Sunday, August 30, 2009


In March, another teacher and I took our four graduating students to Europe. In order to do so, we had to do two things: find some sort of link to Inuit culture; and raise loads of money.

We were in search of a European destination with a great deal of the "wow!" factor. Sayard, the other teacher, came across an itinerary for Rome and Athens. Perfect: the Acropolis and the Colosseum. Wow.

So, I googled "Inuit Rome", and found out that there is a large collection of Inuit artifacts in the Vatican vaults in Rome. Virtually no one had seen any of it for eighty years. It had come to Rome for two separate exhibitions, one in 1909, and one in 1926. Since then, it had been put back in the basement and basically lost until a real estate developer from Toronto heard about it at a dinner party. Since then, Ken Listera curator at the ROM has gone to see it, and the Vatican archaeological staff has begun to restore and document some of it.

We tried several different ways of asking about seeing this collection, and we were put into contact with Dr. Gabriella Massa, an Italo-Quebecoise archaeologist who had put together an exhibition of Inuit artifacts for the Torino Olympics. She asked the Vatican on our behalf, and, low and behold, they said yes. Dr. Massa then arranged for us to visit both her collection, now located at the Pigorini Muesum and the Vatican, who were actually in the process of cataloguing and restoring part of the Inuit collection we wanted to see.

After actually getting access to these artifacts, raising the money was simply a matter of asking the right organizations. The money began to flow more or less freely. On March 18th, were were on our way to Rome.

We arrived at about noon. We had decided to use EF Tours, an educational tour company, to organise our itinerary. In retrospect, I wish we hadn't. I spent much of the trip wishing we had more freedom to proceed at our own pace, but that's another story. Our tour director, Michael, took us to our first rendez-vous with Dr. Massa, at the Pigorini museum. We arrived, an the whole museum was dark. "I neglected to tell you," said Michael, "all of the museums in Rome are closed to the public on Mondays." Uhh, what?

We approached the front door of the museum nonetheless. After Michael spoke with the security guard for a few seconds, a woman came to the door. She was the curator. I spoke with her in English, the French, then finally, Spanish. She replied in Italian. We understood each other. A quick mention of Dr. Massa's name was all it took to open the doors. There were welcomes and introductions all around. We went upstairs and sat in a room, to which the curator brought pieces for us to peruse.

Dr. Massa shows us a few pieces, as well as the catalogue of pieces that she showed at the 2006 Olympics in Torino.

The archaeologists started to bombard the students by asking them what each piece was for. I don't know what they were expecting, but the students, who had spent the previous night on an airplane, most of them leaving Canada for the first time, were less than enthusiastic. I'm not sure that they would have been able to identify the pieces even at the best of times. To me, is seemed that the archaeologist from Pigorini, who had never met an inuk, did not understand, or at least not expect, the cultural disconnect between the youth of today and their grandparents.

Traditionally, much of Inuit children's leisure time would have been spent listening to the stories from their grandparents in a tent or igloo. Now, the children rarely speak with their grandparents. Much like in the South, Inuit youth enjoy modern forms of entertainment, like killing zombies or terrorists in some first-person shooter game.

The next day, we went to the vatican museums to look at the artifacts that we had planned to see all along. We arrived as it museum was opening; there were already thousands queuing up. We met Dr. Massa and jumped the queue.

We were ushered in to the museum complex, behind ropes, and through a maze of unopened and unfinished exhibits featuring artifacts from all over the world. Eventually, we arrived at a laboratory, where the spoils of a century-old pillage by Oblate priests throughout the Canadian Arctic were laid out on a table, just for us.

Our students were well-rested and ready. The Vatican staff was much more relaxed in their approach. However, eventually, the questions started to come out. At one point, an archeaologist showed our students a pile of polar bear teeth and asked them how to play this game. One of the students, who iis not themost traditional of the group, but certainly knows her accessories quickly rearranged the pieces and explained, "It's not a game. It's a neckalce."

As we pored over the artifacts, discussion led to to the reasons that so many things from all over the world are in the Vatican. Eventually, one of the students asked if the things could eventually be given back to the Inuit. I suggested to the archaeologists that first-peoples all over the world have been given the short end of the stick. There has been a one-way cultural exchange. As they say, all roads lead to Rome. In one of my proudest moments as a teacher, one of the students suggested that the Vatican give us something from Ancient Rome to put in our local museum. Unfortunately, they declined.

After an hour or so, we had exhausted the collection that they had prepared for us. We had read that the Vatican had a kayak in its vaults. I asked, "Can we see the kayak?"

After a short discussion in italian and some nodding heads, we were led once again through a maze of artifacts, and down a set of stairs where we came upon a thick set of stainless-steel doors. One of the archaeologists opened the doors, revelaing a room filled with rows of countless shelves filled with treasures from all over the globe. It was truly amazing. We walked to the back of the vault, where we were shown this:

The kayak is so old and deteriorted, they have had a hard time dating it, or even figuring out where it came from.

From there, Dr. Massa took us through the halls of the Vatican, leading us to the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's. and out to the Piazza.

I cannot believe that visiting the Sistine Chapel was the second coolest thing we did at the vatican.

These pictures have been provided courtesy of Sayard Chartrand, my colleague on the trip. On the overnight flight, I decided to recharge the battery pack on Sophie's brand-new Canon Powershot. When I stuck the battery back in, the camera read "Internal problem" and shut down, leaving the zoom half out and the lens half-opened. It remained like that until we returned to Montreal to have it repaired.

A few minutes after taking this photo, we went to eat lunch at a restaurant, where Sayard promptly left her camera. It was the last photo she took in Rome. Luckily, very luckily, the staff at the restaurant later returned it to our hotel.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back up

So, two things are back up. We're back up North, and Hudson Strait is back up and running. Well, at least the videos of Noah. Last year we had a couple of rough patches at the school and I haven't yet been able to wrap a narrative around them.

In the meantime, here's Noah on our first day back in Nunavik. Our flight overshot Wakeham due to fog. We spent the night in Salluit, the next village. It's gorgeous.