This is a First Person column by Monika Rumbolt, a visual artist who identifies as Inuk from Nunatukavut. She now lives in Labrador City, N.L., with her spouse and daughter. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
It felt like a cool autumn afternoon, as northerly winds whipped across the stern of the boat, leaving streaks of briny ocean water against the windshield.
But it was actually late June as my atâtatsiak (grandfather) navigated the shallow ridges along the coastline, occasionally looking up from his conversation with my grandmother to make minor adjustments to his route. Not many would venture out into these rough waters without the help of a seasoned fisherman. However, my grandparents have navigated this route to Great Caribou Island for more than 40 years.
I’m a sixth-generation islander. We were going to our seasonal camp, Indian Cove. Located in southern Labrador, the small settlement is about a 30-minute boat ride from Mary’s Harbour. Like nearby Battle Harbour, its tiny homes are nestled among the rocky hills bleached from the sun. During the height of the cod fishery, the community housed several stores, a church and a school. Now the only thing that remains is some neatly kept cottages and blue fig irises.Most of my favourite childhood memories were created here.
From Inuit burial grounds to secret beaches, Great Caribou Island held many curiosities for an adventurous child.
As we reached my grandfather’s stage, where we could clean our catch, my daughter Abigail squealed with excitement.
She was three, and her sense of wonderment had surpassed my own at her age. I knew it was time to begin passing on what I knew about our culture to her.
‘Let her explore like you did’
Passing on knowledge can be tricky. It’s not like a family recipe you can write on a scrap of paper in the hopes of using it later. It’s a mixture of learned behaviours and lessons that stem from blood memory and curiosity.
A simple walk along the rocky shore teaches agility and balance, while beachcombing enables the senses to become more alert and focused — all highly valued skills as a hunter in northern climates. Being a relatively young mother myself, I felt nervous and unprepared. I was still on my own journey to reclaiming my identity.
“Let her explore like you did,” my atâtatsiak would say. “Let her learn about her territory.” So that’s what I did.
During the mornings, when the tides were at their highest, we would go to our salmon nets to check for any catches. Once home, we would clean the kavisilik (salmon) on the stage.
Many toddlers would stray away from the horror movie-level of blood and guts, but Abby happily played among the mess with her little butter knife, mimicking our movements and pretending to clean her own salmon, proudly holding up any capelin that she freed from its guts.
As I sharpened my ulu (a crescent-shaped knife), she watched in fascination as I explained the ins and outs of the salmon, showing her the liver and spawn — a delightful treat for Inuit.
I remembered learning about what salmon ate at her age in this way. My grandfather had always talked quietly while I watched him clean fish. He would show me signs of sick salmon and warn me about keeping the waters clean so that they could always return home.
Drinking tea and telling stories
As the tide fell, our lessons moved more inland to the moss-covered rocks and marshes where the scent of ripening berries and stagnant bog water wafted through the air. Like the water, there was much to learn about the creatures and plants that lived on the island. It was my favourite place to explore with my grandmother.
As I drifted back from my memories, questions about what was safe to eat and when it could be eaten were endless from the chatty tot as we made our way to the cove. We drank Labrador tea, told stories by the windswept spruce and picked many wildflowers along ancient caribou paths.
As Abigail’s happy giggles filled the silence of the deserted cove, I felt a sense of relief. I realized that my childhood was never about just fun, but rich in culture, filled with lessons learned from the lands and waters of my home here on Great Caribou Island.
Looking back on this moment, I realized how special our timing was. For the first time in roughly 200 years, some residents told us they spotted a caribou calf and its mother on the island. These animals were killed off from overhunting and have not been back to the island until now. These caribou are reverting to the old caribou paths laid by their ancestors, and flourishing on the food the land has to offer.
I believe this is a sign of resilience. Like my own family, when we embrace and pass on our culture to our new generation, we can reclaim what was once lost. Following the same paths as our ancestors, we will always find the things we need to nourish us.
Looking back, my grandparents were teaching me the best way they could, by letting me live and experience my culture. Our teachings and traditions are embedded into our everyday lives, like our ancestors and their ancestors before them.
The passing of knowledge is important to Inuit families. It’s what has allowed us to flourish and live among these harsh coastal waters. We do not just practise our culture; we live it.
Identity politics aside, the one connecting factor that all Inuit have is a great love and respect for our culture. It binds us to the lands and waters, giving us an intimate knowledge of our surroundings, our people, and our sense of self. It is important to let our youth know — regardless of appearance or location — Inogavit piggotigigit (be proud of who you are).
As we sailed away from the island, I felt a sense of pride in my chest.
I know the next generation was in good hands.
Read more on the Nunatukavut Inuit identity dispute.
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