I first learned about Susan Aglukark in 1989 when I saw her video, Searching, on MuchMusic. My father is Inuk from Labrador, but I grew up in a small town in Newfoundland, so at that time I was doing a lot of searching for my own personal reasons.
Aside from the stories my father and my relatives shared with me, I understood very little of my family’s history and culture. I felt somewhat lost. Then one day I was watching TV and suddenly I saw this beautiful young Inuit woman, singing in Inuktitut, wearing traditional clothes, telling about her own search for identity and for the identity of her people. I was struck by her beauty, her honesty, the purity of her voice, the yearning in her music, and the images of the Northern way of life that were so foreign to me and yet somehow a part of me. She inspired me and touched me very deeply. I have never forgotten that day.
Then, a few years later, I was asked to perform at the 1994 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in Ottawa. I am a classically trained singer, and was surprised and honored to learn that I would be performing alongside Susan Aglukark for the opening of the show. I was very excited and a little nervous to meet her. Being a performer myself, I have come in contact with many bizarre and wonderful people, some who simply refuse to step down off their pedestal to grace the not so well-renowned with their presence. However, when we met, I was pleasantly relieved to find that she is as down to earth as they come. Her warm and generous personality shines through in person as it does through her music.
I had the privilege to meet with Susan again this past weekend before her concert in Chisasibi. We got together a few times and I had the chance to learn more about her background and what’s important to her. She was raised in the Eastern territory of the Arctic, mainly in Arviat in the Northwest Territories. Since her father was a Pentecostal minister and her mother, a preacher, music was very much a part of her life; it was always present in her home, in the church. She had a very religious upbringing and was not allowed to listen to rock and roll music, but she definitely had a great love and respect for the gospel music that she did listen to.
Then, as she grew older, she turned to contemporary gospel music and she says this is where her own style of writing comes from. “A lot of the stuff I listened to was not necessarily Christian issues; they were human issues written from a human point of view, rather than a religious or Christian point of view.” On stage and off, these are the issues that speak to her—real people, real situations, real emotions that people can relate to. What she says comes straight from her heart and every note, every word, every gesture that she makes reaches out to us.
Withered in sadness and hurting inside, but feeling afraid to impose,
So you’re an island but you don’t have to be, cause if you’re inclined you can talk to me cause you don’t have to suffer, suffer in silence…
These are some of the heart-wrenching lyrics from Suffer in Silence off the album “This Child.” To one woman, this song had a powerful and life-changing impact Susan met her while on tour these past few months. This woman said she had been at the end of her rope, she felt like she had nowhere left to turn, she was helpless. She was at home alone literally ready to slash her wrists when she heard this song playing on her radio, and she stopped everything and just listened to the words. She was so inspired by Susan’s song and message that she turned her life around, and is now alive and happy to be so.
This is why Susan Aglukark is so respected and admired by her listeners and other artists as well. She gives inspiration and strength to people everywhere, and she doesn’t lose sight of her goals. It isn’t surprising to know that since her childhood she has always wanted to help her own people in whatever way she could. She had aspirations to be a lawyer, to work for and among her people that way, but things have certainly taken a different turn.
It all started five years ago in her home town. She sang at the first annual festival in Arviat, “just for fun!” That same week she moved to Ottawa, where she was working as a linguist, raising money to start her law studies. Next came the video for Searching, which was created for educational purposes, not for her own promotion. And practically overnight, a star was born.
“I knew as a kid that I would be committed to my own people, the Inuit, in my community. I couldn’t see beyond my community because I just never knew this was going to happen. Even then, I didn’t know there were other Aboriginal people. So as a kid I just committed myself to ‘I want to help my people in my community.’ So that has always been in the back of my mind.
“Given the opportunity I’ve been given, I now realize that this is it here (singing). This is my way of helping my people, which are all Aboriginal people, now that I know there’s a lot of people out there. That is what my commitment is now.”
