[Editors note: this article was published prior to David Serkoak's 2017 voyage.]
Imagine the cultural thrill of witnessing an authentic Inuit drum dance, onboard a Russian nuclear icebreaker, bound for the North Pole. In July, 2017, during a North Pole summit, Inuit Elder and celebrated educator David Serkoak will lead passengers and guests in the first-ever traditional drum dance at the North Pole.
It’ll be his first trip to the North Pole, and he looks forward to reaching that travel goal as much as anyone on this exclusive, enhanced sailing of the epic North Pole: The Ultimate Arctic Adventure expedition. I spoke with David recently about why the Summit is so important to him; if we want to save the Arctic, he said, we need to understand the challenges facing the region and its people. He’s uniquely qualified to share with you that insight, and those who take this journey are incredibly fortunate to be traveling with a respected Inuit Elder.
Growing Up Inuit in the Canadian High Arctic
David was born into a nomadic Inuit family in the northern part of Nueltin Lake, southwest of the hamlet of Arviat in Canada’s Eastern Arctic. His goal for the North Pole summit, is to bring you alongside his own journey: from that primitive situation in the early 1950s, through the challenges he faced in larger communities on the west coast of Hudson Bay, and into a celebration of Inuit culture. To give North Pole passengers insight into the challenges his people have faced over the past 75 years, he’ll also share a brief social history of the Inuit people in the Eastern Arctic.
David knows those challenges well. As a young boy, he was taken from that nomadic life and made to move with his family to a place where most young Aboriginal people had already been placed in residential schools. Many of his friends were sent to the Churchill Vocational School in Manitoba, but David was forced into federal day schools in Rankin Inlet, then Whale Cove. As with his residential school peers, he was prohibited from speaking his native language, Inuktitut, or participating in any cultural practices.
“There was no choice but to forget my culture,” he shared. Stripped of his cultural identity, David struggled to find his place. He had grown up hearing, seeing and participating in drumming from a very early age, but found that it wasn’t a part of his new life. Today, he’s heartened by reconciliation efforts and a renewed interest by young people in Inuit arts and culture.
Inuit Drum Dancing: A Lost Art
David and I spoke at length about the importance of drumming across the North. Traditionally crafted of caribou skin stretched across a ring of driftwood, the drum typically had a fur or seal-skin covered handle. The drum was played not by striking the skin, but the edge of the drum.
Drumming was primarily done by men and used to celebrate occasions like a young boy’s first hunt, or the birth of a child. In David’s community, women and children also drummed, though there was a protocol to follow. There were specific drum dances for men and women together, where children were not allowed. A child’s first exposure to drumming might be holding one in their hands; it was an honour to be allowed to do so.
However, over time, many of the traditional compositions were forgotten; the rules and rhythms of Inuit drumming lost to the ages. As with most Inuit and Aboriginal knowledge, the rules of drum dancing and singing were undocumented and meant to be passed down in oral history.
“My age group and younger, they don’t know the traditional way to compose a song,” he said. “Many of us never learned the unwritten rules you have to follow to compose Inuktitut songs.”
One Way to Save the Arctic: The Rebirth of an Inuit Tradition
Two things happened, David says, The North began to change--and David began to change, too.
“When I sit back and look at my life, I find it hard to imagine, how did I do all that?” he laughed. “I learned to read and write on my own and educated myself. I went to university toward the end of my career. All these things were not handed to me.”
David credits his decision to start teaching with making him the man he is today. His cultural teachings coincided with his independent learning; he earned his diploma in education at Thebatcha College, Northwest Territories, in 1978, then returned to Arviat to teach. In 1986, he became vice-principal; in 1993, he completed his B.Ed. in elementary education at Nunavut Arctic College/McGill University.
Art installation in Pangnirtung, an Inuit hamlet in Qikiqtaaluk, Baffin Island. Photo Courtesy: Acacia Johnson
In the meantime, the Inuit began to exert more control. “Our own territory, becoming Nunavut, happened over 30 years, and that dream came true April 1, 1999,” David said. “I always feel lucky to be able to see that dream become a new reality, when our new territory was born and the map of Canada was revised.”
David would eventually become an instructor at Nunavut Arctic College, curate the Arctic Exhibition at the British Museum, and teach Inuit language and cultural instruction at Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a college preparation program based in Ottawa.
But it’s when I ask him what got him into drumming again that you can hear the joy in his voice. David has several grandchildren now and delights in creating songs for them.
Inuit Drumming at the North Pole: An Authentic Arctic Experience
David’s passion for drumming was reignited when he realized its significance to his family, and the potential it holds in reviving lost Inuit traditions. “It all changed when I had my grandchildren, and now I teach them their grandfather’s song,” he said proudly. He explained, “Songs are passed on in the family; songs are passed on if you have a namesake. My grandchildren have their own songs that were composed by their grandparents.”
He’s also actively involved in teaching youth in Students on Ice, a program that “connects students to the polar regions through hands-on learning in the greatest classrooms on earth.”
This July, David is bringing several drums to the North Pole Summit, to teach participants and special guests a few of his favourite songs. The traditional songs of his people may be lost, but it brings him great joy to teach others to pick up the drum and create new songs of their own.
In 2007, an Elder from Arviat came to Ottawa and asked David if she could record his songs. It was a great honour, and an important effort to document the Inuit cultural practice he’s helping to revive. She shared the recordings with him, which is how he’ll pass them on to his grandchildren and others.
At this summer’s very special Arctic expedition North Pole Summit, David plans to share two of those songs recorded in 2007. One was his father’s song, the other his own, composed by the man he was named after. Additionally, he’ll share songs from the community of Baker Lake, in Nunavut. “When I teach drumming, I teach the basic steps: how to hold the drum, and how to beat properly,” he explained. “Once they master that, we learn to add in body movements and steps. Then we add in music.”
As a Canadian, I can tell you that it’s an honour and a privilege to be invited into a drum circle, which you should most definitely join with enthusiasm and abandon. Aboriginal and Inuit celebrations are powerful and inclusive, promoting cultural pride and respect
To be invited to participate in a drum circle at the North Pole, led by an Inuit Elder of David’s stature, is a truly exceptional once in a lifetime opportunity.
[Editors Note: please note that Quark Expeditions is currently not leading any expeditions that include Russia in the itinerary, nor is Quark currently operating any Russian-owned ships. We hope this situation changes in the future.]