Inuk singer Etua Snowball: two passions, two awards
“I wanted to help my people to try to keep our language"
When you manage to combine a passion for work and music into one, there’s no end to the good things that can come your way.
To see how this works, and discover how the story of an award-winning teacher is also the story of an award-winning musician, just talk to Etua Snowball of Kuujjuaq.
In 2012, Snowball, an Inuttitut teacher at Kuujjuaq’s Jaanimmarik School, won a Prime Minister’s certificate of achievement that honours “outstanding and innovative elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines.”
And Snowball, who released his third album, Culture Shock, earlier this year, received an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Award for Best Rock CD of 2012.
While those two honours might seem unrelated, music and teaching are part of what makes Snowball, who goes by the name Sinuupa, “one of the proudest Inuks you’ll probably come across.”
In school, where Snowball teaches Inuttitut to kids in Secondary Three to Five (Grades 9 to 11 in Nunavut), his job is to make students fluent in Inuttitut — fluent enough to pass the language examination they need to graduate and head on to college, a requirement in Nunavik.
To get there, Snowball doesn’t treat his students like babies: he asks them to tackle translations, learn how to use Inuttitut dictionaries, and read books by Nunavik authors like Taamusi Qumak.
And, if his students finish their class work, they don’t have to bring their work home.
But that’s part of a “two-way responsibility” Snowball believes in when he asks his students to learn what he teaches.
Snowball usually makes his own language material, often finding old, and new, Inuttitut words to share with them.
Snowball, who just turned 40, “grew up on the land with my family half here [in Kuujjuaq] and half on the land,” where his father, Bobby Snowball, ran outfitting camps for the Fédération des Co-opératives du Nouveau-Quebec.
There, surrounded by elders, Snowball learned an Inuttitut that few of his students now know today.
They’re likely to come into his class speaking a mix of English and Inuttitut.
“It’s a bit of a battle when you’re fighting against the internet, where everything is in English,” Snowball said.
But Snowball encourages them to speak one or the other — and to work hard on making their Inuttitut strong.
His teaching tools involve computers, where they practice syllabic keyboarding, and the land, where he often brings them out to learn unfamiliar words related to hunting and fishing, wildlife or nature.
Snowball has been teaching for 12 years — first arriving at the Kativik School Board as a culture class guide.
Then everyone noticed his Inuttitut was strong — and he went on to become a language teacher and earn his Certificate in Education for First Nations and Inuit from McGill University.
“I wanted to help my people to try to keep our language. It’s very strong how I feel about that,” he said.
And Snowball wants his students to properly speak Inuttitut, fluently, with no English, and know about the history of the language.
Last year, 75 to 80 per cent of students in Secondary 5 passed his course.
To help the learning along, sometimes Snowball picks up a guitar he keeps in his classroom.
Music is “very good for the students,” he said, because “they can really concentrate.”
As for his other career in music, his success there encourages students to say “I can do this.”
Snowball himself can point to teachers who made a big impression on him, including former Inuttitut teachers and an Adult Education English teacher, Michael Fisher, who contributed to Snowball’s first two albums, Nunaga and Arctic Darkness.
That’s in addition to musical inspirations like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Elvis Presley — as well as some of the former clients at his father’s camp who used to bring up their favourite music on cassettes from the South.
The result: a kind of funk rock.
But some songs are also bluesy, like “Down to my dollar,” while others are close to country, such as “Arnasiaraapik,” popular in the North.
Snowball says Culture Shock has a more adult sound, in the way that it reflects who he is now, as an adult, at a point of his life where he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.
“People migrating through the streets/Ignorance makes me feel deceased,” says the title song of the new album.
You can also consider the new album’s cover, which shows Snowball on an ice-floe in the shadow of an unseen city, a symbol of development or perhaps of climate change’s impact on the North.
For now, the self-described proud and true Inuk, who donated the $1,000 he received from the teaching award to buy new Inuttitut dictionaries for his students, wants to keep performing and teaching.
Many in Kuujjuaq will have the chance to see Snowball play at local Christmas parties.
And he’s already booked to perform in Iqaluit next June 22, as part of National Aboriginal Day events, with his longtime band members, who include bass player, Pat Blonk, drummer David Paul Neil and Rob MacDonald, lead guitarist and producer of the Culture Shock album.
That concert will be aired on APTN as part of their Aboriginal Day Live celebrations, held simultaneously in Winnipeg as well.
You can also buy Culture Shock in Kuujjuaq stores and Malikkaat in Iqaluit. Fans can also listen to Sinuupa online, or download the album on iTunes.