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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic October 31, 2014 - 7:51 am

Taissumani, Oct. 31

The Sadness of Miss Bill

Eqariussaq, or Miss Bill. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Eqariussaq, or Miss Bill. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Life was not kind to Eqariussaq, or Miss Bill as the Peary’s always called her, for she was unable to bear children. Knud Rasmussen once wrote, “There is only one woman whom I pity among the Polar Eskimos — the woman who has no children.”

Eqariussaq’s marriage to Ahngoodloo did not survive. But she was taken again in marriage by a man called Saamik, which means “the left-handed one,” and he was the richest man of his tribe.

His wife had died and he was overjoyed at his good fortune in taking the beautiful and well-travelled young woman as his new wife – that is, until he discovered that she could give him no child. Rasmussen relates:

“Beautiful Eqariussaq was barren. From the day that that dawned upon him, Saamik conceived an extreme contempt for his young wife, and life between them was no good thing.

“As Saamik simultaneously fell in love with the sixteen-year-old Arnaruniaq, who was the wife of Alattaq, the magician, he grew more and more unkind to Eqariussaq, whom he often beat in savage fits of passion. But Eqariussaq suffered him to ill-treat her and did not run away, because, in spite of everything, she would not hear of any other husband than Saamik. One fine day, however, she was obliged to leave her husband’s house. Saamik exchanged her for an indefinite period to Alattaq, who, as a compensation, received the loan of one of his rifles.

“Alattaq was good to her: he was a huge, peaceful giant who would not have hurt anybody. But Eqariussaq ran away from him and went back to her husband nearly every day, imploring him to let her return home. Saamik, however, was deaf to her appeals.”

On one occasion Rasmussen visited Saamik, and on leaving his home found Eqariussaq crying behind the hut. Rasmussen continues:

“Next day every one knew that Saamik, when she [Eqariussaq] came into his house that evening, had picked up his axe and thrown it at her. It had hit her and broken one of the bones in her foot.

“’Fool!’ people said, “not to be able to keep away from him!”

“Poor, barren woman! She lay for weeks suffering frightful pain in her crushed foot.

“But when the day came that she was able to get up again and walk, she will only have crawled back to the man who was ready to beat her and injure her.”

Eqariussaq – or Miss Bill – eventually departed permanently from Saamik. She remained with Alattaq for a time, and then married a hunter named Miteq. But neither of these unions produced a child either.

She travelled with Robert Peary’s expeditions. He called her his most expert seamstress. She sewed the fur coat that Matthew Henson wore on the famous 1909 trip on which Peary claimed to reach the North Pole.

Peter Freuchen, north Greenland’s most famous raconteur, wrote about a visit that he and his wife Navarana made to Eqariussaq when she was married to Miteq and living at Cape Seddon. Freuchen and Navarana were on their way to cross Melville Bay to visit a distant Danish outpost. Navarana had never been south of Melville Bay and was looking forward to the trip.

Of course, Navarana knew well that Eqariussaq had travelled even farther — all the way to America. One afternoon the two women took a stroll on the ice.

Suddenly Eqariussaq turned to Navarana and said:

“When you go to the white man’s country, be careful not to absorb too much of their spirit. If you do, it will cause you many tears, for you can never rid yourself of it.”

When Navarana told Freuchen this, he felt that he finally understood the young woman’s reticence to speak much about her year in America. “Poor woman!” he wrote. “I understood then that it was a desperate, hopeless longing that stilled her voice.”

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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