By Gary Gee
Arviat resident Gordon Okoktok has learned many lessons in life.
A father of five, he lost his wife to cancer nine years ago.
But there has been one constant in his life, and that is his affection for hunting on the land and his respect for the animals that help his family survive.
“My uncle told me when you go hunting, you keep watch on the land, and if it’s foggy and you lose your way, always remember the little rocks and big rocks. You know where you are because you recognize where the rock is pointing,” said the 43-year-old.
“I was almost in a panic the other weekend, but I remembered what he taught me,” said Gordon.
It’s these lessons on the land which he has passed on to his children after 27 years living in the picturesque Kivalliq community.
Gordon says he wasn’t always interested in hunting but without it today, he couldn’t feed his family. “My uncle told me you have to learn now. You learn either the easy way or the hard way. I like it now,” he said.
He has a full-time job as a security guard at the Northern store, but still needs caribou, char, and beluga to feed the family. “One caribou will feed my family for two weeks,” he added.
When his young wife died of stomach cancer, Gordon says he was told by doctors it may have been related to some kind of wild meat or even fish on the land. He’s not sure if that is true. He still chooses to hunt.
“My kids like the caribou meat, fish and beluga. They have been eating since they were born. They are used to it. It’s more nutritional,” he explained.
That’s one reason why he was interested in the Nunavut Inuit Health Survey, which came to the community from Aug. 18-21 with the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen.
“It will be helpful to me because it asked about my lifestyle and health and they were asking about traditional hunting and what we eat,” said Gordon, whose house was picked randomly to participate.
Gordon and others answered a lifestyle and food questionnaire and were brought to the ship during the day for medical tests including heart risk, stroke, diabetes, arthritis as well as questions on mental health and coping.
“When you are studying health, you get to know more about it. I think the survey will benefit the community. It’s like going out on the land. I go out to the land and study the land when I get to know more about the land and the caribou and the polar bears. It’s just like that studying our health,” he said.
Gordon said elders in the community who were selected on the boat weren’t afraid of it despite past experiences. “The elders were happy, surprised to see it all and liked the barge. It was fast,” he said, adding the modern ship fascinated all the 10 Inuit he took part with.
Inuit, he says, are worried about the possible contamination of food. “Animals are getting sick,” he noted. “I think it’s PCBs. . . we’ve heard about climate change. Maybe it has something to do with it,” he wondered, adding that even some Inuit are becoming allergic to eating traditional foods. One caribou was found recently with 3 hoof nails and another was left to waste when it looked contaminated, he noted.
But for many Inuit families, hunting and fishing are a necessity. This week Gordon took time off work and went hunting again, shot one caribou and he plans another outing next month. “I tell my kids if you have respect for the animals, you will have more in the future.”
“It’s difficult to make a living full time. The seals are even smaller now, but we still have to hunt them. I need to feed my family.”