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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic December 06, 2013 - 2:04 pm

Taissumani, Dec. 6

Coming Up Jesusy — Part 4

A photograph of Umik taken by the archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen. (HARPER COLLECTION)
A photograph of Umik taken by the archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Last week I discussed how Akumalik brought Christianity from the Pangnirtung area to Tununeq, the Pond Inlet area.

What developed in Tununeq was a crude version of Christianity, characterized by “singing hymns and reading bibles, in shaking hands and waving white flags.” It has been described as a “weird blend of Anglicanism and Inuit spirituality.”

Two men in the Pond Inlet area became particularly enthralled by this new religion, modified it to suit their own purposes, and exported it to the Iglulik area. They were the father and son team of Umik and Nuqallaq.

Umik had originally come from the Igloolik area, but had lived in Tununiq for some years. The late Noah Piugaattuk, a respected elder in Igloolik, recalled late in life, “When he [Umik] understood something about the Christian religion, he started to teach others about the new religion and moved to this area [Igloolik] once again to convert others to Christianity.”

The move to Igloolik took place in May 1921. Nuqallaq travelled with his father. He had recently killed the trader, Robert Janes, for which he would eventually stand trial for murder.

But he wasn’t running away. Indeed, he had gone to one of the local traders, Captain Munn, who had already reported the killing to the police in Ottawa, to ask if he objected to him leaving. Munn gave his permission, feeling that he would be easily found if needed.

Umik, the father, became the main practitioner of Christianity in the Iglulik area. One elder in Arctic Bay told me in 1980 how Umik had baptized him in his youth, giving him the name Ikuallariktuq — the one that burns with a bright flame.

History would have recorded very little first-hand information about the new religion’s arrival in the Iglulik area had it not been for the presence of the scientists and explorers of the Danish Fifth Thule Expedition in Foxe Basin in the winter of 1921-22.

When the archaeologist, Therkel Mathiassen, and his party arrived at a southerly camp of the Igloolik Inuit that winter, he noted, “We saw a white rag on a pole outside the snow house and, when we arrived at the place we were surprised by the inhabitants shaking hands with us; even the tiniest child had to do it.”

Mathiassen found a crucifix carved from ivory hanging inside a snow house, perhaps an influence from the Roman Catholic mission that had been established to the south at Chesterfield Inlet in 1912. When he attempted to buy it, he was told that it was a powerful amulet. At other camps they observed the same kind of white flag, and experienced the same hand-shaking, signs that the people were part of Umik’s flock.

Mathiassen also noted that “his religion included abstention from work on Sundays, gathering now and then in his snow house and singing hymns which he had taught them, and, what is more, the hunters were to bring their booty to him and he would distribute it.”

Nuqallaq acted as his assistant priest and “did not lift a finger in hunting either.” When people arrived at a settlement or left, everyone gathered to sing a hymn and there was hand-shaking all round. Mathiassen commented that “even the dogs’ paws were taken.”

At Igloolik, Mathiassen met the prophet himself, whom he described as “an elderly, intelligent man” Although Umik had only been back from Tununiq since May, the whole Igloolik area had been won over to his religion “in a flash”, even though some of the older people objected to it.

One, Tagurnaaq, scornfully remarked that “Aapaq has become a Christian for her food.” By this she meant that Aapaq, a young woman who had recently given birth and would therefore have been under a number of food prohibitions, had conveniently avoided them by converting to Christianity.

Mathiassen thought that Umik “ruled there [Iglulik] absolutely.” He was a liberal man who permitted polygamy and offered to lend his wife to Mathiassen’s party for their stay. Mathiassen declined the offer. Umik himself was in the habit of exchanging wives for a year at a time with another man.

By the spring of 1922, Umik’s brand of religion reached Repulse Bay, and many converted despite the presence of a Catholic mission there.

Next week – More Observations on Unik and Nuqallaq

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 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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