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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic December 12, 2014 - 10:12 am

Taissumani, Dec. 12

The Belcher Island Murders — Part 2

KENN HARPER
Mina in Inukjuak, 1948. (PHOTO BY FREDERICA KNIGHT.COURTESY OF AVATAQ CULTURAL INSTITUTE)
Mina in Inukjuak, 1948. (PHOTO BY FREDERICA KNIGHT.COURTESY OF AVATAQ CULTURAL INSTITUTE)

Last week I wrote about the beginnings of the religious fervour that resulted in the deaths of a number of Inuit in the Belcher Islands in 1942. Two local men, Peter Sala and Charlie Ouyerack, had proclaimed themselves to be God and Jesus.

By the end of February, the death toll was three. But in early March things escalated when Peter Sala’s sister, Mina, went mad.

An official report recounted:

“On March 9, whilst Quarack was away hunting and Sala was absent on a trip to Great Whale River… Eskimo female Mina, wife of Moses, suddenly became hysterical or insane, and ran to the various igloos in the camp shouting that Jesus was coming to earth and that they must go out to meet Him. Moses… and all of the women and children in the camp, with the exception of Quarack’s wife, followed Mina out on to the sea ice. Before leaving the shore some of them took off their parkas at Mina’s bidding, and Mina and her sister, Kumudluk Sarah, took the parkas off some of the younger children. Mina told them that as Jesus was coming they should meet him in their naked state.

“She led the party a long way out on to the ice, walking ahead of them, lifting her hands towards the sky and saying, “Come Jesus, Come Jesus.” They came to a stop and Kumudluk Sarah persuaded the people to take off their remaining clothing, and to stay there to meet Jesus. These two women helped to undress some of the children.

“In the meantime, Quarack’s wife, who had not been influenced by Mina’s mad notion, arrived on the scene and rescued one of her children. Her arrival apparently helped to bring the adult natives to a more rational state of mind, but by this time all of the natives including the children were suffering from frostbite and some were in a state of numbness. Quarack’s wife persuaded those who could to put on their clothing and she encouraged them to try to clothe and try to save the others who could not help themselves. Mina returned to camp; her husband, Moses, returned carrying a young boy; Minna, wife of Peter Sala, returned carrying her infant.”

Two other women returned to camp, each carrying a child. Two women and four children were too numb to move. They remained on the ice, and froze to death. The two dead women were Peter Sala’s and Mina’s mother and their sister, Kumudluk Sarah, who was the mother of two of the dead children. The other two were the son and step-son of Peter Sala.

Peter Sala was away when the six deaths on the ice occurred. He had travelled to Great Whale River with the Hudson’s Bay Co. manager, Ernie Riddell, who knew nothing of the deaths. While there he told an old company pensioner, whom the Inuit regarded as their “white brother,” of the murders of the two men and the teenaged girl.

The pensioner informed Riddell, who radioed the news out to his headquarters and asked that the police be informed. Sala, Riddell and a missionary immediately set out for the Belcher Islands.

“When they returned Sala learned of the death from exposure of his mother and sister and two children and learned to his sorrow that the religious hysteria in which he had taken a leading part was the cause of their deaths.”

It was not until April 11 that the police plane arrived with an investigative team.

The investigation into the Belcher Island murders began on April 13th. It was led by RCMP Cpl. W. G. Kerr, assisted by Dr. T. J. Orford, with Rev. C. Neilsen acting as interpreter.

The bodies of the deceased were examined. Back at the Hudson’s Bay Company post a coroner’s inquiry was held. The Inuit did not attempt to conceal any of the tragic details of the deaths.

Dr. Orford served a dual role. He was coroner but also Justice of the Peace. In that capacity he charged Mina with murder for her role in the deaths of the two women and four children.

Peter Quarack was charged with murder in the death of Alex Ekpuk. Adlaykok was charged with the murder of Keytoweiack, on the basis of information provided by Peter Sala who was “evasive in regard to his part in the murders.”

The three Inuit thus far charged were transferred to Moose Factory to await trial. Mina went “violently insane” there and was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Toronto.

In July, a police party travelled to the Belcher Islands to continue their investigation and to hold a preliminary hearing. The three accused were brought back from Moose Factory for this purpose.

The further investigation and examination of the remaining bodies resulted in murder charges being laid against Peter Sala, Ouyerack, Alec Apawkok, and the young woman Akeenik. All seven prisoners were committed in custody to await trial.

While awaiting the arrival of the court party, an influenza epidemic struck the islands. At one point 46 Inuit were down with the flu. One elderly woman died.

Continued next week.
Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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