Akilineq, The Great Trading Place

Taissumani: 2008-05-16

By Kenn Harper

By the fall of 1921 the members of the Fifth Thule Expedition, the great ethnographic expedition of Danes and Greenlanders to the Inuit of the Central Canadian Arctic, was settled into its headquarters in Foxe Basin near Repulse Bay.

The following spring, their work began in earnest. Leader Knud Rasmussen and a small party travelled by sled to Baker Lake and from there south to find the then-nomadic "Inland Eskimo."

Although Rasmussen and his group did not travel west from Baker Lake, he did learn much from the Inuit he met there about that little-known land. The Thelon was a river of mystery that led far inland through a chain of lakes – Shultz, Aberdeen and Beverly – until it petered out far to the west in Dene territory.

Pukerluk, one of the Inuit men he met, drew Rasmussen a map of the area. Remarkable in its detail, it contains 47 place names. One of those names is the legendary Akilineq.

(Akilineq is Rasmussen's Greenlandic spelling. I'll use it here because Rasmussen's writings are the main source of information on this fascinating place. The Canadian Inuktitut spelling would differ only slightly – Akiliniq.)

Akilineq is a common-enough Inuit place name. It means simply "the land on the other side of water."

But there is only one "Akilineq" that is accorded historical significance. And that is Akilineq on the Thelon, a ridge along the north side of the river. Rasmussen remarked, "Akilineq is not a river, as has been supposed, but a ridge, which has received its name… because the Eskimo used to have their camps down by the river on the opposite side to the bank where the Akilineq hills lay."

Pukerluk, the cartographer, told Rasmussen that the further one came up towards the big lakes towards Akilineq, bird life and the herds of caribou became more abundant. Other necessities were also to be had in the vicinity.

One place was known as "Tibjalik" – the place with something washed up. That name too was common, but in the world of the people of the Thelon, it referred to Beverly Lake or part of it. The objects washed up were tree trunks. Farther upstream, where the Thelon in full flow flooded its banks in spring, fir trees were ripped up by the roots and carried downriver into Beverly Lake where they were left high and eventually dry on the lakeshore when the river subsided.

These trees dried quickly and could be used almost immediately. They were therefore highly sought after by Inuit from far and wide. Rasmussen noted that it was this area that supplied timber to all the inland Inuit, the Inuit of the Hudson Bay coast and those to the north along the eastern part of the Arctic coast, what we today would call the eastern Kitikmeot region.

This was a boon to Inuit who, at that time, had a natural aversion to forests. Napaartut, those that stand upright, were the forests, and they were looked upon as living beings who were simply unable to speak.

As in "Lord of the Rings," the forests could be heard whispering in the night when the wind rustled their ­branches. "All the peculiar mysterious sounds one hears when one goes into a forest are the cause of their being regarded as living beings," Pukerluk told Rasmussen, beings "which merely have a tongue or language that is different from that of man."

Akilineq itself is a low range of hills, a landmark for the camp on the opposite shore of the river, for this was a great trading place. Let Rasmussen describe its significance:

"In former days Akilineq was the place of assembly for all Eskimos from the interior and from the coast areas at Hudson Bay, Kuugjuaq (Churchill), Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield), Kidlinermiut (the Arctic coast and Victoria Land) and Netsilingmiut. The folks who came with trade goods, which in particular consisted of nails and pieces of iron, and now and then a rare valuable such as a real knife, were those who had traded at Kuugjuak."

Inuit collected the much-desired wood for sledges and kayak frames, and bartered with each other for "thongs of the bearded seal, and footwear like that of the coast dwellers, as well as dogs and the like…"

Perhaps Dene from the west were occasional participants in this festival of trade, for not far away on Pukerluk's map is a location he marked as "itqileet nunaat" – the land of the Indians. He told Rasmussen that it was a locality where ­Indians were often met.

Great festivals occurred in connection with the meetings at Akilineq. Drum dances and song contests were held. ­Families and old friends reunited for a short time in the arctic summer. Marriages were arranged, births celebrated, and deaths mourned. Ancient rivalries were also reignited, and sometimes the festivities came to tragic ends when ­unresolved differences resulted in bloodshed, what ­Rasmussen described as "pitched battles" and "war between the tribes."

Akilineq, the great meeting place, diminished in importance when the Hudson's Bay Company built trading posts throughout the Arctic. It lives today in memory.

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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