Inuit throat singer makes 'Nanook' her own

Tanya Tagaq reclaims Nanook of the North
Tanya Tagaq reclaims the classic 1922 silent film ''Nanook of the North'' by singing a live soundtrack to the movie.
Nadya Kwandibens | Courtesy Walker Art Center

When the silent movie "Nanook of the North" came out in 1922, it caused an international sensation and invented the genre of documentary feature. More recently, the film's been criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of native life.

This week at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, an Inuit throat singer named Tanya Tagaq will reclaim the film by performing a live soundtrack.

In an interview, Tagaq said she came to throat singing late in life.

"When I was growing up, I didn't hear anybody throat singing in my community, which was heavily affected by the residential school program," she said.

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Tagaq grew up in an Inuit community on Victoria Island in Canada's Northwest Territories. Just as the U.S. government took generations of Native American children away to boarding schools, Inuit children in Canada suffered similar treatment. Traditional practices such as throat singing were banned.

It was only when she went away to college in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that Tagaq's mother sent her a tape of traditional throat singing. It was life-changing.

"I don't know what happened," she said. "I heard it and I felt I was recalling something that happened to me. That was exactly what happened. I heard it and said, 'Oh! Yes! This!"

So she tried it.

It's an extraordinary sound, combining notes from breathing in and out. It's not traditional Inuit throat singing. That's usually done by two women, almost as a competition.

"Sometimes traditionalists will become upset with what I am doing, and say that's not how Inuk people do things," she said. "And I just have to kind of say, 'Well, I'm Inuk, so the way I do things is the way this Inuk does things.'"

It's hard work, and can be overwhelming.

"I sometimes can lose consciousness completely, yeah, if it's a great show," she said. "But that hardly happens."

While there are no words, Tagaq said she sees her singing as a way of healing. Her community endures a brutal climate, endless winter nights and a host of social problems: violence, sexual assault and alcoholism. It's a sound that can have a profound impact on her audiences, as she hears after concerts.

"This woman came up to me," Tagaq recalled. "She said, 'I'm terminally ill, and I am now less afraid to die."

She said people approach her with light stuff and heavy stuff — only Tagaq uses a more colorful word than stuff. "This is great!" she said, laughing in delight. "This is what I wanted."

Her primal singing has some powerful fans. She's recorded with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet.

And now she's turned her attention to "Nanook of the North."

Robert Flaherty's 1922 film about an intrepid hunter living high above the Arctic Circle drew international acclaim. He spent months shooting harpoon hunts and igloo building, developing the film at night in chemicals prepared with melted snow.

It's hailed as the first feature-length documentary. However, as time passed and sensibilities about native communities changed, critics questioned Flaherty's depictions of Nanook as childlike and naive. They pointed to the many scenes that were obviously staged and played for laughs. Tagaq said that was the norm back then.

"It was just a stupid racist time," she said with a laugh.

Three years ago, the Toronto International Film Festival commissioned Tagaq to create a soundtrack for the film. She'll perform it live Thursday and Friday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Tagaq said she doesn't actually blame Flaherty. She believes the film demonstrates that he really loved the land and the people.

"You can sense it," she said. "Yeah, he's foolish. But who isn't? I don't feel he meant harm."

Tagaq just hopes people will come away with a new appreciation of Inuit life and the struggles her people face even now.