Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk

Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk; OC, (born 1931 in Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik; died 2007, in Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik) was an Inuit author, teacher and historian. Nappaluuk was best known for the writing of one of the first Inuktitut novels, Saanaq. She was a champion of Inuit culture and traditions and was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2004.

Early Years

Nappaaluk was born in Kangiqsujuaq, then called Wakeham Bay, just inland on the Hudson Strait in Nunavik. It appears she spent her entire life around this community. She was the eldest daughter in a family of girls, so her father taught her hunting and other traditionally male skills.

Nappaaluk learned to write in Inuktitut syllabics through the missionaries who arrived at her community when she was 20 years old. She taught them how to speak Inuktitut and they taught her how to write in syllabics. An example of how two dichotomous cultures can work together in accordance on behalf of a tiny northern community, and one of the many examples Nappaaluk gave to the world on behalf of all Inuit.

Nappaaluk was raised with traditional Inuit teachings and ways of life including hunting, fishing and storytelling. She assisted the missionaries with Inuktitut dictionary entries and translation of novels and literature. She also translated the Roman catholic Book of Prayer into Inuktitut and received an honorary doctorate from McGill for her work.

Lifetime Achievements

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk achieved a great deal in her lifetime. Achievements are many things, and recognition can be seen in the tangible items of medals and trophies or words that are spoken at public events. Achievements are more importantly the legacies that we leave behind to the next generations, and that is where Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk focused her work throughout her lifetime. She wrote and worked unselfishly for those Inuit who were waiting to be born.

Nappaaluk received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now the Indspire award) in 1999 in the area of culture, heritage and spirituality. She had, by that time, written twenty-two books on Inuit tradition, hunting and fishing practices, the Inuktitut language, and northern landscapes. This canon of writing is considered to be an Inuit-specific set of encyclopedias, and is still in use in schools across Nunavik. As a revered Elder in Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, she sat on school boards and contributed to what the curriculum would be and still is. She was employed by the Kativik School Commission, later Kativik School Board, from 1965 to 1996 as an elder, developed Inuktitut language curriculum and provided cultural awareness training for teachers. She was a woman who was very active in the area of education, even though she never attended school or sat inside of a classroom as a student.

In the year 2000, Nappaaluk received an honorary Doctorate of Law from McGill University. A post-secondary university, another form of education that Nappaaluk never experienced and yet, her knowledge and commitment to Inuit literacy through her own life experience and understandings was highly valued and honoured.

The Order of Canada was awarded to her in 2004 for preserving Inuit language and culture. Nappaaluk may not have thought that her work was improving Canada, but she was someone who promoted good relationships between Inuit and non-Inuit. She was someone who saw the value in not only harmony but in the skills that could be exchanged between two different cultures.

Aside from writing and teaching, Nappaluk spent time carving as a way to express her Inuit traditions and spirituality. She created soapstone figures that represent Inuit traditional imaginings of “Monster” and Inuit bodies wrapped around one another. Her soapstone carving titled “Virgin Mary” shows Mary as an Inuk, and the carving was donated to Saint Anne mission in her community.

She also received, albeit posthumously, the honour of a new downtown cultural centre in Montreal, scheduled to open in 2023, which will be called the Sanaaq Centre.


Nappaaluk’s most noted achievement is the writing in Inuktitut of her novel Sanaaq, written throughout the 1950s and finally published in 1984. The book was translated from Inuktitut to French in 2002 and into English in 2014. The novel landed on the French bestseller list in Montreal for several weeks in 2003.

Sanaaq is a series of short vignettes set from the 1920s to 1950s that shows the reader the daily life of an Inuk woman, Sanaaq, her family and community. It provides a rich account of the pre-contact life but also the changes caused by colonization and the arrival of Christian missionaries on the semi-nomadic existence of the Inuit in the eastern Arctic. Examples of the changes include the introduction of southern currency and diseases like tuberculosis, southern foods and adapting to living in permanent homes. The book depicts and explains Inuit traditions and practices. One Inuk reviewer wrote in the Nunatsiaq News in 2020, “The descriptive but short writing style opened up the narrative to my own imagination of the sights, sounds and smells of Inuit life as it once was. It felt like my blood memory as an Inuk was stirred.”

However, the essence of her twenty years of writing and the rapid change within Inuit Canadian life may be lost on those who debate that Inuit literature is or is not literature as thought of in western teachings. According to some reviews, the structure can be cumbersome but the place of the book in the pantheon of Inuit literature outweighs any structural differences.

In the final two pages of her book, Nappaaluk talks of the transition from traditional to modern Inuit life through the character Maatiusi. Maatiusi has taken on a spirit wife and is longing for a physical wife and a family. The spirit wife has convinced Maatiusi that if he speaks, she will kill him and he follows her directive. At last, he can no longer keep silent and confides in Qalingu, a male elder. It is the line stating, “…All Inuit and the Qallunaat (European Canadians or southerners) too know that you’ve got a nuliarsaq (spirit wife). If you confess, you won’t be in this situation anymore.”

Nappaaluk stated in 1997, “I can live with Qallunaat…I saw that I could learn from Qallunaat, even though they were from a different culture. …Both cultures can work together.” Her philosophy becomes apparent in her closing words of the book. Nappaaluk may simply be stating that Inuit are able to navigate between traditional and modern life and that Qallunaat have an awareness of Inuit beliefs. Mixing in a non-traditional form of disclosure can be as useful for Inuit and as it is for non-Inuit. Nappaaluk may simply be stating that Inuit and non-Inuit can have common ground and a relationship of respect for one another, meaning, each are able to work together.


Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was a woman who observed life in past and present and future terms. Her greatest legacy, her highest achievement, lies in her love for all Inuit. She lived a humble life marked with the highest of honours and in all of her work she only ever wanted what was best for her own. In 1999, when Naapaaluk became an Indspire laureate, her daughter Arnaujaq Nappaaluk Qumaaluksaid praised her mother’s lifetime achievements and contributions saying, “it was not only for herself, but all Inuit people.”

Nappaaluk died in her home community in 2007 after a long illness but she continues to guide Inuit through her legacy of love.