Postcard From Northern Labrador: Sacred Throat-Singing & Polar Bear Spotting | Songlines
Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Postcard From Northern Labrador: Sacred Throat-Singing & Polar Bear Spotting

By Daniel Neilson

Songlines ventured north to the Labrador Peninsula, Canada, home to the Inuit and a very particular singing style called katajjaq

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Iceberg formations in the Torngat Mountains National Park (photo by Daniel Neilson)

The polar bears, as far as we know, are on the eastern side of Sallikuluk. Skirting the far end of the island, we had seen a mother and cub poking their heads above the black rock, watching us. Later, around the north side, we find another bear, who climbs out of the frigid Arctic water, shakes itself off and darts up the hill. We are getting off the boat at the western end of the island, hopefully away from the polar bears, but just in case, we have armed bear guards with us. Polar bear spotting, however, is just an added privilege to the real reason for the trip: to pay our respects to the Inuit interred on this sacred island. With us are Sophie Keelan who, 71 years earlier, was born on this island, and two throat singers, Akinisie Sivuarapik and Sylvia Cloutier.

Sallikuluk, also known as Rose Island, is only 4.5km long and 1.5km wide, but it has incomparable significance to the Inuit. It is located in Torngat Mountains National Park, 9,700km of true wilderness, a place where mountains as sharp as a polar bear’s teeth jut thousands of metres out of deep fjords and where icebergs come crashing into the bays after their migration from Greenland. We are staying at Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station in Northern Labrador, Canada, run by Air Borealis and the Nunatsiavut Government and open for visitors six weeks through the summer. Parks Canada also runs the park from here. It’s remote; this treeless land supports caribou and black bear, its cold seas harbour orcas and minke whales, and for at least 6,000 years, humans. Today, no one lives in the park, but it’s run by all Inuit staff, their chance to work on their homeland.

We hop out of the boat and, led by Gary Baikie, superintendent for Parks Canada, explore the remnants of the settlement here. We stop at a seemingly innocuous pile of rocks. Under them are the remains of 113 people that had been removed from the area by a palaeontologist in 1969-70. None of the local people knew it had happened, but there were rumours. Baikie was instrumental in bringing the remains back in 1996. “These people were buried here for a reason,” he explains. “The Tongait, the spirits in the Torngat Mountains, were really relied upon, in good and bad ways, in people’s daily lives.”

These spirits of the land provided caribou and birds among other creatures, and the sea spirits gave seal, walrus, beluga whales. An emotional Sophie Keelan thanks Parks Canada for bringing her back to her homeland, and then Sivuarapik and Cloutier sing to honour these people. They stand and face each other, lips a few inches apart. Sivuarapik begins with a breathy melody, followed by more guttural pushes. Cloutier follows on the offbeat. It’s rapid and rhythmic, melodic and harmonic, deeply emotional. Many of the group watching are moved to tears.

Back at Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station, as the Northern Lights flicker overhead, I chat to Cloutier about the tradition. Both Sivuarapik and Cloutier are from Nunavik, an area of land in neighbouring northern Québec. They’re here to share this tradition with visitors to the park. 

“Throat singing is a musical tradition mainly performed by Inuit women,” Cloutier explains. “It was often performed when the men went out hunting and the women would stay home with their children. We imitate the sounds of the wind, the river, the tools that we use. Sometimes we sing lullabies or melodies, like every mother around the world does to their children.”

Sylvia Cloutier and Akinisie Sivuarapik

The style of throat singing is called katajjaq. They’re not literal songs, but almost mood pieces. Sometimes bright and ending in laughter, others times solemn. For most of the songs, one woman leads, and then the other follows with the same sound. As one person is inhaling, the other is exhaling. “It’s very intimate,” Cloutier adds. “You’re exchanging a breath.” 

Sivuarapik explains that throat singing very nearly died out when missionaries banned it. But just before it was lost, the elders were again allowed to teach it to the youngsters. Now Sivuarapik and Cloutier have become the teachers and proponents, performing around the world and collaborating with orchestras and DJs who admire the rhythm of katajjaq. But it’s the profound connection to ancestors and the land that is immediately apparent. “To sing at Rose Island beside the mass grave. And to sing for those, because they need that respect and that love. They deserve it; they are at peace now, finally, and to be able to sing for them, it felt so good, it felt so natural. And that’s what this is all about: sharing love.”     

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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