‘Ananaksaq:’ Inuit grandmother

I’ve always told Rosemary that I wished I had her grandmother.

I’ll share her,” she always laughed, “as long as you remember she’s mine, okay?”

I couldn’t blame her. I would have felt that way, too. You see, when Rosemary was very little, she lost her parents. Both her and her brother were adopted by their grandparents. They later moved to Gjoa Haven, where we met. Even later, we attended school together in Inuvik.

Rosemary called her grandmother “Ananaksaq,” which in her Inuinnaqtun dialect meant “grandmother,” but in my Inuktitut dialect meant, “adopted mother.” This was appropriate, because her grandmother was a sort of adopted mother to me ? and a shelter to us growing teens set adrift between two cultures.

Rosemary’s Ananaksaq was a very traditional Western Arctic Grand Dame, so to speak. She was of the old school, trained in the skills of grandmothering ? how to run a healthy, productive family. She could teach you how to embroider the most beautiful Western-style kamik (boots), or the perfect way to make “Indian-style” bannock (ie., baked instead of our Inuit fried way). And she served to center us wild and wooly teens.

Physically, she resembled those dolls you see in craft stores, with faces carved from dried apples. She was immaculately arrayed in a Mother Hubbard parka, and smelled particularly clean ? like fresh sheets on a snowy day. She always wore a sparkling broach, her gray hair neatly braided, framing wise and gentle eyes.

I remember the tears when, as adults, Rosemary told me that her Ananaksaq had passed away. I could see how painfully Rosemary missed her; that a lot of her Ananaksaq still dwelt in her own face. She had inherited the same gentle spirit.

I mentioned the special gift her Ananaksaq had given me.

In growing up, my home life tended to be stormy, driving me to seek guidance elsewhere. To some degree, I detached myself from my family, adopting Rosemary’s grandmother as my own. God knows, I was more often at her house than mine, due to the fact that I was good friends with Rosemary. We played and learned together.

Throughout my life, I’ve consistently described myself as a “Tomboy,” growing up in a more male than female traditional role. Well, at a time when I had little instruction in how to be a “proper” Inuit lady, Rosemary’s Ananaksaq filled in the gaps. She was kindly when she instructed us girls in how to sew. She never voiced a discouraging word. She would compliment even our most clumsy efforts at sewing, or at other traditional “women’s skills.”

“Do it this way ? try again ? you’re doing very well (nakuujuq),” she would say in her home dialect. One could not have had a more excellent teacher than her. She would look right into your soul when you gave up trying, a look that somehow inspired you to laugh at yourself. She would make noises of silly, mock-comforting, until you laughed, stopped feeling sorry for yourself, and picked up where you left off. Life, it seemed, could never be taken too seriously with her around. That seemed to be her one, great message.

And who was better qualified to know? Hers was a large family, a healthy family that she had raised between iron will and gentle hand. Her grandchildren were numerous, and it seemed there was always room for one more ? adopted or not. I am grateful.

But the special gift to me that, I feel, epitomizes her spirit, was in the form of a Christmas present. She made me a hand-fashioned, starburst ruff for my parka, of beautiful wolf fur. Why was this special? Well, you see, such a ruff was something that an adult would wear. So the gift made me feel grown up and worthy. It made me proud at a time when I needed pride.

But that was how she was ? she understood something about the importance of self-respect. It made me look to her and think, “That’s how I want to be when I’m her age. That’s how I want to be remembered.” For kindness, giving, and working hard. She was from a time when Inuit still valued individual dignity and freedom above all else ? when Inuit belonged to no nation but the self.

So thank-you, Rosemary’s Ananaksaq. What is different about this day and age that we cannot help each other feel self-respect, like you did for us so long ago?

Pijariiqpunga.

Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern world.

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