The first time Julia Ogina performed in a snow house, or igloo, in 2009, she said she was just learning to become a singer.
Now, she leads drum singing and dancing in her community and this year, she was able to bring a group to the 2021 Qaggiq Festival in Iqaluit last weekend. The event took place in a 700-square foot qaggiq where, for two days, it was home to singers, dancers, storytellers and spectators from around Nunavut.
"It was such an amazing experience," she said.
Ogina is part of a drumming group from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, called Huqqullaaqatigiit, which means "people who sing together in Innuinaqtun."
When the group realized a performance in the midst of COVID-19 meant being outdoors, Ogina said they had to make some adjustments to their usual wardrobes.
"We needed to make warmer clothes," she said. "We had quite a bit of preparation to do.
"It was a lot of fun to bring a group to drum dance at a platform outside … of our community."
Ogina said connecting with Inuit from other regions helps build on the work the group is doing by allowing them to get back into their roots.
"We're connecting back to our elders in the community and seeking advice and seeking stories or terms to understand a kind of life that people lead back then when those songs were, you know, passed on from their ancestors," she said.
"For many there, they grew up around drum dance, and now they're coming back. So it's like reawakening their knowledge."
Noah Kudlak, who was among the performers and first learned how to drum as a child, said he began dancing with the group after his dad died. He said he wanted to reconnect with his ancestors, and the outfits they wore at the festival this year did just that.
"It means a lot to me connect me," he said.
"I enjoyed every minute dancing outside performing for other people … It kind of helped me to step out a little, I guess, out of my comfort zone."
Pandemic brought growth
During the pandemic, she said they started to record themselves singing live on Facebook from within their home.
"Then we started to get requests to do this again, and to sing together again."
She said people also started asking if they could get copies of the drum song books they sang from so they could sing along.
"We started to pass around to people that requested song books. We'd put them in a plastic bag and hang them on their doorknob and tell them we're gonna sing the song ... from the song book at this time, on this day, and they will tune in, and we'd go live," she said.
"When pandemic restrictions started to ease and we started to drum dance again, we had an influx of … drum dancers coming out."
She said initially there were about 25 to 30 people in their "core group" for the last few years. Now, she said, it's between 50 and 75 people.
Ogina said her greatest joy from the recent festival came from the people she brought with her.
"Taking the whole group to experience something that they've never experienced before," she said.
"They've really improved in their singing together as a group, being able to sing together and showing respect and care for one another.
"It was a nice experience to see the connection between the group."
Moving forward, Ogina hopes they'll start to create new songs in their own langauge, as the group comes to understand the stories existing songs are based on, and how they're crafted into songs.
"When we experience something like this, it allows us to become better teachers to pass on to the next generation and to empower the people that we have here with us already," she said.
"I really appreciate the gathering and I appreciate the feedback that we're getting because it allows us to continue to improve."