Michael Kusugak

A Promise is A Promise: Inuk Storyteller Michael Kusugak’s New Chapter of Culture Sharing

"I've always had a very good life. I used to go away to school a lot and every time the last thing [my mother] always said to me was, ‘You will not always be happy, but find happiness and cling to it,’" Michael Kusugak shared. He originally grew up near the very north end of Hudson Bay, right on the Arctic circle, in Naujaat. At 12, he moved to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and now he lives in Manitoba, near Lake Winnipeg.  He gives talks about the book he wrote with Robert Munsch, A Promise is a Promise in 1988 and the 16 more books he published thereafter.

Kusugak grew up traveling by dog sled, living in igloos in the winter and tents all summer. He attended residential school when he was six in Chesterfield Inlet, then one in Yellowknife and another in Churchill, Manitoba. He graduated high school in Saskatoon, went to university, learned to fly airplanes and helicopters and worked different jobs until A Promise is a Promise was published.

Since then Kusugak’s been traveling, telling traditional Inuit stories and playing the string. After receiving invitations to schools and libraries across Canada, the US, Asia, Germany, Mexico, Hawaii and more, he decided to move to BC. Three years ago he moved to Manitoba to be where his family in Nunavut travel through. His start as an author came from an unexpected place.

In 1986, he was a member of the library board in Rankin Inlet. Their librarian had some money to invite a special guest and they decided to invite Robert Munsch. Robert stayed at his house and they hunted and fished together, becoming fast friends. He took Robert around to the schools and introduced him around town. After Robert left, Michael was telling stories to his sons and told them about the creatures that live under the sea ice.

They suggested he turn it into a book. Kusugak wrote the story out and sent it to Robert Munsch’ publisher, who rejected it but showed it to Munsch. Munsch called him and asked if he wanted to work with him on the book and A Promise is a Promise was born. Now every time they get together they tell stories to each other and have fun.

Kusugak’s wife would join him doing talks at schools and show things from the North like amaut (a coat for carrying babies), furs and carvings and a slideshow. They were invited to India and Singapore in 2014 to teach about the Inuit and they went to a huge library in China. Perhaps his favorite place was Parkville, New York. They did their everyday announcements and sang the US National anthem and then, in his honor, they played O Canada. “It was like winning the Olympics, I had tears in my eyes,” he recalled.

Illustration by Shaikara David

One time after speaking in Florida and while traveling to Arizona by way of Denver, he was stranded in the Denver airport for 24 hours. There was six feet of snow, no hotel rooms and only airplane pillows and blankets to sleep on the floor in his shorts, sandals and tshirt. Such an unforgettable journey!

Michael’s favorite thing to do is travel across the North, talking about his books, telling stories and speaking his language, Inuktitut. Sometimes in the evenings he will tell stories in a recreation hall to the adults in Inuktitut. “When I sit down to talk to these adults in these places, I tell them, ‘we're gonna be speaking Inuktitut. If you don't understand Inuktitut, you're not gonna get much out of it. Usually a couple of people leave and all the rest of us, we stay and then we have an absolutely wonderful time,” he remembered.

He’s traveled to Grise Fiord, one of the most Northern communities in Nunavut, Resolute Bay and as far west as Cambridge Bay, to Baffin Island and all sorts of places. His favorite traditional food is Muktuk, the skin of the whale, which his family up north sends down to him, while his favourite non-traditional food is beef ribs.

Michael loves talking to kids through TakingItGlobal’s Connected North Program. Before COVID, he would travel all across Canada and the States. “Some days I would be a little tired in the morning and I would sit in front of all these kids and they would look up and it just makes your day,” he smiled. Sometimes he notices a kid determined not to have a good time and he challenges himself to make that kid smile. “It always works,” he beamed.

“One of my favorite groups is grade seven because schools always have a hard time with grade sevens. I love grade sevens because they're old enough that they feel like they're too old to be listening to stories and not to have a good time, but I always love them. Everywhere I go, if I don't have a grade seven class, if there's a grade seven, I ask for them. They're at that age where you can teach them something and inspire them. We always have a good time,” he explained.

Reflecting on his one childhood and what inspired him, he shared, “My mother was one of those people who was very determined that her children were gonna have a good life. She used to say things like, ‘You're an Inuk, you will never be anything else. So be happy being an Inuk.’ She inspired us.”

Friendship helped him write his first book, and in that same spirit, he shares hope, wisdom and connection wherever he goes. With cultural pride stoked by the words of his mother, Michael Kusugak is a proud Inuk sharing the stories and traditions of his people with audiences around the world. She told him to find happiness and cling to it, and that’s exactly what he set out to do.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this story.

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