A Nunavut woman will receive a national honor for her work revitalizing Inuit culture

Julia Ogina will receive a Meritorious Service Decoration from Canada's governor general.

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Julia Ogina is set to receive a Governor General’s Meritorious Service Decoration. She is seen here dancing at a 2019 Kitikmeot Inuit Association community feast in Cambridge Bay. (Jane George / Nunatsiaq News)

A Cambridge Bay woman who has championed Inuit culture and language through drum dancing is set to receive a national award.

The office of the secretary to the Governor General announced Feb. 25 that Julia Ogina will receive a Meritorious Service Decoration for her “leadership in protecting, promoting and revitalizing Inuit culture, traditions, and language.”

Ogina helps lead weekly drum dancing sessions in Cambridge Bay, open to residents of any age. She also shows people how to craft traditional clothing, such as the embroidered boots worn during drum dances.

She told Nunatsiaq News she is honoured to receive the award.

“The magic has begun where children and families have started to sing at home, to practise strengthening what they are learning at our weekly drum dance,” Ogina said.

Ogina said that is something the next generation of teachers will need “so they can continue to pass on (their knowledge) to future generations.”

Her interest in history and culture is longstanding — Ogina says her first memory is of attending a drum dance at her great-grandfather’s house.

In 2019, Ogina also worked to produce the Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit drum-dance songbook, published by Inhabit Media.

The songs contained in Huqqullaarutit Unipkaangit, or Stories Told Through Drum-Dance Songs, span the dialects of the western Arctic, from Ogina’s hometown of Ulukhaktok, to Taloyoak and Kugaaruk, at the eastern edge of the Kitikmeot region.

Work on the book took more than 10 years of consultation with elders who went deep into their memories to retrieve the songs, which had long been frowned on by missionaries.

In 1996, she co-authored a book with the late anthropologist Richard G. Condon, called The Northern Copper Inuit, published by the University of Toronto Press.

She says she believes music and stories are important for preserving culture.

That’s particularly so in Cambridge Bay, where Inuinnaqtun has suffered huge erosion: in 2016, only 13.8 percent of preschool-aged Inuit children could converse in Inuktut, down by half from 2001, according to a 2019 Statistics Canada report.

Ogina was also honoured for her work promoting Inuktut in 2017 at an Inuit Uqausinginnik Taiguusiliuqtiit conference, where she received an Outstanding Achievement in Language Revitalization award, handed out each year to recognize outstanding contributions to the development and preservation of the Inuit language.

“Julia’s work has made tremendous impacts in the region,” said Jeannie Ehaloak, Cambridge Bay’s MLA, in a message to Nunatsiaq News.

“She has been instrumental in ensuring that our language, culture and heritage are preserved and passed on. It’s so nice to see young Inuit dancing, sewing and learning to speak our language. This is a well-deserved award. Congratulations, Julia.”