so many children. She nodded thoughtfully. The boy translated; “When children die, their spirits return to the river. Though they are gone from us, they have not gone from the world.” One of my journalists asked an insensitive question; “When people die here, what do you do with their remains?” there was nothing but rock for miles, certainly they couldn’t be buried. “the river takes them.” I was curious about this, but the journalist didn’t press further. I made a note on my clipboard to talk to the red-cross worker about burial traditions. We asked a few questions about the hydro workers, which Nanuk seemed unwilling to discuss. We asked what would happen to the river if it were dammed, but the boy refused to translate our question. “She doesn’t like to talk about it.” he told us solemnly.
We ate lunch at the school; class was in session and (what seemed like hundreds) of children swarmed around us, asking for pieces of the chocolate we had given to their friend. We shared what we could, and were eventually saved by the red-cross worker who brought us into a 5×5” office. We talked about our experiences so far, and he agreed to an off-camera interview. Here’s the transcript, pulled from our audio recording:
(Interviewer= INT, Red-Cross= RC);
*INT- We’re curious about local burial practices
*RC- There are none. Can’t burry anything, the ground is made of rock.
*INT- What do they do with the deceased?
*RC- From what I gather, they bring them to the river. Never seen it happen, I suppose it’s done in secret.
*INT- Why would it be done in secret?
*RC- Dunno. I’m here, maybe they don’t want the white-man to know their rituals.
*INT- How many have died since you’ve been here?
*RC- I’ve been here eight months, and in that time I’d say…around 8. Mostly infants. Two suicides.
*INT- Death is fairly common here, then.
*RC- Highest suicide rate in the world- higher than Japan. If the cold doesn’t getcha, the boredom will. Infant mortality is high too, owing to a lack of doctors.
*INT- But you’ve never seen them dispose of a body?
*RC- Never. The hydro-boys have been camping down by that river for a few months now… you might want to ask if they’ve ever seen a body being tossed in.
*INT- We’re going to their camp tomorrow.
*RC- Let me know what they say, it’s been a dormant curiosity of mine for a while now.
*INT- Will do. Are there any predatory animals around?
*RC- South a bit you’ll find wolves, here there’s the occasional polar bear, but they’re not feeding bodies to the animals if that’s what you’re wondering.
*INT- Some clans leave their dead for animals to eat, so that the body may return to nature.
*RC- Okay, here. I’ll tell you a story. Two months ago, a homeless man who had been living in the generator building got his hands on a 40 of vodka. Drank himself into a stupor, collapsed in the streets. By sun-up, his body was covered in snow, looked like a black garbage bag being blown in the wind. They left him out there, the sun was only out for an hour or so. By the next light, the body was gone. Know what was left? Footprints. Hundreds of pairs surrounding where the body had been, leading up the bank towards the river. Whole village must have been involved, and I hadn’t noticed a thing.
*INT- That does sound…strange.
*RC- Strange. Yeah. Anyway, let me know what the Hydro guys say. An entire village leads a funeral procession right beside their camp, can’t imagine they ALL missed the show.
*INT- We’ll let you know for sure.
We spent the rest of they day taking pictures and video of the surrounding area. At around 3:00pm, a blizzard kicked up and we were confined to our makeshift-bunks for the night. After a few hours of idle boredom, I shared some over-the-counter sleep aids, we set our alarms for 9:00am the next day, and fell asleep to the sound of wind buffeting the building’s windowless metal walls.
I don’t want this account to be ridiculously long, so I’ll post my records from the next day in Part 2.