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Mala Visits His Grandparents
My social studies teacher says our Elders are our most important teachers. So, she gave us this for homework: "Ask an Elder to explain your kinship names." She wants me to find out why we called some people, angak (uncle) and some people najatsaq (girl cousin). I decided to ask my anaanatsiaq, that is, my maternal grandmother for help.
This wasn't hard to do, because I always go to see her and Grandfather every day. They just live down the road. I usually stop in on the way home from school to see how they're doing, and if they need any help. That's my job as their grandson. Plus, my grandmother makes the best bannock in Salluit.
Today, coming up the snowy street, I follow the skid marks left by a speeding fourwheeler. Soon, I see the usual smoke rising from the metal chimney of their onestorey, wood-frame house. A big, spotted husky comes bounding around the back of their oil tank. She wags her tail at me, trailed by her fat pup who jumps up, pawing my left knee. I shoo them off and enter the house.
Grandmother greets me affectionately, which makes me feel good as always. Grandfather looks up from his net making and says: "Grandson, what did you do today?"
"Ah, just the usual school stuff, except that my new social studies teacher wants me to ask you something."
"Oh, what's that?" asks Grandmother, looking a bit puzzled, as she offers me a steaming mug of tea and a big slice of her just-baked bannock. The slice is still warm, so the blueberry jam I smear over it melts into tasty perfection. Trying to talk with my mouth full, I manage: "She wants you to explain my kinship names. Everybody in class has to ask an Elder to explain them."
Grandmother nods as she picks up a sealskin mitt and continues her sewing. "Let's start right here with your maternal grandfather. He is your mother's father (ataatatsiaq). I am your maternal grandmother (anaanatsiaq), because I am your mother's mother. Your father is ataata and your mother is anaana. Ittuq, your older brother, is angajuk. Quppaq, your little brother, is nukaq. Tunu, your sister, is naja.
"All your mother's sisters and her girl cousins are your maternal aunts (ajakuluk)," she adds, getting up to offer me more bannock. "All your mother's brothers and her boy cousins are your maternal uncles (angak)."
I am making mental notes of all of this and trying to keep all the relationships straight in my head, but it's a lot to learn. Fortunately, just then, I am rescued by the telephone. Grandfather puts down the net he has been patiently knotting and gets up to answer. It's your ataata, Mala. He wants you to go home and help him check the fishing nets."
"See you tomorrow," I say, as I put on my boots, reach for my parka and make for the door.
The next day, I stop by on my way home from school as usual. Grandfather has gone off on his snowmobile, but Grandmother is rolling out pie dough on a piece of wax paper she has spread over the checkered oilcloth covering her kitchen table. She dusts the flour from her hands and goes to get me my usual after-school snack of bannock and tea. "You know, we'd better finish your social studies project today, Mala. Yesterday, we never did get to your father's side of the family."
"I know. Guess I should make some notes," I say, reaching into my backpack for a pen and some paper. "It's a bit more complicated than I thought, and I keep getting the names mixed up."
Grandmother smiles knowingly and begins: "Your father's father is your paternal grandfather (ataatatsiaq). Your father's mother is your paternal grandmother (aana). All your father's sisters and his girl cousins are your paternal aunts (atsa). And all your father's brothers and his boy cousins are your paternal uncles (akkak)."
"What about my father's brother's children?" I ask.
"Qatak (cousin). Just use the word qatak. And here, what you call these paternal cousins depends on whether you are male or female. Let's use you. You're a boy, so all your uncles and aunts' sons are your qatak. All your uncles and aunts' daughters are your najatsaq."
"What does my sister, Tunu, call her boy cousins?" I ask.
"For a girl, all her paternal uncles and aunts' sons are her aniksaq. All their daughters are her qatak."
Grandmother begins kneading the dough into a flat shape. Picking up a knife to shape it for the waiting tin plate, she says: "And the most important of all is the person who helped your mother when you were being born. She's your arnaqutik. She encourages you, and you're the pride of her heart, especially when you do something for the first time, or catch your first animal! A girl calls her her sanaji."
I thought hard. It all seemed confusing again. "But, Grandmother," I ask, the qallunaaqs, not my cousins, but the non-Aboriginal people. We call them qallunaaqs. "They don't seem to use as many of these terms."
Grandmother looks up from her pie. "Qallunaaqs (non-Aboriginal people) are more particular about using a name to indicate whether someone is a boy or a girl. Their names like Annie, Mary and Susie are always used for girls. Johnny, Tommy and Bobby, for example, are always for boys. But, Mala is your name. It is also the name of your ajakuluk (maternal aunt) who's a woman. And it's important when you speak of your ajakuluk that you refer to her correctly. These terms are an important part of respecting our family."
"Okay. I think I'm getting it."
"Can I warm up your tea?"