Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 04, 2011 - 4:21 pm

Taissumani, Jan. 7

Sinnisiak and Uluksuk – Part 1

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

In the summer of 1913 two Oblate missionaries, Father Jean-Baptiste Rouvière, who had served four years among the Dogrib and Hareskin Indians at Fort Good Hope, and Father Guillaume LeRoux, a man described as highly educated, a gentleman and a philosopher, but given to frequent expression of hot temper, left the Roman Catholic mission at Fort Norman on the Mackenzie River to go northeast to proselytize among the Inuit of the Arctic coast, the people popularized by the explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, as the Copper Eskimos.
The priests were in a hurry — reports had reached Fort Norman that a Church of England missionary was moving into Coronation Gulf, and the Catholics were rushing to forestall him.

Soon, though, reports began to reach Fort Norman that Inuit had been seen wearing priest’s cassocks. When the priests were never heard from again, it was feared they had been murdered.

Catholic authorities requested that the Royal Northwest Mounted Police investigate. So in June of 1915, Inspector Charles Deering (“Denny”) LaNauze, described as a handsome, strapping, young man, six feet tall and magnificently built, set out to investigate.

LaNauze was well-educated and had a reputation for fairness. He was accompanied by two constables and an Inuit interpreter, Ilavinik, who was made a special constable for the investigation. 

In fact, the two priests had been murdered in November of 1913, only a few months after leaving Fort Norman.  LaNauze learned of the events from Koeha, an elder of the Copper Inuit.

Koeha told the policeman what had happened, using the Inuit names that the Inuit had given to the two priests, Kuleavik for Rouvière and Ilagoak for LeRoux.

His story went like this: At an Inuit camp there had been trouble between LeRoux and an Inuk named Kormik, who had stolen a rifle from one of the priests and hidden it. When the priest discovered the theft, angry words were exchanged.

Kormik wanted to kill the priest on the spot, and Koeha himself had helped LeRoux escape. But two days after the priests left Kormik’s camp, two young men, Uluksuk and Sinnisiak, set out to follow them. Koeha recounted:

“They went to a place near Bloody Falls… on the west bank of the Coppermine River. They were all walking along, Sinnisiak took a knife, and stabbed Ilagoak in the back. Kuleavik started to run away and Sinnisiak told Uluksuk, ‘You finish this man, I will shoot the other.’ Sinnisiak grabbed the white man’s rifle and shot Kuleavik… I asked Uluksuk, ‘What did you kill the white men for?’ and he said, ‘I did not want to kill them; Sinnisiak told me to kill them.’ I asked him if he eat any part of the man, the same as he would do if he killed caribou, and he said, ‘I eat some of his guts.’”

Other Inuit recounted their version of the events to LaNauze with considerable hesitation. They were afraid. John Hornby, another white man who had traveled through their land, had once told them that if they killed a white man, white men would come and kill them all.

In the spring of 1916, LaNauze finally arrested the two suspects without resistance at Coronation Gulf. Sinnisiak voluntarily gave a statement: “Ilagoak was carrying a rifle. He was mad with us when we had started back from their camp, and I could not understand his talk… I asked Ilagoak if he was going to kill me, and he nodded his head.”

Despite this misunderstanding, they continued to travel together.

Sinnisiak continued his story: “We went a little way and Uluksuk and I started to talk and Ilagoak put his hand on my mouth. Ilagoak was very mad and was pushing me. I was thinking hard and crying and very scared… I wanted to go back, but I was afraid. I got hot inside my body and every time Ilagoak pulled out the rifle I was very much afraid…. I said to Uluksuk, ‘I think they will kill us; I can’t get back now, I was thinking I will not see my people any more, I will try and kill him…’”

After another altercation between the priest and Sinnisiak, involving more pushing and shoving by the priest, Sinnisiak acted. “Then Ilagoak turned around and saw me,” he said.

“He looked away from me and I stabbed him in the back with a knife. I then told Uluksuk, ‘You take the rifle,’ Ilagoak ran ahead of the sled and Uluksuk went after him… Uluksuk and Ilagoak were wrestling for the rifle, and after that Uluksuk finished up Ilagoak.

“The other man ran away when he saw Ilagoak die… I then said to Uluksuk, ‘Give me the rifle.’ He gave it to me. The first time I shot I did not hit him, the second I got him. The priest sat down when the bullet hit him. I went after him with the knife, when I was close to him…. The father fell down on his back. Uluksuk struck first with the knife and did not strike him; the second time he got him. The priest lay down and was breathing a little, when I struck him across the face with an axe I was carrying. I cut his legs with the axe. I killed him dead.”

Each man ate a piece of LeRoux’s liver.

LaNauze listened patiently to Sinnisiak’s tale. At Bernard Harbour, he sat as Justice of the Peace and committed Sinnisiak and Uluksuk to stand trial. He escorted them to Herschel Island, from there they were taken to Edmonton.

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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