- Life among the Qallunaatby Mini Aodla Freeman
Life among the Qallunaatis the story of Mini Aodla Freeman, an Inuit woman from James Bay who moved to Ottawa in 1957 and became a translator for the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. Aodla Freeman begins her narrative with her experiences in the South and her encounters with the qallunaat, which translates imprecisely as "white people," and then she goes on to detail her childhood on Cape Hope Island and at residential schools, first in Moose Factory and then in Fort George. It was precisely this last aspect of the book that caused the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to reportedly hide almost half of the book's run in a basement upon publication. In the new author interview that appears at the beginning of the revised edition, Aodla Freeman suggests that the department feared what she might reveal about the residential school system. Though the book received positive reviews in the mainstream press, the department's actions effectively ruined its chances for success. This new edition in the University of Manitoba Press's First Voices, First Texts series gives this important book a new chance.
The book, first published in 1978, was, as Aodla Freeman conceived it, an answer to My Life among the Eskimos(1977), written by Bernhard Adolph Hantzsch, a German ornithologist. Aolda Freeman's text is written as a "reverse ethnographic" narrative, as the editors point out in a very useful afterword (262). Indeed, she is not the informant but the storyteller. In the first half of the book, the author describes her experiences "among the qallunaat," as a stranger in a strange land, using a recognizable ethnographic lens. Certainly in reversing the gaze, Aodla Freeman calls attention to ethnographic compulsion to analyze each minute detail of the "Other." While this conceit might get tedious, the fact that she uses humor at the same time makes the book more enjoyable and more compelling. For example, she has this amusing interaction [End Page 124]with a policeman after walking on a lawn bearing a sign that reads "Keep off the grass" (48). This is one of many "qallunaat rules" that she critiques in this section of the book, one that she cannot understand, just as she cannot fathom having to be quiet in a library. She juxtaposes these rules with Inuk traditions; for example, "we give [the names of dead people] to the newborn" (49). She does not shirk the ethnographic; in fact, she has the agency to reveal aspects of her culture on equal footing as the beliefs of the qallunaat. The "strange land" is the land of the qallunaat, the urban spaces of the 1950s.
This revised edition of Life among the Qallunaatmakes an important contribution to the canon of Indigenous autobiography, particularly as it consciously seeks to restore the author's agency and original intents—with her permission and input. The new book removes "editorial interventions," the ways in which this story was initially mediated. For example, the new editors have restored text that had previously been cut, including some of Aodla Freeman's original language. They have retained the title Life among the Qallunaat, though it came from the original editor, but they have removed the three-part structure conceived by him. A line-by-line comparison with the original text might be a productive exercise for students of Indigenous literatures, just as the book would make an interesting comparison to other mediated autobiographies, to think about the ways in which Indigenous voices have historically been altered, edited, and manipulated.
As a narrative of residential school, Aodla Freeman's book is especially relevant in the present, especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (2006), which included the two schools she attended. While attendance may not have been mandatory for James Bay Inuit families, Aodla Freeman's narrative details how her grandfather's respect for authorities compelled him to agree to send her...