Iqaluk — Arctic Charr

Iqaluk, the Arctic charr, is the "fish par excellence" to the Inuit – and perhaps to many qallunaat (white people). Known and valued across the Arctic, iqaluit, the fishes, form an important part of the diet of many communities – so much so that the capital of the Nunavut Territory is named after them. Iqaluit, the town's name, means "place of many fish", and probably explains why a community originally existed there. In sacred language, the charr is called "the one that jumps" or sometimes "the one who goes up a river". It has many other names as well, for each life stage of this fish has its own specific description. Ivisaaruq, for example, corresponds to a mating male charr, which has a hooked lower jaw and is a reddish colour. Nutiliarjuk, "trout that never go down into salt water", represents the landlocked charr that never descend to the ocean, living their entire lives in lakes. Unlike lake trout, (isuuraq), landlocked charr are found on Baffin Island, as well as on the mainland; this important difference is often pointed out by the Inuit (Randa 1994).

The arctic charr spends most of its life in tundra lakes, descending to the ocean for a couple of months each year. About the time when the birds are laying their eggs (manniit) and the first bumblebees are seen along the coast, the iqaluit descend the rivers to the ocean, where they feed on the abundant plankton (illiraq), shrimps (kinguk), and cod (uugaq). In late summer, they return upriver to spawn and spend the winter back in the freshwater lakes. In the spring, they swim down the shallow parts of the river, where they can be easily netted; during the fall run, they stick to the deeper sections (IOHP 439). The timing of this upstream run corresponds with the late summer caribou hunt, in akulliruut (late August), the time when the caribou skins are perfect for clothing. At this time, the down beneath the wings of eider ducklings also grows lighter in colour.

To harvest the fish when they were running up the rivers, Inuit built fish traps from rocks into which the charr would swim and could easily be speared. Sometimes the Inuit speared both males and females. However, they often left most of the females to continue on and reproduce. Once they had caught enough charr, the fishers – men, women, and children – would dismantle part of the weir to allow the fish to return downstream in the spring. In areas where they could not build a rock trap, they would place a large flat white rock on the bottom of the river so that they could easily see fish passing over it and spear them. Careful rules warned people not to urinate in the river, and not to approach fish traps from the upstream or upwind side, in case the fish should catch the scent of people and become alarmed. Many accounts tell of the fun to be had in spearing charr – fun, that is, until one became completely soaked and cold! (IOHP 023, 370, 156; Randa 1994).

Later in the fall, when the caribou are mating, so too are the charr. When spawning, the female charr carefully fans the debris from an area of the river or lake bottom and lays her eggs, which are then fertilized by the male. When fishing at the spawning beds, the Inuit were careful to spear only the males, leaving the females as lures to bring in more males. The female charr could be identified easily because they would remain still over the spawning bed, waiting for a male to arrive. After the spawning season had ended it was acceptable to spear both male and female fish (IOHP 386). Fish eggs were also occasionally eaten if they could be gathered conveniently.

In order to catch charr in the lakes in the fall when they were freezing, one had to break through the thin ice before spearing fish through the opening. Even spawning beds were often located by peering through the thin clear ice and watching for bubbles (IOHP 386). Once the ice grew too thick on the lakes, this was no longer practical and spear fishing ended until the following season (Randa 1994; IOHP 428). At this point, nets were used to catch fish for the dark period or – after the introduction of Christianity – for Christmas celebrations. This occurred after the season when the caribou mated (IOHP 370). Finally, various types of fish could be caught by jigging through holes in the ice with a line and hook (IOHP 156).

The origins of iqaluk are said to lie with Iqalliuq, "the father of the salmon", a man who cut up small pieces of wood, "painted" them with sperm, and placed them in a river. Once in the water, the pieces of wood came to life and turned into fish. There were several taboos and rituals to be observed around charr; in particular, it was forbidden to mix charr with walrus. Boots used for charr fishing could not be taken on a walrus hunt, and charr and walrus meat could not be eaten on the same day (although charr and seal or caribou could be eaten together). It is unclear why these two species were considered incompatible. In order to assure that a child would become a swift runner, parents sometimes gave the child a bracelet made from the lateral line of a charr. Perhaps this practice stemmed from the admiration of the charr's ability to jump over all obstacles as it makes its way upstream to spawn (Randa 1994).

The Inuit have a deep respect for all types of animals, including fish. Apart from the specific rules that had to be followed when fishing, it was very important not to anger the fish spirits by quarrelling or acting greedily while fishing. Elder George Kappianaq explains:

It was strongly discouraged for animals to become the subject of conflict to other people. I believe most of us have heard about this. It is more so to fish, it is discouraged, that they should not become the subject of conflict when they were fished in the weirs, when there are a number of people involved. This would be the case when a certain individual wants more than others. When the people start claiming a catch, for instance, if you start determining that certain fish belong to a certain individual, this usually caused conflict among the fishermen.

It is said that once this is practised then the fish will not return the following year. I have heard this from all over the place. It is said that the river and the lake each have an inua (person or spirit belonging to the lake) who has control over the fish in that lake, and who tends to get upset easily, who will stop the fish from running. The people that have verbally contended over the fish, because they are humans the lake's inua can stop the fish for a period, then later on the fish can return (IOHP 330).