Passing knowledge to future generations — including her three-year-old grandson Isaac — keeps Norma Dunning grounded in her Aboriginal heritage. (Photo by John Ulan)
Growing up in southern areas of Canada, Norma Dunning, ’12 BA(NativeStu), ’12 Cert(AborGov/Ptnshp), ’14 MA, lived a life of “silenced aboriginality,” usually not self-identifying as Inuk. Now a third-year doctoral student, she says omitting her heritage was easier than dealing with the expectations of mainstream society and questions surrounding whether she was a “real” Inuk. But in her new book, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, published by University of Alberta Press, Dunning portrays the realities of northern life and challenges inaccurate perceptions of who Inuit people are.
What was your journey in writing this book? I always wrote stories, but I never shared them. I have spent decades writing and putting the stories/poems into a drawer. No one hurt me if I didn’t share my words. I could be a closet writer forever and never have to deal with the world of publishing. I could just write and write and think about how fun it all is.
What did publishing these stories mean to you? I think letting go of these stories has brought truth to who I am, what I believe in and how life works not only for myself, but for most Aboriginal Canadians. We are the people who speak and tell the true grand narrative of Canada. And, to me, those are important stories. Embedded in each of my stories are the lives of my ancestors, and so it was important to finally let them go.
Are these stories inspired by actual people? No, each character arrived on their own. They each represent the disparity and colonial constructs that have shaped Inuit people’s lives. I didn’t write about a specific ancestor, although I very much believe that my ancestors stand next to me every day. I believe that all Aboriginal people’s ancestors hold us up, and keep us breathing. I read in James Daschuk’s book Clearing the Plains that 97 per cent of all Aboriginal peoples were decimated, and only three per cent of us were left on Earth. We should, in fact, not be here. But we are. And we continue to laugh and enjoy our lives in the best way that we can.
There’s humour in your book — especially in how the characters joke with one another — along with a sadness. I think we [Aboriginal peoples] all carry this ability to laugh regardless of a hard time we’re going through.
Do you think that’s part of our resilience? I think that we have a very distinct kind of humour and it is understood among Aboriginal peoples. We understand our humour and why we think something is funny. As Aboriginal Canadians, we have a shared experience and in all that sadness there is absolute beauty. And that is truly what we should focus on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.