After being forced into near-extinction by colonists and missionaries, the tradition of Inuit throat singing has gradually been brought back, and TikTok star Shina Novalinga is bringing it to a whole new generation of audiences.
1. What is throat singing?
Inuit legend says the original throat singers were the Tunirtuaruit, small, shy birds with human-like features. When replicated by humans, Inuit throat singing is traditionally done in pairs, usually two women, who stand facing each other. Using their throat, belly and diaphragm, the singers create a variety of gutteral sounds, matching each other’s rhythm as they mimic an array of noises from the natural environment, from animals to mountains and streams, their sounds merging so that you no longer know who makes what noises. As evidence of the importance of this art, in 2014, in the first designation of its kind for something intangible, throat singing was awarded cultural heritage status in Quebec.
2. The history of throat singing
The intimate tradition of throat singing comes from Inuit culture, found in the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Alaska, as well as other cultures like khöömei in Mongolia, Siberia and the Tuva region on the Russia-Mongolia border. Whilst in khöömei it is usually men who sing, throat singing was traditionally a women’s activity in Inuit society, which was matriarchal as men were often away for long periods of time hunting. Although some Inuit men did do a type of throat singing, for example imitating animal sounds whilst hunting or shamanic chanting, throat singing was most often used my both Inuit women and children to keep their minds busy and their bodies warm during the vicious cold weather, for entertainment and enjoyment.
3. A tradition nearly totally eradicated
In the early 20th Century the Inuit tradition of throat singing was nearly entirely eradicated by colonists and Christian missionaries, who feared throat singing, believing it to be Satanic and demonic and shaming Inuits for practicing it, before banning it completely. In doing so they took away an important part of Inuit identity which had until then helped the community to thrive. However, in the village of Puvirnituq on the coast of Hudson Bay, 1,630km north of Montreal, an elder wanted to preserve it. He did so by asking the last four remaining throat singers in the community’s to pass their skills onto the next generation of women, and one of these women was Caroline Novalinga, Shina’s mother, who later taught it to her daughter.
4. Shina Novalinga
Shina Novalinga was born in Nunavik and now lives in Montreal. Half-Inuk and half-Quebecoise, she is sharing the tradition of Inuit throat signing using social media, specifically TikTok, and has become somewhat of a sensation with 2 million followers and 64.9 million likes. Despite struggles with her indigenous identity when she was younger, she has now embraced this part of her heritage, and after learning more about her culture from her mother, as well as school lessons on the injustices inflicted on her people, she is striving to send a message of positivity about indigenous culture and heritage, and to encourage others, especially young Indigenous women, to do the same.
Shina began sharing TikTok videos of her throat singing when the first wave of the pandemic reached Montreal in March 2020 and they met with huge popularity. As well as her throat singing with her mother, who also has a popular TikTok account, the videos include facts about Indigenous history as well as different aspects of their culture, such as traditional food and also clothes, hand made my her mother. Although Shina has also received negative and hurtful responses from people, such as mimicking or criticising her use of animal products, an important part of the Inuit culture and history which were always hunted and used in a sustainable way, her videos are positive, showing the beautiful variety of cultures around the world and helping others to understand hers. The most recent Black Lives Matter movement also further inspired her to be proud and tell others about her indigenous heritage and culture.
Later this year, Shina and Caroline plan to release a throat singing album they have recorded which will enable many more people to hear and appreciate a tradition which is so important to them and which has such a deep history. Their work helps to ensure that never again is their beloved art threatened with disappearance, and that it continues to be valued and praised.