I want my daughter to be proud to be Inuk. This is why we come home to Great Caribou Island

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Monika Rumbolt’s daughter, Abigail Crewe, looks out over Indian Cove from her great-grandparents’ boardwalk. (Submitted by Monika Rumbolt)

This is a first-person chronicle by Monika Rumbolt, a visual artist who identifies as Inuk from Nunatukavut. She now lives in Labrador City, NL with her partner and daughter. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see the FAQ.

It felt like a chilly autumn afternoon, as northerly winds whipped the stern of the boat, leaving streaks of brackish ocean water against the windshield.

But it was actually the end of June when my atatatsiak (grandfather) cruised the shallow ridges along the coast, occasionally looking up from his conversation with my grandmother to make minor changes to his route. Few people would venture into these choppy waters without the help of a seasoned angler. However, my grandparents traveled this route to Great Caribou Island for over 40 years.

I am a sixth generation islander. We were going to our seasonal camp, Indian Cove. Located in southern Labrador, the small village is about 30 minutes by boat from Mary’s Harbour. Like nearby Battle Harbour, its small houses are nestled among the sun-bleached rocky hills. At the height of the cod fishery, the community was home to several stores, a church, and a school. Now the only thing left are well maintained cottages and blue fig irises. Most of my favorite childhood memories were created here.

From Inuit burial sites to secret beaches, Great Caribou Island holds plenty of sights for an adventurous kid.

When we reached my grandpa’s stage, where we could clean our catches, my daughter Abigail screamed in excitement.

She was three years old and her wonder had exceeded mine at her age. I knew it was time to start passing on what I knew about our culture.

‘Let her explore like you did’

Passing on knowledge can be tricky. It’s not like a family recipe that you can write down on a piece of paper hoping to use later. It’s a mix of learned behaviors and lessons that come from blood memory and curiosity.

A simple walk along the rocky shore teaches agility and balance, while beachcombing allows the senses to become more alert and focused – all skills highly valued as a hunter in northern climates. Being a relatively young mother myself, I felt nervous and unprepared. I was still on my own journey to reclaim my identity.

An older man, girl and woman stand on a boardwalk, with a lake behind them.  The woman is holding a salmon.
From left to right: Lemuel Rumbolt, Monika’s grandfather; Abigail Crewe, Monika’s daughter; and Monika Rumbolt, holding her first salmon of the season. (Submitted by Monika Rumbolt)

“Let her explore like you did”, my atatatsiak would say. “Let her discover her territory.” So that’s what I did.

In the morning, when the tides were at their highest, we would go to our salmon nets to check the catch. Once at home, we cleaned the kavisilik (salmon) on the stage.

Many toddlers would stray from the level of blood and guts in horror movies, but Abby happily toyed among the mess with her little butter knife, mimicking our movements and pretending to clean her own salmon, proudly holding everything capelin that she freed from her entrails.

As I sharpened my ulu (a crescent-shaped knife) she watched in fascination as I explained the ins and outs of salmon, showing her the liver and spawn – an Inuit treat.

I remember learning what salmon ate at his age that way. My grandfather had always spoken quietly while I watched him clean the fish. He showed me signs of sick salmon and warned me to keep the waters clean so they could always come home.

Drink tea and tell stories

As the tide fell, our lessons moved further inland, to the rocks and moss-covered marshes where the smell of ripening berries and stagnant bog water wafted through the water. air. Like the water, there was a lot to learn about the creatures and plants that lived on the island. It was my favorite place to explore with my grandmother.

As I came back from my memories, the questions about what was safe to eat and when it could be eaten were endless from the talkative cat as we headed towards the creek. We drank Labrador tea, told stories by the windswept spruce, and picked many wildflowers along ancient caribou trails.

A woman uses a crescent-shaped knife to gut and clean a salmon on a dock as a young girl looks on.
Using her ulu (a traditional crescent-shaped knife used by Inuit women), Monika Rumbolt, right, shows her daughter Abigail how to gut and clean salmon at her grandfather’s wharf. (Submitted by Monika Rumbolt)

As Abigail’s joyous laughter filled the silence of the deserted cove, I felt a sense of relief. I realized that my childhood was not only fun, but rich in culture, filled with lessons learned from the lands and waters of my home here on Great Caribou Island.

Thinking back to that moment, I realized how special our timing was. For the first time in about 200 years, residents told us they saw a young caribou and its mother on the island. These animals were killed by overhunting and have not returned to the island until now. These caribou are returning to the old trails made by their ancestors and thriving on the food the land has to offer.

A caribou stands in a grassy section of wilderness.
Caribou, the main food of the Inuit, are endangered in Labrador. Many Aboriginal governments are part of the Caribou Council, a group dedicated to protecting the remnant herds in Labrador. (Submitted by Monika Rumbolt)

I believe it is a sign of resilience. Like my own family, when we embrace and pass on our culture to our new generation, we can reclaim what was once lost. By following the same paths as our ancestors, we will always find the things we need to feed ourselves.

Looking back, my grandparents taught me the best they could, letting me live and experience my culture. Our teachings and traditions are embedded in our daily lives, like our ancestors and their ancestors before them.

Clusters of dark red berries nestled among green branches.
Partridge berries are a delicious delicacy that many Inuit pick in early spring or after the first frost to keep the berry soft and sweet. They are used to help treat colds and flu and can be made into cough syrup. (Submitted by Monika Rumbolt)

The transmission of knowledge is important for Inuit families. It’s what allowed us to thrive and live among these harsh coastal waters. We don’t just practice our culture; we live it.

Identity politics aside, the only connecting factor that all Inuit have is a great love and respect for our culture. It binds us to the lands and waters, giving us an intimate knowledge of our environment, our people and our sense of self. It is important to let our young people know, no matter what they look like or where they are, Inogavit piggotigigit (be proud of who you are).

As we pulled away from the island, I felt a sense of pride in my chest.

I know the next generation was in good hands.

A young girl holds a piece of fresh salmon while an older man prepares a platter of salmon fillets for smoking.
Abigail helps her great-grandfather prepare the salmon from the flake for the smoker. (Submitted by Monika Rumbolt)

Learn more about the Nunatukavut Inuit Identity Dispute.

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