An Interview with David Serkoak Part 1: Inuit Drum Dancing and Culture

Shannon Hicks and Dan Weaver

The Connaught Summer Institute in Arctic Science was privileged to host David Serkoak, who spoke with students about Inuit culture and traditions. David is a respected Inuit elder and has been an integral part of reviving Inuit language (Inuktitut) and culture in Arctic schools.  Over the course of the summer school we learned about his trials during the Inuit relocation period, the history of Nunavut’s founding, and various aspects of Inuit culture. All of this culminated in a wonderful evening of learning Inuit music and drum dancing! At the end of the week, he was kind enough to grant us an interview. We gained a deeper understanding of his passion for drum dancing and Inuit songs, as well as his thoughts about science in the Arctic. This post (part one of two) will feature David’s motivation for teaching drum dancing and detail the Inuit traditions of drum-making and song-crafting.

David teaching the CREATE-AAS students how to drum dance.

David teaching CREATE-AAS students how to drum dance.

David’s passion for drumming comes from his father. Now, he wants to pass on his knowledge to the next Inuit generation. When asked why, he said “I realized that my language and my culture is fading right before my eyes and I realized that the only way I could leave something for my grandchildren was to teach them – like my father did for me.” When David was teaching at his high school, he told his students that they too must pass on their new-found knowledge to their own families. Most of them started with no prior experience and were possibly the first of their family in at least 2 generations to learn. “[The students] get excited to be the first and their parents do too. That makes me excited too.” David starts his students with the basics, which some students then expand upon with their own styles. “As long as they learn the basics of traditional drumming – the sky’s the limit.”

While the dances the students learn are traditional, the drums they use have been made by David using a more modern method. They use contemporary materials for the drum cloth and bindings; however, he says that the sound of the drum remains authentic, very close to those made with traditional materials. The only differences in the new drums are in the sizes, fabric for the tops, and handles.

Although the traditional drum was made by a single person, certain steps required the help of others. First, the skin was fleshed, cleaned, and soaked in water for a few days. Then, when it had soaked enough, the hair was peeled off and it was ready to stretch; stretching the skin around the rim of the drum required the aid of several people! Finally, the skin was tightened and held in place with braided sinew. In order the keep the skin moist and pliable, it was stored separately from the rest of the drum in a sealed wrapping. During a dance, someone was assigned to tune the drum because it had to be tuned every 3 dances. Using David’s method, it only takes one person to construct the drum, and then tune it. All of his students are taught to tune their drums, as well as play.

After 1 week of practice, some CREATE - AAS students performed a drum dance for the rest of us.

After one week of practice, some CREATE-AAS students performed a drum dance for the rest of us.

In addition to talking with David about the drum dancing, we also spoke about Inuit songs. Unfortunately, most of his generation, including himself, no longer know how to compose traditional songs. They are very difficult to write, and the rules were never inherited. “When we were young we made lots of songs, but when we moved that interest stopped.”

According to Inuit tradition, each song belongs to one person and is “a part of [them].” People of the same name can also learn each other’s songs. There are songs that are owned by no one; however, there are no communally owned songs. Yet, during a dance, a person may decide to lend their song to another. Most songs come from one’s experiences. For example: successful hunts, or life and death experiences. He likened listening to his father’s song to “seeing a painting.” David could “feel his [father’s] emotions, how optimistic he was that day … how worried he was for his family.”

David playing the accordian towards the end of a fun night of singing and dancing.

David playing the accordion towards the end of a fun night of singing and dancing.

David also shared a story with us about his namesake. His namesake once hinted to David that he would be the owner of his song. Because the two shared a name, the namesake “can tell me how to be a man like him.” His namesake said:

“ ‘you will be more aggressive than me, you will look after yourself more than me, and you’ll be more successful than me. Always share what you have – I want you to share everything. Make sure to leave something for the animals – it will bring you luck.’ ”

“I was grateful for that wisdom.” David has obviously taken this advice to heart and it shows in his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and passions with the Inuit people. He says “when I’m not performing [drum dancing], I’m writing or talking about it.” The CREATE-AAS students were grateful that he was willing to provide us with a window into his culture and the opportunity to learn drum dancing from him. It is not an experience that any of us are likely to forget.




About createarcticscience

The CREATE program for Arctic Atmospheric Science supports researchers and students across Canada. This blog provides a venue for sharing our experiences.
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