June 10, 2020
Becky Han spoke to The Last Draft’s Lena Slanisky about tech, tweets, and teaching Inuktitut online.
Becky Han is an Inuk musician who was born in Arctic Bay, Nunavut. She now lives in Saskatchewan, where she can often be found posting videos to social media. Many of these videos teaching words and phrases in her native language of Inuktitut have gone viral on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, where she goes by her Inuktitut name, Koonoo Han.
We sat down earlier this month over Zoom, to chat about technology, storytelling, and the power of social media.
When I came across one of Han’s videos on Twitter for the first time, I was in awe of her and how genuine the short clip was. I was immediately scrolling through her profile, watching one after the other.
They were quiet and loving, hilarious and harsh, bold and proud. Before ever having heard her music, I was already a fan. The language, the attitude, the emojis… I was sold. I could feel the power of storytelling emanating from her, and that, paired with the flair that some tech provides, had me captivated.
Technology can empower artists and truly give them agency in their own career. It can provide a platform with the freedom to define their own path, maintain their identity, and protect their artistic integrity.Take the video above… over 4 thousand people have now seen it on Twitter, and some of Han’s TikToks now have over 16k views.
Think about the impact of that.
Oral storytelling is well-known as a major part of Indigenous life and culture. With the wreckage and erasure left in the wake of colonialism, there has long been talk of the risk of the extinction of languages, traditions, stories, and myths that are not traditionally made for the page.
Enter the Internet, and now there is a new way to participate in these traditions, that also does the work of propagating them, perpetuating them, and in turn, protecting them.
For Becky, the inspiration for her videos started when she began seeing other Indigenous people online sharing their languages through a “word of the day” format.
“It wasn’t really what I was looking for, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do a couple, cause I’m sure there are other people out there who want to learn Inuktitut like me.’”
She wanted to deliver something short, with maybe a bit of humour sprinkled in. Plus, by this point, Becky had a long history of sharing Inuktitut music online, so she had developed a certain ease in front of the camera.
“It all really stemmed from wanting to share my language and to get it out there.” She says this while gesturing emphatically as if she’s pushing the language out from her chest to anyone and everyone who will listen.
And the attention has certainly come from non-Inuks as well. Most responses to Han’s videos are ones of gratitude, or just general appreciation, like one Twitter user who described the beautiful voiceless uvular stop in Inuktitut like “rocks moving against each other.”
But the attention can be draining and… sometimes, poorly executed, too. The need to remind people that Google exists, and they should use it to self-educate before blowing up her inbox with hyper-specific questions, has grown.
“Think before you type,” she says. “And think again before you hit send,” I have to add.
But the positives outweigh those sometimes very heavy negatives, and Han sees this as an opportunity to share what has been passed down to her. “A lot of what I’m able to share is stories I remember being told growing up, or conversations I’ve had with friends back home.”
“The elders, they’re not there, they’re not online. So [these stories], they have to come from someone and then get passed down to the younger generation. And it’s very cool to see that Inuit culture is modernizing through the Internet, through social media. Now you’re beginning to see these stories, these points of view, and it’s really interesting.”
“I just hope it continues… And that there’s more put out there, and more shares. What I’m doing is just a tiny, tiny portion but, at least with whatever small platform I have, I can do what I can.”
And there’s no question Han is having an impact. Not just out there in the Twitterverse, but right in her own communities, where she’s able to connect with people and share Inuit traditions and music.
Her original songs in Inuktitut have been widely celebrated, and she has had no shortage of accolades and awards. But when I ask Han to tell me about any instances where she felt a real impact being made, the story she shares is about a music workshop with kids back in Arctic Bay.
“I was lucky enough to head back home, and it was funny cause it was like a full circle. I went back there to do a week-long music workshop, where I worked on songs with kids… and by the end of the week, they got to go on stage and perform… and it was really nice to go back home and do that. It was surreal because that’s where it all began.”
Music has been a part of Han’s life since childhood when her mother would play guitar for the church choir. After becoming a mother herself, Han taught herself how to play on a guitar she was gifted from a friend.
“I went on YouTube, and Google… and taught myself. It started with just singing at home, to me writing these different songs because I wasn’t finding songs that were up to date… like they were all folkish and twangy and… I didn’t like that,” she laughs, “So, I shared a couple, got a good response from people my age, and just kept posting.”
Now, she’s in a place where she’s able to play shows when it feels right, collaborate when it feels right, and always keep time for her two kids and husband at home.
“But I think this is the busiest I’ve been!” She says as we’re talking about the impact the pandemic has had on the demand for her, her music, and her micro-lessons in Inuktitut online. Not to mention keeping up with her TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
“I guess the point of the stuff that I come up with is to educate and make fun little things on a smaller scale. So, ya, I’d say so. And I get to paint these pictures in my songs, even though they’re mainly in Inuktitut they do tell these stories. So, ya.”
What’s in a story?
“Inspiration. Whether that’s to create or spark any emotion. That’s what pulls me in. I feel like I’m a really emotional person (she laughs). I’m going to be drawn to it… if it makes me feel.”
Can stories help us evolve?
“Stories help us maintain that which makes us who we are. And that’s the fun way that social media ties in again, because now you have everyone out here… ‘Look what I’m doing, look what I’m sharing!’ and that sharing builds a sense of community.”
Her Soundcloud page also has a bunch of original music, including several songs that have won the Qilaut Inuktut children’s songwriting contest, and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s contest for the best original song or poem in Inuktitut.
writer, director, bad singer, worse dancer. i think i’m hilarious. je parle aussi le français!