Murder and mayhem on the tundra: Arctic historian’s next release

Kenn Harper focuses on crime and punishment for second Taissumani compilation


The cover for Kenn Harper's second Taissumani collection entitled

The cover for Kenn Harper’s second Taissumani collection entitled “In Those Days: Arctic Crime and Punishment.” Harper is hosting a book launch in Ottawa Oct. 27 and hopes to travel north for an Iqaluit launch at a later date. (PHOTO COURTESY INHABIT MEDIA)

When two Inuit named Alikomiak and Tatamigana were taken to Herschel Island to be tried for murdering several Inuit from their clan near present-day Cambridge Bay in 1920, and later an RCMP officer and a trader, it’s safe to say they didn’t get a fair trial.

Not only had their own defence lawyer written about their guilt in advance and said that they should be hanged to teach other Inuit a lesson in southern justice, the lumber to build the gallows accompanied the judge’s party when it left Edmonton. As did the hangman.

There’s even a story going around that the men were forced to dig their own graves prior to their execution.

The juicy details don’t end there, but we’ll let Kenn Harper fill you in on the rest.

Harper’s second collection of northern stories, based on Taissumani columns he wrote for Nunatsiaq News from 2005 to 2015, will be released at an Ottawa book launch Oct. 27.

Harper, an historian, author, entrepreneur and long-time Northerner who now lives in Ottawa, said he’s excited about the release of In Those Days: Arctic Crime and Punishment, the second in a series of Taissumani compilations published by Inhabit Media.

“I think these stories resonate with people in the North because it’s a window into what life was like back then, but it’s also an opportunity to talk about how the North has changed and what forces changed it,” he told Nunatsiaq News Oct. 23.

“And certainly the bringing of, let’s call it ‘white man’s justice’ to the North, changed Inuit interactions between each other and between them and white people, quite a bit.”

Book one of In Those Days, released in 2013, was subtitled Inuit Lives and featured profiles of interesting Inuit characters from history, another popular topic for northerners and southerners alike.

He said that after conferring with his colleagues at Inhabit Media, they decided that this time, stories around northern conflict — both before police and courts arrived in the North, and afterward — might entertain readers.

“Those events — the investigations that resulted and sometimes the trials that resulted — were very important in actually changing Inuit life,” Harper said.

“It was different from dealing with whalers and pre-Hudson Bay traders. These were people, police and judges, who could actually change your life.”

The book contains more than two dozen stories of murder, mayhem and cultural evolution from the days of Martin Frobisher’s journeys through the Arctic in the late 1500s to a story about a sitting Nunavut MLA, Isaac Shooyook, and how he came to shoot his mentally ill aunt, Soosee, in 1965.

In between, Harper brings ample research and rich storytelling skills to bear on 27 tales of conflict and resolution, usually between traditional Inuit and southerners.

Like the story of Harry Radford and George Street, two wealthy sportsmen who hatched an audacious plan to travel from the Northwest Territories to Chesterfield Inlet and back in 1909 to collect specimens for the United States Biological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution.

When Kaneak, one of their Arctic guides, quit guiding to care for his injured wife at Bathurst Inlet, Radford freaked out and attacked Kaneak with a dog whip and then held him over a hole in the ice as though he intended to drown him.

Other Inuit men who were present at the time grabbed Radford and stabbed him with a snow knife. When Street ran for his sled, they stabbed him too, worried that he was about to get his gun and shoot them.

After an investigation, RCMP Inspector Francis French concluded that the two men who did the actual stabbing — Amegealnik and Hululark — acted in self defence, according to Inuit law, and let them off with a warning.

But, Harper wrote, French told everyone present that this kind of leniency would not persist.

“If they killed or harmed white men again, he told them, ‘the culprits would be taken away and never return,’” Harper wrote.

“This was an ominous threat. As if to confirm it, an aging shaman told the police that he had observed a bad spirit following the police patrol’s sleds as they had come into camp.”

This won’t be the last in this compilation series, Harper said. He’s already planning book three of In Those Days which will likely focus on early whaling stories in the Arctic.

He may also consider doing a second volume of Inuit lives, since the first one was so popular.

If you’re in Ottawa Oct. 27, you can attend the book launch on the second floor of Octopus Books in Centretown, 251 Bank St., at 7:15 p.m.

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