Tuesday last I boarded my 39th flight for the year, which for those of you who having been following along, made my wanderlusting self quite happy. This glorified lawn dart adventure was to return me home after spending almost a week in St. John’s Newfoundland & Labrador with a team of colleagues and students who are affectionately referred to as the Polar Peeps. Our mission in St. John’s was to attend and present at the 2016 Inuit Studies conference at Memorial University on the eNuk app that we’ve been developing with the community of Rigolet.
The opening reception was held Friday night at The Rooms, an incredibly beautiful museum, and art gallery. Ascending the staircase I first heard and then saw a group of Inuit women throat singing in a tight circle around a microphone. To be honest, I don’t think the microphone was necessary as something about the music they created seemed to resonate throughout the walls of the building, bringing them incredibly to life. It was beautiful and moving and at once preternatural and not, and I stood there for a moment feeling their voices resonate through me. The throat singing continued for much of the night, and even though I couldn’t necessarily hear it in great detail all the time, I could still feel it.
At some point, I made my way to the art gallery where a new exhibit of Inuit art by Jennie Williams and artists of Nunatsiavut had just opened. And as I walked by the various pieces I was struck by the talent of the artists on display; intricate carvings, incredibly detailed and colourful paintings, videos about the land and its importance, cross-stitching and other traditional crafts, and photography that captured simple moments of a people and culture that I’m still learning so much about.
And as I strolled through the displays, I realized how different this conference was than the typical academic conference I’ve attended in the past. Where normally I’d spend my time chatting primarily with academics, I found myself talking more with community members, listening to stories about their lives and their connection to the land. And more and more I recognized how much this conference had tried to honour the tradition and cultures of the people for whom it was named. It was more than just a research conference. It was more than just academics. It was art and science and community and academia and research and stories, and it was amazing.
On Sunday I was incredibly privileged to sit and listen to Tanya Tagaq give a keynote presentation, but one that differed in so many ways than the keynotes I’m accustomed to sitting through. She presented photos from her life and told stories about each one. We learned of her family and their challenges, the places that were special and important to her, to them. And all the while her children ran across the stage and became part of the narrative. It was a beautifully moving keynote filled with laughter and joy, but also accented with stories of abuse and the residential school system. When she spoke of her experiences, when she spoke of the anger she had inside, we all felt it and knew her truth. We felt her pain and her joy, not necessarily through shared experiences, but because of the humanity that she laid bare at our feet.
And yet despite the struggles she’s experienced and the pain it has caused, she spoke mainly of love and forgiveness and support for each other, and of teaching the next generation through giving and being kind and holding each other up. And when asked how she manages to survive the abuse of her past, she replied I eat love, and I eat a lot.
When she finished her final story, I remember feeling overwhelmed with what I had heard, what I had learned. And there was a brief moment where you could tell that everyone in the room needed to breathe, to try to process all that we’d just heard. And then we stood, and we applauded, and we roared not only because of the words and lessons she bravely shared with us but because we stood with her.
It is the only time I’ve ever witnessed a standing ovation following a keynote presentation. And even now, I find it hard to process all of what she said. But it has stuck with me, will stick with me.
As I boarded the plane I thought about the conference, about the keynote, and about my time spent in St. John’s. And as with all of my travels I felt incredibly lucky that I was able to experience the things I got to experience; that I got to return to Signal Hill, and to walk the streets during iNuit Blanche, that I got to hear Tanya Tagaq speak and perform, and that I got to share my time with an incredible team of Polar Peeps. And I recognized once again that I am a lucky bastard.