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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic November 07, 2014 - 10:12 am

Taissumani, Nov. 7

The 19th Inuit Studies Conference


In 1974, at a time when the Inuit of Nunavik were negotiating their land claims settlement, researchers at Laval university established a private non-profit organization called Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit.

Its objectives were to collect data on research into Inuit culture, language and society, and to disseminate that knowledge.

The driving forces behind the establishment of the association were two Laval professors, Louis-Jacques Dorais and Bernard Saladin d”Anglure.

A few years later, it was felt that it would be beneficial if researchers had an opportunity to meet periodically to share the results of their research. And so, in 1978, the first of what was to become a biennial series of conferences was held at Laval.

In the years since, the conferences have been held at a number of universities and centres of northern study, and occasionally in the North. Iqaluit hosted the conference once.

But costs and logistics have proven to be a major impediment to having the conference in the North. Nonetheless, the years have witnessed increased participation of Inuit in the conferences.

A biennial scholarly journal was launched in 1977. “Etudes/Inuit/Studies” is devoted to “the study of Inuit societies, either traditional or contemporary, in the general perspective of social sciences and humanities (ethnology, politics, archaeology, linguistics, history, etc.).” It has grown into a respected multi-disciplinary academic journal, containing substantive articles and book reviews, as well as reviews of recent dissertations and articles published in other journals.

The journal is thematic in nature. The first volume, in 1977, focused on economic history and linguistics. Two of my favourites over the years, perhaps because much of my own researcher is geared toward biography, have been “The Work of Knud Rasmussen” (1988) and “Franz Boas and the Inuit” (2008.)

Last week, the nineteenth biannual Inuit Studies Conference was held, once again at Laval university in Quebec City. I was pleased to be able to be in attendance and to present two papers.

It was an excellent conference. I don’t intend to provide a complete overview of it in this column. Rather I will present a completely biased outline of some of the sessions that I attended and papers that I enjoyed.

In a language session, Alana Johns and Raigelee Alorut presented a paper, “The use of the dual in some Inuit dialects.” This generated a spirited discussion of the future of the dual and whether it should be encouraged to die the death that seems inevitable. Larry Kaplan, from Alaska, spoke on “Diomede Inupiaq: a linguistic extreme.”

In a session devoted to Arctic Collections, Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad spoke on the work of the whaling captain, George Comer, who collected Inuit artifacts and legends for the anthropologist Franz Boas, in the northern Kivalliq region in the years around 1900. Comer was a fascinating man about whom far too little is known.

France Rivet and Gwenaele Guigon provided “In the footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab – Artifacts in French and German Museum collections.” Their prodigious research has resulted recently in France Rivet’s book on the tragic Abraham story, in which a number of Inuit were taken from Labrador to Europe for exhibit in human zoos in 1800; all died there.

Dave Lough, deputy minister of Culture and Tourism with the Nunatsiavut Government, talked about attitudes to this story in Labrador and what steps the government may take to remember it, including the possibility of the repatriation of skeletal remains.

In history sessions, Jonathan King talked about “Ecstatic religion, Arctic archaeology and the establishment of the Igloolik Mission in 1937,” a fascinating paper about Father Bazin’s work in founding the mission.

Walter Vanast, a medical doctor living near Montreal, presented three papers on his multi-year, self-funded personal research effort into documenting the history of the Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta. I especially enjoyed his presentation on “Ethnologic riches in the Rev. Isaac Stringer’s 1892-1901 Mackenzie Delta diary.”

My first paper was “The Spread of Inuktitut Syllabic Orthography,” in which I showed how syllabics spread throughout the eastern Arctic largely through Inuit teaching each other, without the direct assistance of missionaries.

The second was on “The Ouligbucks: Interpreters to Northern Explorers.” Ouligbuck and his son William Ouligbuck were Paallirmiut Inuit from the Kivalliq Region who assisted British explorers and the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1800s. 

That gives a taste of the conference, from my biased viewpoint. Because there were sometimes as many as five concurrent sessions, I also missed many papers I would have liked to hear. Such is the nature of a busy conference in a few short days.

Two years from now, the 20th Inuit Studies Conference will be held in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I intend to be there.

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

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