'I feel sound in my body,' says Inuit drum dancer who was born deaf

Philip Ugjuk was reminded why he learned to dance at the Qaggiit drum dance festival in Kugaaruk last week.

The deaf man's participation in the event inspired the audience of around 40 to start a collection so he could enjoy his visit. 

They raised $228.85 — enough to bring Ugjuk to tears, he said.

Moments like these are why he says he likes drum dancing—the opportunities to travel to different communities, participate in Inuit traditions and meet new people.

"I am lucky I learned," Ugjuk said via Facebook chat. "Now I can feel the sound and beat of the drum dance through the floor. I feel sound in my body, even though I can't hear the song."

The 48-year-old is originally from Churchill, Man. He now lives in Rankin Inlet, where he makes and sells cakes. 

His parents raised 13 children and along with Ugjuk, his older sister and two of his younger brothers are deaf.

He's been drum dancing since he was 19 years old. When out at the family cabin his uncle and father convinced him to overcome his shyness and give it a try.

Since Ugjuk can lip-read, he watches the singer closely to manage the choreography of moving into dancing circles.

Accompanied by singers, drum dancers move into the centre of a dance circle to perform to the song.  

Connecting communities

"We were so amazed to see him again," said Jacqueline Kayasark, one of the event organizers.

Kayasark first met Ugjuk at the festival in Naujaat last year.

The annual event rotates to a different community in Nunavut's Kivalliq and Kitikmeot regions each April. There are no winners. Rather, it's meant to keep the tradition alive. 

"Long ago before we moved to communities — I was born in an igloo — when we finally got together with somebody... you get together and just enjoy each other with a drum dance, so they can stop thinking about hardship or anything like that."

Kayasark says she hopes that drum dancing still has the ability to bring everyone together.

Ugjuk took part in the festival in Rankin Inlet in 2014, Gjoa Haven in 2015 and Naujaat in 2016. He plans to take part again when the competition returns to Rankin Inlet next year.