Peter Taptuna grew up with winter igloos and summer fishing camps. But he now sits in an office watching it all slip away.
KUGLUKTUK, Canada — It is almost noon, and Peter Taptuna is stuck behind his desk. He gets up to peer out the window. Outside, the Arctic stretches white and blue toward the horizon. He can trace the snowy shoreline as it tumbles into the waters of the Coronation Gulf. He can see spectral shapes of ice gathering just below the surface, soon to seize the water fast.
It is a mild day — 17 degrees, with little wind. He should be out there, somewhere out there, on the land or on the water, he says.
Instead, he feels trapped by the office. “Some days I could just tear out my hair.”
Taptuna is — in his bones and his history — a hunter and trapper. It is what he loves, he says. But the world he grew up in, a world of winter igloos and summer fishing camps and working the traplines, is changing. Now, like so many other native Inuit, he is confined, and sits in an office watching an ancient way of life slip away.
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Taptuna, 50, holds a half-dozen titles with various Inuit organizations. He manages the local Hunters and Trappers Association, runs the search-and-rescue coordinating committee and deals with commercial contracts for fishermen, among other tasks. He spends most of his evenings in meetings. Meetings are the plodding offspring of a marriage between the old native tradition of consensus and the new trappings of government bureaucracy. They multiply with every fresh problem.
Few earn their living off the land anymore. The biggest source of income in the town is the government. It pays the town council for its meetings and the town staff for its work, hires the teachers and the nurses and wildlife officers and the people who build and maintain the houses that the government owns.
Men and women still go out to gather what they call “country food,” harvested with rifles, nets and traps. But that is extra food on the table. “Most of the hunting is done in the co-op,” groused one old-timer. Taptuna does not disagree.
Add global warming to the hunter’s economic woes, he continues. The winter hunting season is shorter. The fur from wolves and wolverines is thinner. So is the ice; four people from the town have died in the past two years falling through thin ice. The meager snow cover on the land is playing havoc with snowmobiles: “You’re hitting rock, and you’re doing big-time damage.” The arctic char fish that households in Kugluktuk stockpile for the winter are more scarce.
But surely the modern world has brought some benefits, some relief from the harsh life passed down by his ancestors? Taptuna scoffs.
“I moved into town when I was 9 years old. That was 41 years ago,” he says. “We lived off the land before that. We went from place to place with the game, and hunted and trapped for income. There were no telephones. No time schedule. It was great out there. In those days, we were mentally relaxed. You got up in the morning and you knew what you would do.
“But those days we will never see again.
“Today, most people have jobs and time schedules. We have a rat race.” He sighs wearily. This is his life. “We have no time to associate with our neighbors. For most couples, both people are working, and there’s no time. It’s too fast. It’s too busy.”
Two of his five grandchildren burst into his office. Mecila, 5, climbs on his lap, and Antoine, 4, demands crayons. He is pleased his own children have remained in Kugluktuk to raise their families. “I’ve seen the cities. I’ve seen the south. I can’t imagine why anyone would leave the north,” he says. But he worries about what they will do. The birthrate in the north is high, and with hundreds of kids now in the local high school, he says, “we don’t have jobs for all of them.”
Taptuna sighs. If his only problems were to track the caribou and outwit the fox. So much simpler, he says, as Mecila tugs him from his office. So much better.