Barbara Akoak

Sisterhood of Singers: Barbara Akoak Throat Sings from the Heart

“We know trauma. We know pain. But also, we’re strong people,” asserts Barbara Akoak, reflecting on the strength of her Inuit heritage. Her stage name is Inuk Barbie and she is a throat singer, goldsmith, seamstress, drum dancer who does film on the side. Iqaluit is where she studied jewelry and metalwork through a two year program, continuing on for an additional year for goldsmithing. Before she got into nursing school, she also studied mental health for a year and took the transition year program at Dalhousie. 

"We know trauma. We know pain. But also, we’re strong people."

She’s currently there as a nursing student on a four year scholarship. Pre-nursing was a challenge, fast-paced with a requirement to maintain a high grade point average. It was a lot of work with lots of studying but she’s found it’s worth it. Akoak was inspired to go down this path after working as a phone counsellor in her twenties. That experience made her want to go into psychiatric nursing and specialize in art therapy. 

Growing up, her dad worked for the NWT Housing Corporation so she lived all over the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. For twenty years, she lived in Iqaluit and before that she was in Joe Haven, Norman Wells and Cambridge Bay, to name a few. Akoak learned to throat sing in a small town along the border of Nunavut and Manitoba. Her friend was determined to teach her as they walked home at lunch time. In minus fifty degree weather, with air that hurt her lungs, she learned the art form. 

Since then, other women have helped her develop her throat singing talents and she’s even been invited to sing for a Hollywood producer. “It's almost like a sisterhood once you become a throat singer because you just learn different songs from different regions. And yeah, it's what throat singing is. It's like a playful game. It's back and forth and Whoever laughs first loses this friendly competition,” she explains. That sisterhood spans the Arctic from Russia, Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Labrador, Northern Quebec and Greenland. “We're everywhere and through throat singing we connect and we're lucky to have that,” she continues. 

When she moved to Iqaluit at 16 she was inspired by emerging throat singers like Laakkuluk, a Greenlandic performing artist who does face mask performing dances. Another throat singer Sylvia Cloutier from Nunavik partners with Laakkuluk. Pauline Kyak is Akoak’s throat singing partner in Nova Scotia and in high school she had a lot of friends who engaged in the practice. They stay in touch despite the distance between them. 

Her advice for youth who are thinking of leaving their community to pursue education or a career is to find a good support system. The Indigenous studies department at their new university is one place to start for connecting with other students and making use of the resources and technology. As a single mother, she’s busy so time management has been key. 

To stay on top of her schoolwork, Akoak prints out the semester’s calendar and plots out the deadline and the value of each assignment. This helps her maintain perspective about what is most important. She has struggled with attendance but is making it work. 

Illustration by Shaikara David

Homesickness has been a struggle, too. “When I'm away from my land. It feels like I'm grieving for my territory. It feels like I'm sacrificing living time with elders that I know their life is going to end soon. I feel that and I feel like I'm making such a big sacrifice of keeping learning my culture from the real elders that were born out on the land,” Akoak reflects. Her parents were born on the land and she craves the company of elders two generations back. Far from her siblings and their children, she feels like she’s missing out on a relationship with them. She goes home for the summer and at Christmas, spending time with family when she can. 

In Halifax, Akoak has access to elders for guidance and mentorship.  Her daughter was just nine years old when they moved to Nova Scotia and she’s lost her ease with Inuktitut while strengthening her English skills. She’s thankful they can learn their language online with so many resources becoming available. 

If she could give a message to younger self it would be, ”Just do anything you want. Just believe in it and anything you dream of, just do it.” Dealing with lateral violence was a challenge and Akoak would want to provide reassurance and comfort. “You know yourself. You love yourself. You're worthy of love. The things you create, they're beautiful. The work you do is good. Just keep doing you.. the love outweighs the hate so just lean on the love that you keep getting,” she carries on. 

"You know yourself. You love yourself. You're worthy of love."

To balance her mental health, she focuses on nutrition and uses magnesium for her anxiety. She tries to stay hydrated and get enough potassium, too. Acupuncture has also been helpful and alongside the Mi'kmaq people where she resides, she participates in smudging. Akoak tries to see herself holistically and looks to stay in balance. 

In the North, suicide is prevalent and that results in a tremendous amount of grief and loss. Her advice for youth contemplating suicide is to get medical attention if they are in the planning stage and believes suicide should be framed as a medical condition that needs societal support. Adding to that the trauma of all of the unmarked graves, there are a lot of factors that impact mental health. Hearing the stories of her elders and the pain they have felt in losing family members and still maintaining their strength, their words help her carry on. 

Akoak’s inspiration comes from her artistic friends and from Indigenous women on the front lines protecting water and the rivers. “Those women inspire me. They are so strong. Those types of women are healing for me,” she says.  

Knowing trauma, knowing pain, but also knowing the strength of her people, Barbara Akoak practices her culture through throat singing and other traditional art forms. As part of a sisterhood, she’s found community through her voice. Known as Inuk Barbie, she takes to the stage and to the classroom where she’s studying nursing, finding healing through medicine and culture. 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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  • Career
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  • Date
    April 18, 2024
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