A recent whale hunt off the Arctic coast was not only “life-changing” for NWT-born writer and actor Reneltta Arluk, but a fertile playground of inspiration for her latest performance art piece exploring issues of climate change and the duality of culture.
The Dene-Inuvialuit artist recently ventured to a whaling camp on Kendall Island, five hours north of Inuvik on the Beaufort Sea, to participate in a beluga harvest as part of the reality television show, Dene A Journey.
What she found was not only an introduction to parts of her previously unknown family and culture, but the backing for a new theatrical performance called Anticipation, which subtly examines identity and the impacts of climate change on Northern peoples.
“Everyone has an opinion about climate change and a thought about it, and me too, and I love theatre, but sometimes when you do theatre for social change, it can become too hammer on the head,” Arluk said. “Performance art is more abstract, and it’s image based and deals with all your senses. So I just thought it will be abstract, but also it will be quite poignant.”
Workshopped with Calgary-based indigenous artist Terrance Houle last month, Anticipation is named after the ever-apparent act of waiting involved in the whale hunt Arluk observed while on Kendall Island.
“It really has to do with the experience of the hunt because it seems that the whole existence of the camp is the anticipation of whale. That’s everything. People are smoking their cigarettes and drinking their coffee and listening to the radio and looking at the water and the weather – is there a fog coming in? – and then they’re going out for whale. It’s just got this energy. Then they’re done, and all of us are just waiting, anticipating the call of ‘We’ve got a whale.’ So then it’s more cigarettes, more coffee, and then they’ve got the whale and it’s the anticipation of the whale coming,” Arluk said.
“You kind of think because it’s a big animal that it will take forever to carve. No. It’s done super fast. It probably took about 15 minutes…Then you wait and wait again, because you have to wait for the meat and the muktuk to take a full day in the hot sun, or a day and a half in the mild sun, and then you cut it up again. When you cut it up again, it’s another rush, rush, cut, cut, slice, slice, wash, hang – it takes about an hour. Rush, rush, rush, then done. Anticipating.”
In the 30-minute performance, Arluk cuts up whale meat – actually chair foam soaked in oil – while reflecting on how belugas are affected by climate change.
Arluk was told by a scientist at the whale camp that while the animals and population are in good health, their blubber is thinning, which is a suspected result of changing food content.
“What she said is that the beluga is hunting fish that are probably less fatty, because they mostly feed on fish, and they’re new species of fish that are coming up from the waters opening up, from the water being warmer,” Arluk said.
“Climate change is so political and everyone has such a twist on it, and I really wanted to just see something for myself. And I think that conversation is really saying it: the food that the whales are eating are less fatty; therefore, the blubber that they have is less fatty. I think that is an indication in itself that things are changing.”
Arluk, through her company Akpik Theatre, plans to perform the show at an upcoming festival in Yellowknife in September being organized by the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre. It will also be performed next February at the Carbon 14: Climate is Culture exhibition in Toronto, a collaboration between scientists and artists looking at climate change.
Apart from helping create a new performance, the whale hunt journey also helped Arluk connect with part of her identity and reflect on the duality of culture – also a theme explored in Anticipation.
“Because I was raised with my mom’s beliefs and teachings, which is the Dene side of me, I was never raised in my Inuit side…So you’re basically putting yourself out there completely to be open to an experience where you don’t know what to expect…You’re heading to camp and you’ve never been there; you don’t know the people there; you know they’re distant relatives but you’ve never met them and they’ve never met you,” she said.
“In the end, I know I left a really strong impression and they said, ‘Come back next year…We’ll take you back’…It was a positive experience. I left changed and they were changed, and I just felt a part of me just got more whole.”