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User-unfriendly homes

Calgary researcher to study Inuit use of living space

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Arviat (Dec 03/01) - A university researcher will spend two months next summer recording every move of the Inuit he will live with in Arviat.

Peter Dawson, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calgary, is studying the aboriginal use of living space. So far, what he has discovered is that in some key areas, Inuit are misfits in their own homes.

NNSL Photo

Joe Kaludjak cuts meat on the floor of an Arviat home. A University of Calgary researcher says because Inuit don't use their homes the same way southerners do, housing designs should change accordingly. - NNSL file photo

In hopes of someday creating a more culturally appropriate Northern architecture, Dawson will examine Inuit use of home space by recording the locations and movements of Inuit. He hopes to live with families in Arviat for two months, and then to return the following winter to get an idea of space use in all seasons.

He will tabulate his results in a computer model.

"I'm learning the grammar of Inuit space use -- the rules that combine spaces together to make them functional," he said.

Similar studies have been conducted with Aborigine communities in Australia.

Dawson anticipates changes might include items such as bigger stainless-steel sinks and better ventilation systems to accommodate Inuit cooking practices.

But, he said, he is not advocating a return to traditional housing.

"Obviously, people living in the North today are very different from the people who lived in the past," he said.

Welcome to our home

So far, it looks like his project will be well-received by the people of Arviat.

"It's certainly applicable and at this point our council has formally supported him," said hamlet administrator Darren Flynn.

"They will hopefully come up with a design that's better suited for Inuit lifestyle."

The first houses to be built in what would become Nunavut were cheap but able to survive the Northern winter. They weren't made to house people who live from the land.

"I've been very interested in how traditional Inuit house forms represented elegant ways of adapting to Arctic climate, but also suited very well the lifestyles of an Inuit family," said Dawson.

As an ethno-archaeologist, Dawson focuses on the relationship between material culture and human behaviour.

"Houses and buildings are the most complex artifacts that humans create," he said. "The way they're organized can often generate a system of encounters between the people sharing that space. The reason why houses in Africa look different from houses in Canada is because cultural values are reflected in their design."

He has seen Inuit preparing hides in living rooms and repairing snowmachines in kitchens.

Traditional Inuit residences provided much more open space -- a totally different environment from the government-subsidized residences he labels "Euro-Canadian housing."

"There were few places where someone could segregate themself," said Dawson, adding that the segregation of space in Southern-style homes -- bathrooms and bedrooms with locking doors, for example -- likely changed the way people relate to one another.