Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic October 10, 2014 - 10:51 am

Taissumani, Oct. 11

Father Gasté’s Remarkable Journey

KENN HARPER

When Samuel Hearne became the first white man to pass through the area of Nueltin Lake in the late 1700s, there was as yet no Inuit presence there.

It was not until the early 1800s that Inuit moved into the region. These Inuit, who came to be known as the Ahiarmiut, occupied an area tucked into the farthest south-west corner of what is today Nunavut.

Their culture was adapted to the interior. The mainstay of their existence was the barren-ground caribou, but fish from the numerous lakes also formed a good part of their diet. They lived at the edge of the northern forest. Pockets of spruce and tamarack grew along the Upper Kazan River and the Ahiarmiut used this resource extensively.

A biologist wrote in the 1940s, “The timber not only provided them with raw material for their sleighs [sleds], kayak frames, harpoons, drums, and various tools, but it also brought them into contact with various forest-inhabiting mammals and birds…”

After establishing themselves in this isolated homeland, the Ahiarmiut traded into the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s post at Churchill. But that pattern changed in 1868 as the result of a remarkable journey by a Roman Catholic priest.

Father Alphonse Gasté set out in April of that year from his base at Brochet on Reindeer Lake, south-west of Churchill, close to the present Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, accompanied by a number of Chipewyan hunters, on a proselytizing mission in which he hoped to visit the mysterious “Eskimos” of whom the Chipewyan had told him so much.

Finally, in early June, the travellers encountered their first Inuit. The priest recorded the meeting in these words:

“Early in the morning… two young Montagnais [Chipewyan] had gone on a scouting trip. A little past noon, they returned with a band of Eskimo hunters and one or two old women of that nation.

“As soon as our Indians spied them from a distance, they wished them a hearty welcome according to the ceremonial in use among the Eskimos. They waved their blankets, imparting to them a circular motion. A few minutes later, our new visitors approached us with the traditional greeting of the North, that is to say, proferring their hands, they would repeat several times: ‘Taiman, taiman” which corresponds to our Good day.”

The two groups conversed by gestures, although it seems that one or two of the Chipewyan knew how to speak some Inuktitut.

This encounter was completely friendly. A century earlier, as Inuit had gradually displaced Chipewyan on the Hudson Bay coast, meetings were often hostile. Inuit had an unflattering name for the Chipewyan — iqqiliit — the ones with louse-eggs in their hair.

Over time, suspicions and hostilities declined, and the two groups, at least in this small corner of Inuit territory, peacefully co-existed. Each summer, the Chipewyans hunted north into the barren grounds, encountering Inuit on most of these forays, and there was generally caribou enough for all.

Father Gasté met with the Inuit on at least three occasions that summer. On the last one, about 20 hunters came to the Chipewyan camp. One man appeared to be the leader of this group. Gasté talked with him through a Chipewyan interpreter. “The Eskimo chief did not lack in intelligence,” he wrote.

“He even seemed to me to be practically the only one of his nation who had some notion of God and of our primitive traditions. I asked him how he had acquired them. He told me that it was during his journeys to Fort Churchill.”

Gasté was frustrated at not being able to communicate more effectively with his new-found friends, and so he issued an invitation:

“As for me, seeing that my ministry was useless to these poor people, I wanted nonetheless to make some preparation for the future. So, I had the Eskimos assemble and, with an interpreter’s help, invited them to frequent the Caribou Lake Fort [Brochet] in preference to Fort Churchill. I assured them, on the word of my Montagnais, that they would find it advantageous, as it was of easier access to them in their journeys. It was agreed that, this year, five grown up men would come and visit our fort, explore the difficulties of the road and, if the advantage was proven, they would soon come in large numbers.”

Finally in November, Father Gasté’s six-month journey was at an end. He returned to his mission with 40 hunters, including the five Inuit from the Upper Kazan.

“The most important result of this trip,” he wrote, “ the one that I had in mind when I set out, is that I had been able to maintain our Indians in their good disposition, to push ahead their instruction and, finally, to have paved the way for the evangelization of the Eskimos.”

Trading into Brochet lasted until about 1920. By then, adventurous white traders had begun to operate deep into the Kivalliq interior, near the north end of Nueltin Lake.

From then on, it was no longer necessary for the Ahiarmiut to make the long trip deep into Chipewyan territory to Reindeer Lake.

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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