SUSAN AGLUKARK INTERVIEWED (1995): Inuit into the mainstream

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Susan Aglukark: O Siem
SUSAN AGLUKARK INTERVIEWED (1995): Inuit into the mainstream

It is 1995 and Susan Aglukark is speculating on how she’d like to see herself in five years; married certainly (she and her boyfriend have talked about it), a lot of children, learn to fly, go to law school . . .

Making music doesn't come into it?

"Oops," she laughs and glances guiltily around the record-company office where she is sitting doing promotional work for her album This Child which has just topped the charts in her homeland Canada.

Forgive her the lapse – she’s been doing interviews all morning and this conversation has roamed far from the mundanities of promoting a record.

And she’s come a long way. Few, in fact, could claim to have come further, either emotionally or physically.

An Inuit singer-songwriter from Canada’s Northwest Territories, she was in Auckland briefly after a performance in Melbourne but is easily diverted into discussing the broader issues pertaining to Inuit peoples.20100223120659

Aglukark has the credentials. She has been a linguist with the Canadian Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, executive assistant the political lobby group Inuit Tapirisat (Brotherhood) of Canada, spokesperson for the Northwest Territories Economic Development and Tourism/Arts and Crafts organisation, and a national spokesperson for the Aboriginal Division of the National Alcohol and Drug Prevention Programme.

And now, having been one of Canada’s highest-profile singers for the past four years and over four albums, she has just been nominated as one of the best new solo artists in the annual Juno Awards.

“God I hate talking politics,” she laughs before embarking on a free-ranging philosophical discussion about the complexities of “aboriginal-whiteman” relations and observations about young Inuits debilitated by alcoholism, poor education and lack of a sense of self-worth.

“The people are confused and in a kind of controlled limbo,” she says of the 35,000 Inuit who have occupied the Arctic coast and islands of Canada for more than 4000 years.

"Things have changed and change has caught up on a social level. There are a lot of problems, but not so much the people haven’t been able to negotiate a land-claims deal. But we are now in a situation where we have to catch up with the rest of the world.

“There is a drive for self-determination and always has been, but there is no animosity between the white man and the Inuit peop1e.”

The key problem, as Aglukark sees it, is in the way change has been brought to Inuits who largely live in remote, small communities such as Arviat (population 1300) where she grew up.

“If people would listen, especially in the white man’s world, they would understand that Inuit people do accept change, because it’s inevitable. The problem in our way of thinking is that the concept of choice is a very scary thing. In the last 50 years the people have learned to depend on the Government because it has taken choice away from them.”

Aglukark notes that young people who have grown up with television (despite widespread Eskimos-in-igloos cliches) are open to education. Her own experience is typical.

After going through local primary schools students have to leave for one of two large boarding schools and encounter the particular pressures that being away from home can bring.

Alcohol and drugs are prevalent, she says. Students tend to drop out.

She did so herself, and drifted for two years before returning to school.

Many young people, she says, are victims of abuse, and suicide is common.746px_Inuit_Kleidung_1

“But I'm very optimistic about our future. I'm a victim of abuse myself, but all my friends are victims of one form of abuse or other and if that many can survive then I have to be optimistic."

Aglukark is aware that initially people within the music business are curious about her because they say, “Oh, there’s an Eskimo in the industry. . .”

It also makes for some nervousness: “They wonder what I'll sound like."

But she couldn't have made her light folk-pop album with aboriginal musicians; there isn’t the experience in assimilating traditional chants with guitars and synthesisers."

“Our people don’t have the depth of experience as creators of this particular music. We have heavy metal and country bands but it’s difficult for aboriginal people to understand the advantages of having the two worlds work together in the entertainment field.

“I think we’re slowly moving away from that. I’ve written the song This Child as a traditional chant but it also has different sounds that create a visual sense. I can sing my chant with the music behind it but my grandparents couldn’t imagine the sound that backs it. It's beyond their understanding.”

Not unexpectedly, Aglukark sees the music industry from her own particular perspective; she writes her songs in the hope they will bridge the generations and be life affirming, and she discusses with elders the protocol of using traditional chants within popular culture . . . and donates a percentage of royalties to various communities.


Aglukark's album The Child sold triple platinum in Canada, five years after this interview she had a young son. In 2005 she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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