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Material Traces & Decolonizing Pedagogies in Nunavut History Education

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
22 February 2012 - 1:01pm

This object is a replica of a necklace with a round tag attached to it. The words “Eskimo Identification Canada” are imprinted around the circumference of the disk, with a picture of the King’s crown in the centre. Below the crown, or more often on the reverse of the disk, would be the capital letter E or W (standing for East or West) and then four or five numbers following the letter. Such as: “E5-1234”. The object is an “E-tag” or ujamiik in Inuktitut.  The tag was made by the government and issued to an individual Inuk for use as their identification, indicating recognition by the crown or Canadian government. As the disk is strung on a necklace it could be worn (and, importantly, not lost), similar to the “dog-tags” worn by military personnel. What opportunity does a material trace like this create in a Nunavut history classroom?

This E-tag replica is found in a grade 10 social studies module - featured in my previous post - Staking the Claim: Dreams, Democracy and Canadian Inuit which covers the history of Inuit land claims negotiations. It is situated in a section of the module entitled “Changing Times”, which refers to the deep and dramatic changes experienced by Inuit during the colonial period during and after the 1940s.

The Staking the Claim Teacher’s Guide suggests an optional activity of making replica E-tags (for which the teacher issues numbers without allowing students to choose their number) and using them in place of names during the class to give insight into: “the level of frustration and lack of control Inuit felt… being ‘tagged’.” (p. 21).

By introducing this material trace from Nunavut’s colonial history (of which there are relatively few that students have easy access to), teachers are:

  • giving students a chance to feel what it may have been like to be given a tag number and referred to as that number instead of their given name;
  • encouraging students to engage with history more concretely, directly and personally;
  • allowing entry into discussion about the power dynamics between white figures of authority from outside and Inuit in their own homeland, which had suddenly, somehow, become the King’s (and later Queen's) land. Or had it?; and,
  • enacting a decolonizing pedagogy – a chance to critically examine history from the Inuit perspective, and turn the gaze on the culture of colonization, making it appear strange or Othered.

The existence of E-tags and the idea that the government required Inuit to identify themselves with a “dog-tag” or number (in use as late as the 1970s)  that bore no relevance to their name or family lineage might be met with disbelief, disappointment or downplaying. This is why the historical, political and economic contexts in which this object can be placed are necessary to help make sense of its use in the past, as well as its place in the secondary schools curriculum today. On p. 26 and 27 of Staking the Claim there is a short but powerful article by Ann Meekitjuk Hanson about her experience of being named in Inuit tradition by Elders, having that name superseded by her tag number, reappropriating surnames (and their correct spellings) in the Arctic, and finally how place names are also being revised according to Inuit wishes. It is important that teachers also explain in more depth how and why the tags were used in distributing federal services such as welfare or family allowance, and the intense socio-economic transitions experienced during this period by Inuit families.

There are many avenues for informed and open discussion in Nunavut classrooms created by this single trace. One interesting direction (not mentioned in Staking the Claim) could move classroom discussion from examination of history to historical consciousness…

Students may be very interested to know how the E-tag symbol has gained a new life, and even been decolonized itself, through two initiatives that counter this colonial power legacy in different ways:

  • The creation of Q-tags – Q for Qallunaaq, the Inuit Language word for a white or non-Inuit person. My mother was tagged, she is Q-1551. Ask students to think about what it might mean to their parents to see a colleague at work wearing their Q-tag.
  • Some Inuit are reappropriating their own E-tags and numbers by having a replica made out of gold and wearing it with new pride and entirely different meaning. Ask students to think about what message this sends about Inuit identity in Nunavut today.

Encountering this historical and material trace offers evidence of the everyday implications of colonization, as well as opening opportunities to discuss the everyday realities of decolonization in Nunavut. Decolonizing pedagogies such as this are critical to relevant history education in Indigenous communities.

What comparable examples have you encountered in history classrooms, and what were your successes and challenges in engaging with them?


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