Norman Smith, A Son of Labrador

Taissumani: 2007-11-30

By Kenn Harper

Norman Smith was half-Inuk, but he never saw any part of the north.

His mother was Esther Enutseak, who left Labrador in 1892 at the age of 15 to take part in the Chicago World's Fair. Esther was the mother of the famous Nancy Columbia, about whom I have written before.

Esther and her family (including her parents and her children) became professional show people, travelling the world, making their money by "exhibiting" in "Eskimo" villages and shows at fairs and circuses. Nancy was, for two decades, the most famous and most photographed Inuk in the world. But her siblings were less well-known.

At the end of the Pan-American Exposition, usually known as the Buffalo World's Fair, the promoter, Ralph Taber, who had been long associated with the Labrador Inuit exhibits, left them, and their management was taken over by John Smith. This is the type of name that researchers dread, for there can be nothing more frustrating than trying to learn more about a man with the most common name in the English-speaking world.

John Smith managed Esther's family at the Charleston, South Carolina Exposition, which followed the Buffalo one, and then took the family to New York where they ran an attraction called "Trip to the North Pole" at Coney Island, the largest amusement park in America.

Norman Thomas Smith was born into this midway milieu on Sept. 23, 1903. From his birth until he was a teenager, he grew up in sideshows, midways and amusement attractions.

In 1904, he and his family participated in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, then returned to New York in December for the "Miniature World's Fair" at Madison Square Gardens. The following year there was a short exhibition at Huber's Museum and then a return to Coney Island with an exhibition called "New York to the North Pole."

Late in 1905, they appeared at a major exhibition in Portland, Oregon, and two years later in Jamestown, Virginia. Then they were off to Jacksonville, followed by a short time living in Ketchikan, Alaska. In 1909, when he was six, Norman and his family were a major attraction at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in Seattle. The next year the entire family plus two other Labrador Inuit who had travelled with them since 1901 set off for Germany where they spent two years.

In 1912, Norman and his family returned to the United States. By this time, the family had grown. He now had another sister and two brothers. They settled in Seattle for a time, but show business beckoned again and they moved to Santa Monica, where they opened an Eskimo Village at Fraser's Pier, a major tourist area.

Then it was over. Late in 1915, fire destroyed their attraction, along with many other exhibits. John Smith couldn't afford to rebuild. The show business life, the only life that young Norman had ever known, was over. John Smith found work as a taxidermist and then ran a cigar store, but the family was poor.

But Norman persevered, completed high school, and then attended college. He had his heart set on being a teacher. He started teaching at a high school in the Los Angeles area when he was 25. He taught English, Special Education classes, and coached football, track and baseball.

Throughout his teaching career he was known as "Coach." He taught school for 41 years except for a short break in his career when he took a job as a corrections officer at Folsom Prison. When he returned to teaching it was to be vice-principal at a high school in the mountains of northern California.

Norman Smith was a small man, only about five feet, four inches tall. He was very talkative and outgoing and his face usually bore a warm smile. His first marriage, to a woman whom he married right out of high school, ended in divorce. His second wife died.

Then in 1990, at the age of 86 he married again. The marriage took place in Mexico and was not valid in United States, so he and his wife, Sarah, remarried again in 1995, only three months before Norman's death. Throughout his three marriages, he had no children.

Norman's widow told me that he sometimes talked about his childhood and his life in the "circus." He sometimes reminisced about the time the family spent at the shows in Europe. "But he talked mostly about coaching football," she told me. "Coaching was his great love. He had no children. His only family were the boys he coached in track and football."

Norman's retirement from teaching lasted 26 years. Not one to sit around, he became a photographer and stringer for the Inter-Mountain News in Burney, California. He worked for the paper until just before his death at the age of 91. One day, not feeling well, he took time off work to go to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and died four days later.

Norman Smith spent his childhood as a "professional Eskimo." He saw much of the world but never saw Labra­dor. His ashes were scattered over the Pacific.

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

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