Last year, I moved to Iqaluit to learn Inuktitut. Despite growing up in Yellowknife, absorbing my culture, I learned only fragments of our language. Then, in 2021, living and teaching in Fort Smith, I came across a social media story about the Pirurvik Centre.
Because of COVID‑19, the institution for Inuit well-being and culture — established in 2003 — had begun offering language classes online. I signed up for a few and enjoyed the material, which included studying pronunciation and internalizing syllabics. Inspired, I looked more deeply into the curriculum. I was delighted to discover that the centre provided a full-time program called Aurniarvik, designed for people like me: English-speaking Inuit who want to learn Inuktitut as a second language. I decided to go back to school.
Fort Smith lies on the border between Alberta and Denendeh, the homeland of the Dene, or what most people call the Northwest Territories. From there, it’s a 2,200-kilometre trek to Nunavut. With the support of my family and friends, I made this long journey. In Iqaluit, I stayed in the staff housing of Inhabit Media, Canada’s first Inuit-owned independent publisher, which had released my inaugural story collection, The Other Ones. While there, I was fortunate to share a home with many talented artists, including the brilliant author and linguist Jaypeetee Arnakak. We enjoyed many productive discussions on language, spirituality, and storytelling, among other topics. Little did I know that Jaypeetee would later translate my debut poetry collection from English to Inuktitut.
Inuktitut is a complex language built around roots, prefixes, and suffixes. One term in Inuktitut may be a series of words in English. For example, Aurniarvik means “a place where one stops before their final destination.” The name of the school, Pirurvik, combines the root verb piruq, which means “to grow,” and the suffix –vik, which denotes locality. Pirurvik then translates to “a place to grow.”
My lessons came in handy when Inuit Art Quarterly commissioned me to write an article on my late grandfather, the carver Henry Evaluardjuk. Compiling the piece involved several visits to the historic Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, where I saw some of Henry’s rare sculptures, ordinarily kept behind closed doors.
Among the artwork was an immense whalebone carving that Henry had completed in 1972. He had engraved his signature into one of the huge rib bones using qaniujaaqpait, Inuktitut syllabics. But he had spelled it ᐃᕙᓗᐊᔪ, or Ivaluaju. All my life, I had written our family name as ᐃᕙᓗᐊᕐᔪᒃ, or Evaluardjuk. It had never occurred to me that my grandfather had grown up before naaniit were incorporated into the written language.
Each Inuktitut syllabic represents a consonant followed by a vowel, and the direction the syllabic faces determines the vowel: ᑎ for ti, ᑐ for tu, ᑕ for ta, and so on. Naaniit are superscripts — like exponents in math — representing the natural sounds one makes while transitioning between syllabics when speaking the language. When we pronounce Ivaluaju and Evaluardjuk, the sounds are the same, but the written naaniit acknowledge these transitional notes, altering how they’re rendered in English. Had it not been for the lessons at Pirurvik, I would not have known this fundamental linguistic history.
Despite our name’s varied spelling, its meaning remains consistent. Ivalu– means “thread,” and –aju means “small” or “short.” So the word translates to “short thread.” This significance is perhaps unsurprising because sewing is part and parcel of Inuit culture. Creating garments is a means to keep warm, but it’s also a means of self-expression. And when sewing, it’s good practice to keep your thread short. Longer threads are prone to knotting, tearing, and fraying.
I’ve realized that the meaning of my family name reflects my approach to poetry. As a rule, I keep my poems to a single page. It bothers me no end when I cross the boundary onto another page, so anything too long I turn into a series. In my new book, which explores topics such as colonization, internalized oppression, and Indigenous resurgence, I have endeavoured to keep my threads short and to sew them together into one cohesive piece.
Since finishing my education in Iqaluit, I’ve started writing poetry in Inuktitut. It’s a difficult task, but it’s deeply satisfying to interact with the language and seek out the guidance of mentors. To be sure, having the ability to express yourself through your language ushers in an unparalleled sense of belonging. I look forward to writing more works celebrating the culture that I share with so many others.