And she is definitely giving her all. She is seen as a role model for youth, adults, Natives and non-Natives everywhere. Her sensitivity and pride are ever-present in her songwriting and performing, and her messages are very positive. She believes that you should challenge yourself, keep challenging yourself and be proud of everything that you do. “The foundation, the biggest message in all my songs, is it’s inside, no gender, no culture, no race. Just a person, barenaked, bare, ripped of everything—there is a lot of strength there. There’s a lot of potential. We can tap into it, we can find it I’ve only found the tip of mine, and it scares me. And that’s what everybody’s got If people can find that, anything else is possible.”
She told me that she never really grew up knowing that she was Inuk, but she certainly knew she was proud of it. She speaks the language, she can make kamiks, she can do everything her mother taught her that has to do with the Inuit way of life. Her great pride was not something that she was forced to take; it was naturally instilled in her and her sisters as they were growing up.
It was her choice. This is what she shared with me and what she wants people to learn from her music: “I think that once people connect with their person, that will happen naturally. That’s the best way for things to happen—it’s got to be their choice. That is the message I’m trying to give out first—it’s got to be steps, a step at a time. It’ll take years, but it’s got to happen slowly. I’m trying to give back to the people the right to choose what they want to be, what they want to be proud of and what they want to say, and be proud of it, no matter what it is. You’ve got to be connected before you can make the choice, you’ve got to be committed to yourself before you can make a choice for yourself.”
It’s mind over matter, which way do I go, and do I trust myself enough to journey alone? And do I know which way to turn, if I’ll turn at all? I’ve travelled down this road before, this time it’s my call and I’m breaking down.
These lyrics are taken from the song, Breaking Down, and they show that if anything Susan Aglukark is honest, with herself and others. She is not afraid to admit that she is scared or confused. She is human, too, with concerns and fears like any one of us. “I just need a lot of room to break down. I just need to know that when I fall, and I will fall, people are there to help me get back up, not abandon me down there.”
She is very respected because of this. Her songs are personal, and her humility is what draws her listeners to her from all over the globe. She has touched many with her warmth and openness. While on tour, she met a beautiful young girl who was going through a time in her life where she would sell herself to anyone who asked. She told Susan that she had run away from home, dropped out of school and that her goal was to be a Playboy centrefold. She could see nothing else for herself in life and she wasn’t even looking beyond that. A few months later, Susan ran into her again. She had moved back home, returned to school and she wanted to study law like Susan had wanted to herself not so long ago. All of this had come about as a result of experiencing Susan and her music.
Susan admits that it is a lot of responsibility being so looked up to. Her biggest challenge at this point is finding a balance between what the audience expects from her and what she is capable of giving. She feels that she still has a lot more to learn, to accomplish and that she hasn’t reached her peak yet. For us, that means we have a lot to look forward to.
“It’s the adoration from the audience, it’s knowing that they have these expectations—it’s the toughest thing to get used to—and keeping it at a pace where I can keep up. I need to grow a step at a time. That’s what I wantto do, that’s where I’m at That is the toughest thing about the industry, keeping a balance. People love you, you want to give them your best. You can get so high on that that you can easily get lost in it.”
That has not been the case with Susan. A two-time Juno award winner, she remains as down to earth as ever. To see her on stage, singing her heart out, she is simply beautiful, but not in an unapproachable way. She communicates with her audience, she talks to the children, she laughs and jokes with her band. We see her sense of humour, her strength, her dignity, her soul.
These are also the qualities that she incorporates into her lyrics and music. Behind every song and video, she is present She has a lot of input into the work she and the band do. Whether it’s a concept or a musical idea, they work together to find the best results. When I asked her what her favourite song to perform is, which one is closest to her, she didn’t hesitate for a moment before answering. It’s one of the first songs that she ever co-wrote with anybody. She and Terry Tufts, the guitarist and also one of her closest friends, worked on it together and it is about a friend of hers in high school who committed suicide. “I couldn’t find a way to portray young people, to paint that picture in mind so that people see what you want them to see, which is kids are like flowers, kids are like a garden. They need a lot of attention, a lot of love. Once they’re given that, anything is possible. I told him (Terry Tufts) that and we started writing Arctic Rose.”
Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, thy victory…
This is a quote from the Bible that Susan chose to include in Kathy I, another song that deals with the painful issue of suicide. It was very difficult for Susan to decide whether she wanted to include it on the album or not, because it is such a personal song. Kathy was her cousin, she was her best friend and they grew up together. Kathy, too, took her own life. She said that it took three years to complete the song and it was one of the hardest things she has ever been faced with, and she has to confront it every time she performs that song.
Though you’re gone here I am I’m still beside you And the secrets that we shared are safe with me The storm has calmed, the tide has come To set you free Kathy I set you free Ride with the spirits, fly like the wind On your journey to find your peace in my heart you’ll always be Kathy I set you free…
But Susan also cherishes the happy memories that they shared. She told me that her fondest childhood memory is of the two of them when they were little girls, out behind Kathy’s house playing together. They made two monstrous pies out of mud and proceeded to eat them, right to the last crumb of dirt! She smiled and laughed as she shared this story with me, and from the mischievous look in her eyes I could imagine it perfectly! I asked Susan to tell me more about one of my favourite songs, Pond Inlet. Whenever I hear it, the music just seems to wash over me and I always imagined it to be a painful yet uplifting story. I learned that I was very close to the real meaning of it Susan shared this story with me.
“I was in Pond Inlet about three years ago and there was a theatre group that did a play there. This old lady was part of atheatre group; she worked with the youth in the community and the history of her family alone is amazing. She sang this song and I looked in her eyes and you could feel the emotion when she sang it—you can feel this yearning deep inside to go back to an old way of life. The song itself is a family song written over a hundred years ago and it’s a story of the old days, when if things got too hard and there were massive starvations where whole families could starve to death; on a trek they were travelling, sometimes they would abandon their Elders in igloos because they had to. The Elders, by choice, were left behind to starve to death. This song is the story of a woman who did that What her family didn’t know was that there was another family travelling behind them, and they found this woman and took her with them to settle in Pond Inlet”
Quviasuliqpunga innuunialirama… Aakuttujuq anngutivuq…
(I am happy, I’ve been given a chance to live again… what once was far apart has now come together…) “When the old woman sang that song for me it made a lot of sense. The way she sang, it moved me more. She was born the old traditional way and knew that way for a long time before she was moved into the village. And the look in her eyes, to go back to that what she’s singing about, what she sees in her mind when she sings this song, it moved me. I realized that this is the last of the people who will know the old way of life. I could tell she must be dying to go back to it, to die in it, but she never will. Never. That’s where this song comes from.”
It is stories like this and Susan Aglukark’s determination that make up the dignified artist we see and admire. One of the next dreams she wishes to fulfill is to work with the great Buffy Sainte-Marie. She says that ideally, she would like them to work together to create an idea for a full-scale production—the lyrics, music, choreography, artwork. They have already agreed to work together, but as of yet the opportunity hasn’t come up. I’m sure that when it does, it will be an experience none of us will soon forget This past weekend was a very memorable one for me, as it must have been for the people of Chisasibi. Susan Aglukark’s concert— her character, her voice, her songs—created an impression that I’m sure the audience will carry with them. At the end of Saturday’s show, Samson Sandy along with two young girls presented Susan with a white goose feather—a souvenir from a canoe trek made this summer—and a message from the women of Chisasibi thanking her for the inspiration she has given us all and saying that she is the one and only true “Arctic Rose.” Susan was obviously very touched by this gesture of appreciation and even though she said earlier that it doesn’t happen often, she cried. To end it all she sang a haunting version of Amazing Grace in Inuktitut and touched us all once again with her beauty.
Susan told me that singing is, without a doubt, her passion. On a scale of one to 10, singing is a 10. She also shared with me her two other great loves—law and flying. She has always loved flying and one day she hopes to learn how to fly. I don’t imagine it will be difficult for her because in every other part of her person and life, she is already soaring.
Deantha Edmunds is a new writer for The Nation. She comes to us from Newfoundland and aside from writing, she is the first Inuk to pursue a career in opera.