By Will Becker
In 1990, Isuma Igloolik Productions was founded by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn in Nunavut, Canada—shortly before Nunavut became an officially recognized Canadian territory predominantly inhabited by the Inuit. The company created a legacy with 2001’s, “Atanjurat: The Fast Runner,” winner of a Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first feature film ever to be written, directed, and acted entirely in Inuktitut, one of the principle Inuit languages of Canada.
Fourteen years later, with movie production on hiatus, the organization has largely focused on a different project, IsumaTV, an open source Internet video portal dedicated to the work of indigenous filmmakers. Launched in 2008, according to the website, the platform was created in order to “enable Indigenous people to express reality in their own voices,” with “views of the past, anxieties about the present and hopes for a[n] … honorable future.”
In addition to the general platform found on IsumaTV’s website, the video portal runs Digital Indigenous Democracy (DID), an initiative which aims to link media networks of indigenous communities around the world through more than 800 user-controlled channels in over 70 different languages. This connects similar media networks like Coordination of the Latin American Cinema and Communication of Indigenous Peoples (CLACPI) and Indigenous Community Television (ICTV) in Australia with media sources not only in northern Canada, but also the rest of the world. Ultimately, IsumaTV's goal is to “assist people to listen to one another, to recognize and respect diverse ways of experiencing our world, and honor those differences as a human strength.”
It should come as no surprise that strong support for indigenous cultural protection and representation would originate in the Inuit community. The Canadian Inuit have been defending their way of life for centuries—first against European colonial settlement and most recently against global resource extraction development projects. This defense can be seen through Kunuk’s most recent film, “Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.” Though their initial relationship with Europeans began with the fur trade, much of the Canadian Inuit’s relationship with European settlers has been characterized in the 20th-21st centuries by their integration into federal Canada.
The controversial High Arctic relocation program that occurred during the Cold War serves as a historic example of the tension that still lingers between the Inuit and Canadians. During this time, the Canadian government stated that a number of Inuit families voluntarily left their homes in northern Quebec in order to relocate to the High Arctic in settlements in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord. However, the Canadian government forced these relocations to maintain sovereignty in the High Arctic regions. In 1980, the government re-evaluated the program, and in 1994, the Royal Commission for Aboriginal Peoples held hearings to investigate the issue, which led to a ‘Reconciliation Agreement’ in 1996 on behalf of the federal government—creating a $10 million trust fund for the relocated peoples.
As for the historical standpoint of defending Inuit culture, the 1922 silent documentary by U.S. born filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, “Nanook of the North,” holds significance in identifying what can be seen as early cultural appropriation of the Inuit people. The film stereotypes Inuit culture against the backdrop of a pseudo-ethnographic view into the lives of an Inuk family in northern Quebec. Despite being acclaimed for its cinematic value, the film holds little authenticity in depicting Inuit life. Many have claimed that Flaherty staged many of the shots in order to make the film seem more ‘traditional’ to viewers. In a recent interview with the CBC, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq called for Inuit culture to dissociate the sense of 1920’s cultural appropriation from the film.
This is where IsumaTV comes into play. The organization ‘mediates culture’ by putting the power of constructing mass cultural identity in the hands of the people rather than museums or ethnographic filmmakers who live outside the communities they record. As a result, the platform aims to adapt and evolve with modernization, and provide an egalitarian space where co-founder of IsumaTV Norman Cohn told the CBC, “We’re trying to build an Internet that people can use in their own oral languages, and to do that, it has to work audio-visually.”
According to IsumaTV’s website, "Our politics emphasize oral Inuktitut uploads rather than syllabic texts.” This is because, as Norman Cohn went on to say, “Internet service in remote communities in Canada’s North are at least 100 times behind what you’ve got in Toronto. It may be 200 times worse next year, and that’s fatal.” Fatal, because “a low-bandwidth Internet forces Northerners to communicate through text, which, even for people who are fluent speakers of Inuktitut, often means English.” Even keeping the website based on Inuktitut syllabic text is not sufficient, as he notes the text was “invented by missionaries as a way to teach the Bible” and “aren’t widely understood among people under 60.”
IsumaTV also directly informs indigenous communities about the issues that affect them. At the 2012 hearings into the proposed Baffinland iron mine at Mary River, Kunuk presented 71 Isuma call-in radio shows and video interviews about the proposal, arguing that this kind of multimedia conversation is “key to the legal obligation to inform and consult with indigenous people.” Kunuk also did live audio broadcasts of the hearings in Igloolik and Pond Inlet, which allowed anyone to listen to proceedings that are usually restricted to bureaucrats and industry representatives. Eventually, the license for the Baffinland mine included mandated multimedia consultation throughout the project.
Cohn says, “To have the [resource] debate all in the extraction language, rather than in the land language, already makes it a lopsided debate. You have very limited ways in which local opinions can be expressed. Digital Indigenous Democracy [DID] can completely change the rules of the participation game.” And indeed it does, in more ways than one. IsumaTV and DID simultaneously give indigenous communities a platform for not only the independent and egalitarian representation of their cultures, but also the general exchange of information directly affecting their communities.
In the words of Freda Glynn, in reference to co-founding the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Group of Companies (CAAMA), “Language and culture have been protected by neglect. Now they are not going to be. They need protection because TV will be going into those communities 24 hours a day in a foreign language — English.” IsumaTV calls for this protection, not just for Inuit culture, but all indigenous cultures across the world.
Will Becker is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.