Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | People

Voice of the Arctic: Sonia Gunderson

By Angie Toomsen
It all began with a simple canoe trip to the Great White North. That's when an American nomad fell in love with another peripatetic culture and people.

Sonia Gunderson Sonia Gunderson's latest adventure has taken her to the Arctic, where she studies the culture of the Inuit people.

Sonia Gunderson's diverse interests have kept her on an ever-changing course that led to unexpected places and adventures. She's earned a music degree in Philadelphia, developed a natural foods cooperative in Milwaukee, studied with a yogi in Switzerland, and taught transcendental meditation around the world. Now in her final year as a UI journalism grad student, Gunderson has found a new passion—the Inuit, the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia.

Specifically, her final journalism project focuses on the geography, history, and traditions of an Inuit island community called Igloolik in Nunavut, Canada's newest territory. She recently traveled there to talk with local elders about the preservation of their 4,000-year-old way of life. "It's a privilege to be invited into such a subtle, deep, and complex culture," says Gunderson.

With warmth and openness, the Inuit have confided to Gunderson details of their cultural heritage and their concerns about modern threats to its continuation. She's heard stories of the old way of life and the disruptions caused by the encroachment of civilization, compulsory relocations, missionary schools, and global warming. So far, she's visited the Inuit people three times and has shared her experiences in articles for Inuit Art Quarterly and First Air's in-flight magazine, Above & Beyond. She plans to write a book about the community of Igloolik and its unique efforts to preserve Inuit culture and values such as cooperation and resourcefulness.

"In the past, the Inuit were nomads who realized that their survival in the harsh Arctic environment depended on everyone looking out for each other," says Gunderson. "Even today, displays of selfishness or egotism are considered dysfunctional. They could teach us a lot."

Gunderson firmly believes destiny led her to the frozen north. Ever since that first canoe journey along glacial waters, she has found herself devouring every piece of information she could find about the Inuit people and their culture.

"I believe things happen for a reason," she says. "I try to stay connected to my passion and follow my curiosity—you never know where life will lead you."