Drumming up a cultural connection for Greenlandic Inuit

24 September 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Arctic Under Pressure. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

FOR CENTURIES, the Kalaallit—the Inuit of Greenland—have lived in harmony with polar bears, narwhals, seals, birds and the other Arctic species in the region. But it is a connection that Leif Saandvig Immanuelsen fears is quickly disappearing.

Saandvig Immanuelsen is a traditional drummer, storyteller and actor. He grew up in Kangersuatsiaq, in the northwest part of Greenland, but has called Nuuk home for much of his life. He has seen the connection the Inuit feel with their past diminish over time.

"Even the people living in Greenland, so many don’t know about how our ancestors lived or how they can survive the
extreme nature here," he explains.

That’s why 10 years ago, he started making drums and sharing this traditional art form with others.

I have been travelling a lot between the towns in Greenland to make drums for children and adults. I tell the people how our ancestors used the drum in Greenland and how I’m using it myself today, so they can see the two different worlds. So I can inspire the people and make them think about where they are from.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Saandvig Immanuelsen has continued to travel the country to present his drumming stories. He tells the same story everywhere he goes—and he shared it with The Circle.

The Gift of Happiness

The eagle flew high up over Inuit Nunaat lands, and he could see that the people weren’t happy. They didn’t even smile, they didn’t even laugh.

The eagle could see from up high that one of the hunters was in a different place than others. The Inuk was alone, picking berries. The eagle decided to go meet him.

The eagle said to him, “I have seen many days from the sky, when I’m flying, that you people are not happy. You are not even smiling. You are not even laughing. You don’t know about happiness. That’s why I will invite you to my parents. They live in the fjord.”

The Inuk said to the eagle, “What for? I don’t want to listen to you.”

The eagle said, “Come on, please, my parents can teach you the good things. I know that you need something.”

“Okay, we can do it if you have some good mamaqtuq,” said the hunter. So, they both went to see the eagle’s parents.

When they arrived, the Inuk saw that they had many mamaqtuq. So they ate dry meats and all the good things. And they drank very clear water. When they finished eating, the eagle said to the father, “Hey, father, those Inuit, they are unhappy. They don’t know how to live better. Can you help them?”

But the eagle father said to the son, “It’s not worth it to help them because they are lost.”

“Please father, help them so they can make it.”

The father said, “Okay, I can help him. I can teach him.” And he took out his drum, and the Inuk saw the drum for
the first time in his life.

“What is it?” the Inuk asked.

“Okay, sit down over there so you can watch,” said the eagle father. He then began drumming songs.

The eagle son said to the Inuk, “Hey, you have to listen carefully. You have to remember all these things my father
is playing for you.”

The Inuk listened and concentrated on the drum songs, and when the father played a funny one, the Inuk smiled for the first time in his life. The eagle father made his face funny, and the Inuk smiled and felt that he could be happy. The eagle father taught him many drum songs.

When he was finished, the eagle father said to him, “When you go home, you have to teach your family those good things, all those drum songs. And when they learn those drum songs, you have to talk to your neighbours, too, and teach them. And when you are finished with the village, you have to go to other places to teach them.”

So, that is how our ancestors learned about happiness.