Vancouver Island Inuit Storyteller Inspired by Kids

The Victoria Times Colonist (Victoria, BC, Canada) , November 12, 2011


Before books, or even reading, should come the story, says Inuit storyteller and children’s author Michael Kusugak.

It should be told in person, with lots of repetition, facial expressions and feedback from listeners, he says.

“You can take these stories and write them down, but I think you lose something if you don’t actually go and tell them,” Kusugak said this week at Eagle View Elementary School, where he was telling stories to children.

The 63-year-old said a good story must be related with the full range of human emotions and a variety of voices. And it must be told with full attention to the audience, which becomes part of the story by providing feedback to the storyteller.

After speaking with kindergarten and Grade 1 students at Eagle View, Kusugak told how he watched the children respond – making seal faces or mimicking a little boy holding his breath – providing inspiration as he related his stories.

Kusugak was born in Repulse Bay, Nunavut, but now lives in Qualicum Beach. He has written nine books for children, many of them based on stories he heard from his grandmother.

His books have been translated into at least three languages, as well as Braille, and won awards.

He spent his early years living a traditional lifestyle in what was then the Northwest Territories. His family hunted and fished, travelling by dog sled in winter and bedding down under furs in an igloo constructed nightly by his father.

Every night, he would ask his grandmother for a story and she would protest that she didn’t have any, relenting only after repeated pleadings.

Taken away from his family by airplane to start school, Kusugak has virtually no memories of his early childhood education, save for a lot of crying in the first year and successfully hiding to escape the airplane for return to Grade 2. But he went on to high school and university in Saskatoon before holding down a number of a jobs.

His life as a storyteller didn’t begin until he had children of his own. Kusugak said he reached a point where he couldn’t stand the thought of one more reading of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. That’s when he started telling his grandmother’s stories.

Now when he tells these stories, the Inuit language gets intermingled with English. Expressions change, his voice alters. Kusugak takes enormous pride in holding the attention of children long past the point where teachers have said they will no longer sit still.

He also takes a cultural pride in growing up speaking a language still heard all around the Arctic Circle, from Siberia through Alaska, northern Canada and over to Greenland.

In all those places, the stories he tells are known. “We all speak the same language – we can all communicate with each other and we all speak of the same legends,” said Kusugak.

Subjects Covered: diversity, education, personal storytelling

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