A life in the day of an Inuit woman
The Inuit Geela Kooneeliusie, 43, on baking bread, staying warm and hunting polar bears
21 February 2010 The Sunday Times Magazine

At 7am I get up and have coffee, white bread and raspberry jam. At the weekend I make a batch of bannock, traditional Inuit bread, and white loaves which last the week. I’ve been married to Juilie for 13 years now, and we’ve got four children: Jimmy, who’s 28, Albert, 20, Joel, 12, and Alisha, who’s 11. We live in a community of about 550 in Qikiqtarjuaq, Baffin Island, in the Arctic. Most people use snow-mobiles to get around. From mid- May until mid-July we have 24-hour daylight, then it starts to get dark at night until we have 24-hour darkness from mid-December to mid-January. The average temperature in winter is -29C, so I certainly feel the cold at night, even though our three-bedroom house has oil-fired heating.

I work for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association as the community liaison officer and I’m at my desk by 8.30 am. It’s my job to promote Inuit rights and assist with work programmes. Twice a year I fly to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, for a one-week training course, but the rest of the time I’m based in my home town, where I’ve lived since 1979. Usually in the morning someone will come into the office to ask about starting a business. A lot of women are interested in the clothing industry and we provide sewing machines to help. I applied for a sewing machine myself, because I like making mitts, slippers and parkas out of sealskin.

At 10am, we have a morning break for fresh coffee and bannocks from the Co-op. Bannocks cost 75 cents each. It’s very expensive to live here because everything has to be transported. There’s a plane once a week and a ship once a year.

At midday I go home for lunch. Like the majority of people, we rent our house, but my ambition is to buy our own one day. If we have some frozen caribou I will thaw it and eat it with broccoli. My sons love pizza from the Co-op. I buy cheap food because I’m the only earner in the house. Juilie is a full-time hunter and away on the land a lot. He hunts for seal, caribou, narwhal, polar bear and fish. It’s quite normal in our community for the women to work and the men to go out hunting.

I worry if he is out for a long time, because in July 2008 he got stranded. He couldn’t tell the condition of the ice and got stuck in his snowmobile. Luckily he had a satellite phone and was picked up by the local search-and-rescue team. Juilie tells me the ice is melting earlier each year now.

Polar bears sometimes come near the community in the autumn. One night the children woke us at 1am, screaming: “Mum, Dad, there’s a polar bear outside!” We looked out and the bear ran right behind the house. Our Hunters and Trappers Association organises community draws – 10 or 15 a year – in which one local wins a token to kill a polar bear. In March my name was pulled out of the hat and I had two days to kill a bear. Juilie was already on the land, so I headed off to join him on a skidoo with my son Albert. We travelled south for an hour to where we thought we might find a bear.

The first day we were out for five hours in -25C. We saw some tracks but no bears. The next day we got up at 5.30am and travelled further south. My husband saw a female with one cub, but we are not allowed to kill a mother with a little one. We were heading back to the cabin at about 5pm when we spotted a female polar bear alone. We approached it and I got really nervous. The bear started to walk towards us because it was hungry. My husband gave me the gun and told me to aim at the lungs.

I accidentally shot it in the back leg because I was nervous. It tried to run away, so I shot it again and the bullet scraped the back leg. The third time I finally got a good shot at the lungs and it died straight away. My first feeling was relief.

It is in our culture to kill polar bears. We kill animals to survive and we always eat the meat if it’s healthy. Once we were sure the bear was dead my husband took this photo of me with it. The bear was small and skinny, and Juilie was happy I shot it because it looked unwell. We decided not to take the meat, so he removed the skin with a knife. There is an old Inuit tradition that if you leave the meat you should cut off the paws in case the bear comes alive again, so my husband did this. He also cut off the head, which we took back to the Renewable Resource Office. At the end of the day I was too tired to celebrate, but when we kill a polar bear we can sell the fur or keep it to make mitts and snow boots.

When I have time in the evenings I like sewing and baking. It’s not a dry community but I don’t drink alcohol. If my husband returns from hunting with some caribou or seal, we celebrate with family and friends. We flatten some old cardboard boxes, put the caribou meat on top and eat it raw with a little soy sauce. Seal we eat raw, boiled or fried. I have killed seals and they’re a big part of my life and culture. We use almost every part of the seal for food or clothes.

I go to bed between 10.30 and midnight. I wouldn’t change my day. I love living here, I love the landscape and I’m happy just as long as all my family are well.