IPY 1882-3: The German Station in Cumberland Sound Part 2″

Taissumani: 2007-06-01

By Kenn Harper

(Continued from last week. In last week's article, the ship, Germania, brought a crew of German scientists to establish a research station at Sirmilik Bay in Cumberland Sound. The Germans hired one Inuk, Okkeituk, to work for them at the station.)


Okkeituk, who had a young wife and an 18-month-old daughter, had some knowledge of English, enough that he could act as interpreter for the scientists when other Inuit came to visit.

At first he and his family lived in a caribou skin tent near the station. Later in the winter they moved into a snow house. Once the weather had turned bitterly cold, Okkeituk made life easier for the scientists by building a snowblock passageway between their living quarters and the magnetic observation hut.

Most days he was busy hauling snow or, later, blocks of river ice, by dog sled, for the station's water supply. His weekly wages were five pounds of ship's biscuits, a quantity of tea, a cup of syrup and some tobacco. When the expedition left the following year, he was also given the Mauser rifle that he had used that winter, and a quantity of shells.

After freeze-up, the first of many Inuit visitors arrived on December 5. Okkeituk's father-in-law was among this small group, as was another man, Abbok, who had been to New York once as a reward for working for the whalers.

More Inuit arrived on December 22, to trade seal and caribou skins for tobacco. Christmas was a lonely time for the German scientists, but one of the Inuit cheered them up by providing them a caribou roast for Christmas dinner.

Shortly after Christmas, Okkeituk's baby took ill. Dr. Schleiphake of the German party attended to her in the family's tent, but to no avail. Two shamans arrived from Kekerten and performed rituals, which the Germans were not allowed to witness, but their efforts also failed. The little girl, whose name is unrecorded, died on January 5.

The day before she died Okkeituk built a new snowhouse. He knew that native custom dictated that, when she died, the family would have to abandon its dwelling and all its contents. Right after the baby's death, Okkeituk and his wife left for his father-in-law's camp to acquire new tools, weapons and equipment to replace the ones that they had left in the tent.

Because of the station's location, the sun disappeared on November 30 and did not reappear until January 14. This was a new phenomenon for the German scientists to experience. Characteristically, the coldest part of the winter was after the sun's return. That winter's lowest temperature of minus 49 degrees Celsius was recorded on March 2.

The immediate area of the camp was almost devoid of animals. All winter the scientists had seen only two ravens and a lemming. As spring approached a few arctic foxes were seen, but wolves could often be heard howling during the night.

As spring advanced, Okkeituk's second snowhouse of the winter collapsed. He fashioned a new tent using an old sail provided by the scientists. He and his wife felt deeply the loss of their daughter and so they adopted a three-year-old girl. Okkeituk continued hunting for fresh meat for the scientists and for his own family throughout the spring and early summer. In mid-summer, wanting to go on an extended char fishing and caribou hunting trip, he recruited an old man, Mitiq, to take his place at the station.

Spring had brought warmer weather, but the ice cover in this northwestern extremity of Cumberland Sound remained solid. A few of the scientists were able to enjoy the season by making survey trips by sled, accompanying Inuit, away from the station. By this time, Inuit reported, the whalers at Kekerten, farther down the sound, had already put their boats in the water to get ready for whaling.

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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