Taissumani, March 29

The Rock at Durban Harbour


When I was a very young man, I transferred from Qikiqtarjuaq (then Broughton Island) to the remote island of Padloping, as teacher in the one-room school there. (The Inuktitut spelling of the island’s name is Paallakvik.) During my first year in the Arctic, I had already developed an insatiable interest in northern history, and Inuit language and culture. Padloping, I thought, would give me an opportunity to increase my language skills and learn more about the North.

Padloping is a small island, about six or seven miles long and perhaps two miles wide, off the east coast of Baffin Island, about 65 miles south of Qikiqtarjuaq, on the edge of Davis Strait. Farther east is Greenland. I had with me a well-thumbed book, The Norse Atlantic Saga, by Gwyn Jones, which told of the ancient Norse settlements in Greenland, a population that had disappeared sometime near the middle of the last millennium. There was speculation that some of the lost settlers may have headed west, to Baffin Island.

The book had a few illustrations, and some were of a runic inscription found on the Greenland coast. One day, when Eliyah Qakulluk was visiting me, he perused the book, looking carefully at the pictures — for he could not read English. Eliyah was a frequent visitor to my home, actually an apartment attached to the school, for the school with its appendages was the only building in the settlement that had electricity. Eliyah and others liked to visit, listen to my record player, and look at my books.

Eliyah gazed at the runic inscription. I asked him if he had ever seen anything like that in or around Padloping. He told me that he had — that there was a boulder bearing a similar inscription on the edge of a bay 20 miles or so away.

I was excited. There had been stories about such an inscription on or near Padloping. One was that a white man in Padloping, in the days when the United States Air Force ran a weather station there, had found a rock with a runic inscription, and turned it face down to preserve it. The story is likely apocryphal, but in any case such a rock lying face down in the Arctic would never be found again.

But the rock that Eliyah described was different. He talked about a large boulder standing quite visible near the shoreline at a place called “Kisarvik.” Other men of the community confirmed his story. They showed me on a map where it was located – on an island about ten miles east of our village.

In the spring, when the light was good, Jacopie Kokseak, Simo Alookie and Eliyah took me to see the rock that had had my interest all through the winter. I was filled with excitement, fully expecting that I was about to be the first modern-day qallunaaq to “discover”, and reveal to an unsuspecting world, a runic inscription on the Canadian coast. (“Discover,” I learned later, was a poor word to describe what I thought was about to happen, for the Inuit had always known about this boulder and its strange inscription.)

We stopped our snowmobiles on the ice and the Inuit pointed out the boulder on shore. It wasn’t gigantic, but it was big enough to attract attention from the sea. If there was an inscription on this boulder, then the boulder itself was clearly intended to be a landmark, to attract attention.

With my camera slung around my neck, I approached the rock, eager to document my find. As I got closer, I could see that an inscription had been cut deeply into the face of the rock. Numbers! And letters! But – what was this? They were English letters!

I was dismayed. This was not a runic inscription, I explained to Jacopee and the others. But what was it? And who could have carved it?

The Inuit had an explanation. The inscription was not in Inuktitut syllabics, so it had to have been done by a white man. They concluded that it must have been done by Sivutiksaq. But this served to only deepen the mystery. I had never heard the name Sivutiksaq before. He was apparently a qallunaaq. But who was he?

There were no answers that day, on the shores of Durban Harbour, only questions. The answers would have to wait. But when they came, they were significant.

Next Week – Some Answers

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 [email protected].

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