Susan Aglukark recalls
David Owingayak

John D'Arcy's students explore the world of new media


Susan Aglukark recalls how
David Owingayak inspired
a love of language and

Susan Aglukark

Deep in time a hunt took place
That made a boy a man
A song was sung to celebrate
And welcome each new hand


Susan Aglukark took this parable from the tundra to video.

As a child, Aglukark, a Juno-award-winning musician, listened to her great uncle tell stories about their family and the traditional life in the north. She heard this tale about a young boy who comes of age and an old man who recalls his own journey to adulthood.

Years later, she translated it into English, composed the song and created the video Shamaya.

Aglukark's love of language and storytelling grew from seeds planted by David Owingayak, her Inuktitut-instructing teacher in elementary school.

Qitiqliq School

Susan Aglukark was born in Churchill. Her family moved frequently in the Keewatin district of the Northwest Territories, following her father's calling as a Pentecostal minister. Eventually, they settled in Arviat, then known as Eskimo Point, on the western shore of Hudson Bay. They'd arrived in a village of about 1,300 people, the site of a traditional summer camp used by the Inuit for at least 600 years.

David Owingayak taught at Qitiqliq School in Arviat, and young Susan was his student for five years, in Grades 5 through 9. Because her family had lived in several communities, and teachers in the north often didn't stay long. "He was the one we had the longest."

Owingayak, who came from Arviat, was a language specialist. He had a profound influence on her.

"He taught our language. Speaking. Writing. I was drawn to him because he had a way of making ." she pauses, "of living our culture. He had a way of talking about his memories that made it alive. He was a great teacher that way. He was real."

The word for girl .

Down to earth too, from the sounds of it. She recalls a funny incident in spelling class.

Inuktitut was for centuries an oral language but in recent times became a written language using syllabics.

"I didn't appreciate the finals," she says, referring to accents that change the meaning of words.

"I don't mean to be vulgar, but there is a word for girl that uses the same symbols as poop or crap, depending on where you put the finals! You hear [the two words] differently right away, but the words could look the same. That was an example I'll never forget!"

Her twelve-year-old embarrassment duly turned to admiration.

"He had a way of talking about his memories that made our culture come alive."

"As kids we take language and culture for granted. But this was his passion. I realized that his passion could make the difference in the survival of the culture. It's a particular dialect we speak in Arviat, and he made the language survive. I finally appreciated it."

Owingayak must have been a compelling presence in the small school.

"During classes he shared his memories of childhood. I had the impression that he'd had a really good childhood. I think his mother had a huge impact on him.

"He talked about playing, and I remember him telling stories in such detail that you could just envision it. The igloo. The outfits. The games they played. The hardships.

"At that young age, I was completely open to that.

"Other kids thought he was weird. You know how it is, school is school, and you'd rather not be there. It's just language and it's boring. But I really enjoyed him."

Love of language

Aglukark didn't become a musician until she moved to Ontario at the age of 24.

But she credits Owingayak with passing along his love of language.

"He could paint a picture through his words. I learned to do that in my songs as well," says Aglukark, who has vivid scenes in mind when she writes songs like Shamaya.

"He could paint a picture through his words. I learned to do that in my songs as well."

"I have never considered myself a performer-singer," she has been quoted as saying. "I'm a storyteller-singer more than anything."

After David Owingayak stopped teaching, he went to work for the Inuit Cultural Institute, an organization dedicated to the cultural preservation of the Inuit people. Aglukark followed him there.

"We had good times working together when I had a summer job during high school. We didn't keep in touch after that. I never had a chance to tell him what an impact he had on me. I wish I had."

David Owingayak died young, of cancer, in the mid-1990s.

Land and lineage

Susan Aglukark has recorded four albums blending the Inuktitut and English languages in pop arrangements. She has played for Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth and toured the north with Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.

Last May she won a Juno award for Best Aboriginal Recording of the Year for Big Feeling, which conveys her perspective as a small-town girl with deep connections to land and lineage.

Aglukark performs for dignitaries but also on reserves, in small towns and in villages across Canada. She lives in Oakville, but she has stayed true to her roots and to David Owingayak's teachings at Qitiqliq School.

Recently she has begun to do volunteer work on literacy. She is doing some brainstorming with the National Indigenous Literacy Association to identify problems among Inuit kids. In December she gave a motivational song-and-speech presentation to teachers in London. "The work you do goes a long way," she told the crowd.

"I've always had good experiences with teachers," she concludes.

The Inuktitut language

Parents, with the help of schools and government, are key to retaining Inuktitut as a living, working language.

Even though there are seven major dialects in Nunavut, Inuit from across the territory strive to understand one another. People are proud of their language.

In the western part of the territory, the dialect is written in Roman orthography. Elsewhere it is written in syllabics, a phonetic form of writing developed by Reverend James Evans for the Cree and adapted for the Inuit in the late 1800s by Anglican missionaries.

The Inuit Cultural Institute, where Susan Aglukark worked during high school, developed a standardized dual orthography in the late 1970s that works for both Roman and syllabics.

Survival of the language is a serious concern. Today, many children play in English or reply to their Inuktitut-speaking parents in English. And it's the kids who count.

Since the creation of Nunavut in 1999, however, more and more people use Inuktitut in everyday life. It is not only a working language within government, it is taught in schools and at Nunavut Arctic College. Several colleges and universities in the south now offer Inuktitut programs. Even Microsoft taught its computer operating system to speak the ancient tongue in 2004.

Source: Alexina Kublu and Mick Mallon, Our Language, Our Selves, Nunavut 99.

additional Information

Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards

Susan Aglukark's web site

Nunavut Department of Education

Susan Aglukark was honoured as Best Female Artist of the Year at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in November 2004.

David Owingayak taught at Qitiqliq School in Arviat and later worked for the Inuit Cultural Institute in Arviat. He died in the mid-1990s.