Nunavut’s Inuit teens are dancing as a form of Healing

A 25 minute documentary about:

The remote Arctic village of Arviat faces an epidemic of youth suicides — a tragedy that affects all of Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory, populated primarily by Inuit people. But Arviat’s teens are dancing their way towards hope, offering a way through the grief and intergenerational trauma faced by the whole community. Their unique dance culture is now being shared with the world in the short film Dancing Towards the Light — created by TED Fellows and Canadian filmmakers Ed Ou and Kitra Cahana, with the support of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

An excellent article, below are the highlights, but I ended up copying most of it, so your probably better off reading the whole thing.

dancing meant so much more to these youth than just dancing. Youth suicide is an epidemic that affects all of Nunavut — which has the highest suicide rate of any province or territory in Canada. In this community, dancing is a way for young people to honor those they’ve lost. It is a way to channel their sadness, their anger and frustration, as well as a way to remember all the happy memories they had dancing with their closest friends.

For example, one of our subjects, Andy, told us that before dancing, he often dedicates his dances to someone that he has lost to suicide. When he’s dancing, he feels closer to them.

“When I’m angry, or when I’m sad, or when something is bothering me, I dance it out and it just goes away,” says dancer Maryanne Issumatarjuak.

“I use my dancing as a like a tool for my emotions and entertainment for myself. Every time I dance, I dedicate it someone who I love, loved or who I care for or support. It doesn’t matter what kind of dance it is. As long as I follow the beat, the rhythm, the bass, the lyrics. It’s everything.”

What do you think is causing the suicide epidemic in this town?
I believe it’s the effects of colonial trauma that still persists to this day. It truly is one of the living scars of Canadian history, a result of intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools.

“Talk to someone you know who’s older, your friend, your older friend, teacher, relative, to even a stranger,” Andy says. “A stranger might even feel the same way. But they need help too. Once they start talking, they’ll support each other. Once they support each other, all of us, we can stop suicide.”

Arviat is a community of 2,800 people. What I’ve come to understand working in a community of this size is how every suicide unleashes a web of interconnected traumas.

Slowly, as listeners, we begin to build up a picture in our own heads of the event in question and the way that trauma has splintered throughout the community — how a single traumatic event can have an endless and long-lasting ripple effect on a community. You start to realize how everyone’s pain is interconnected with everyone else’s pain. When I imagine all the historical traumas on top of everything that is going on today and the lack of resources available to Inuit and First Nations communities, the magnitude becomes unimaginable.

This is part of the problem: government inaction and lack of focus on mental health services — or even general physical health — in many of these remote communities. It’s hard for people in the community to engage with mental health workers when they know that they will inevitably leave.

One major problem is bullying. Many people who went through residential schools came back broken. This trauma has been passed down from generation to generation. It manifests itself in domestic abuse, and a lack of proper parenting skills, which was never fully learned because residential schools created a seismic rift in the transfer of wisdom between generations. I asked a teenager who was being bullied why there are so many bullies. He told me, “It’s because their parents don’t know how to be parents.”

there are still a lot of very vibrant traditions in Nunavut. Hunting is a major part of life there, so people will traditionally go out caribou hunting, or beluga hunting in the summer, or polar bear hunting in the winter. Even to this day, though, those practices, especially seal hunting, are routinely demonized by animal rights groups like PETA and Sea Shepherd, who rally to admonish entire cultures for living off the land as they have always done. To me, it shows how liberal colonialism still exists to this day, and is no different from missionaries or the government going into indigenous communities and dictating to them what their way of life should be.

Shelton Nipisar (left) and his dance partner Malachi Poungalak practice a dance routine before the annual dance competition. They have won first place three years in a row. Shelton: “I inispire a lot of youth, especially children. They’re like, ‘Oh it’s Shelton, oh look it’s Malachi.’ So when they do that, I feel like I want to dance more and inspire them. I want to tell the kids that if you’re feeling suicidal, just talk to someone. If you don’t talk about it, that feeling will grow inside you like flower, and it will become worse. So just talk to someone you know you trust.”

Colonialism forced many indigenous groups to be ashamed of their culture. But this form of dance demonstrates that the right to self expression can never be fully extinguished. Cultural expression is a constantly evolving continuum that doesn’t need to be compartmentalized into “traditional” and “modern.” That’s one of the things that really drove us to tell this story.

A few of our subjects draw the connection between the electronic dance-style music they’re listening to now and traditional Inuit drum dancing — and even throat singing.

While break dancing, Ian shouts out in a way that borrows from traditional Inuit drum dancing, wherein the drummer will shout out as well. Another team talks about how, when they’re dancing, they feel the presence of their grandfather, who was a great lover of drum dancing. They feel that by dancing in the competition, they are both honoring him and the drum dancing tradition.

We’ve done a lot of work to make sure to reach that population.

For example, we built a website that is accessible in both English and in Inuktitut. In a pretty unusual step, the CBC posted the entire documentary on Facebook as well as online, because we knew Facebook was the primary way Inuit youth engage with media. And we compressed all our videos because the internet is incredibly slow and expensive, as everything is on a satellite connection due to the remoteness of these villages. A lot of families wouldn’t be able to afford the bandwidth it takes to watch our documentary, so we tried as hard as we could to account for that reality.

Inuit people have always been able to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world. I’m always in awe of the resilience, creativity and ingenuity of Inuit communities whenever I spend time with them.

More broadly we really hope that this film will wake up Canadians across the country to start asking questions and demanding that policies change. The youth in the Arctic deserve better. They are resilient, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve access to all the mental health resources any other Canadian would receive. For me, it goes back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. How can we all play our part in reconciliation? Reconciliation isn’t a singular event. It’s not a moment in time. It’s an ongoing way of being in this world that we all can choose again and again in the decisions that we make.

Buddhism, mixed with my current interests in economics, privilege, immigration, etc. Email <my username>