Shina Novalinga locks eyes with her mother, Caroline, with an intimacy and closeness that feels that much more special during a pandemic. Caroline tilts to her other foot and exhales a guttural sound. Shina replicates and the two go back and forth, producing an infectious beat that’s hard to resist bobbing to.
Sometimes the pitch is high, sometimes it’s low, but it’s nearly impossible to decipher who is making which sound (“If you’re confused who’s making the noise that’s a good thing,” Shina explained later). Finally, the two burst into laughter and turn to smile for the camera.
Then, the likes and comments pour in.
Inuit throat singing was at risk of extinction after years of erasure by colonists and missionaries, but Shina, who was born in Nunavik and now lives in Montreal near the banks of the St Lawrence River, is sharing the tradition for a new generation. She’s posting videos to TikTok, a social media platform particularly known for song and dance, and at last count, she’s earned 1.9m followers along with more than 60m likes.
But what Shina is doing goes well beyond social media fame, according to Evie Mark, a throat singer and professor at Nunavik Sivunitsavut, a college programme for Inuit studies. “She’s making a statement to say, ‘I’m bringing back what was shamed upon.'”
According to Inuit legend, the first throat singers weren’t Inuit or even human, but rather small birds with human-like features called Tunirtuaruit. “It was hard to see them because they were very shy or afraid of human people and they would live in abandoned snow houses, or homes, and often you would see families of them,” Mark said.
The human version of traditional Inuit throat singing involves two people, usually women, facing each other and using their throat, belly and diaphragm to expel sounds. The two participants go back and forth, matching their partner’s rhythm until one goes silent or starts laughing. “It’s a very intimate thing so for sure you’re going to be triggered to smile or laugh, especially when you start seeing the person’s eyes when you’re singing together,” Mark said.
Throat singing exists in other cultures as well, including khöömei, found in Mongolia, Siberia and in the Tuva region on the Russia-Mongolia border. Just like Inuit throat singing found in the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Alaska, khöömei mimics the natural environment, such as animals, mountains and streams. But in khöömei, it is men who usually sing, while it’s women in Inuit culture.
“In our region, the men often had to go hunting either for two hours, two days, two weeks, two months and we are a matriarchal society only because the women were at home preparing clothing, food, garments and so on,” Mark explained, “I think that the women had more time on their hands to keep themselves entertained even though they were so busy sewing clothing and so on.”
Mark clarified there are some Inuit men who do a form of throat singing – they imitate animal sounds while they’re hunting and shamans chant. But women and children throat sang in the way we hear it today to keep their minds busy and their bodies warm during frigid weather. Throat singing was also a way to cope while social distancing during pandemics like the Spanish flu or measles. “Entertaining themselves – singing songs, telling stories – was crucial for them to find happiness,” Mark said. “This allowed my grandparents to keep warm and to focus on their breathing. Like we try to do today: we try to find some peace or solace during the pandemic.”
But in the early 20th Century, Christian missionaries in the Arctic shamed Inuit for throat singing. “What they were told is it’s bad, it’s Satanic. In fact, it wasn’t – it allowed them to flourish for thousands of years and all of a sudden, [they] couldn’t,” Mark said.
Throat singing nearly died out, but in Puvirnituq, a village on the coast of Hudson Bay 1,630km north of Montreal, an elder wanted to preserve it. He asked the community’s four remaining throat singers to pass their skills onto a new generation of women. One of these women was Caroline Novalinga, who later taught it to her daughter, Shina.
Growing up in Puvirnituq, Caroline recalls spending her summers camping, chasing geese in springtime and skating or watching the ice fishers in winter. She also loved to sew and throat sing. “We used to have so much to do when we were growing up,” she said.
Caroline moved to Montreal for college when Shina was four and shared her Inuit traditions with her daughter, including speaking Inuktitut at home. But it wasn’t until Shina was 17 that she finally decided to teach her to throat sing. “I had tears when she sang,” Caroline said. “I was so happy and emotional and proud, all those emotions.”