Taissumani: August 18, 1956 — Greenland Leaders Visit Baffin Island
West Greenlanders have always had a curiosity about their fellow Inuit on the other side of Davis Strait. But contact between Greenland and Canada was minimal. The last of many migrations of Greenlanders from Canada to Greenland, that led by the great Qillarsuaq, happened in historic times and was therefore minimally documented, beginning in the 1860s, but that migration ended in the Thule district of northwestern Greenland.
A few Inughuit from that district were employed by the RCMP in the High Arctic, beginning in the 1920s, but the little contact they had with Canadian Inuit was only with a few families from Pond Inlet, also employed farther north by the RCMP. In the 1920s, Knud Rasmussen led the Fifth Thule Expedition to Arctic America, but it bypassed southern Baffin and started on the west coast of Hudson Bay.
Ironically, then, West Greenland, where the bulk of the Greenland population lived, had no contact with southern Baffin Island. Each side knew of the other’s existence. Canadian Inuit called the Greenlanders “akukitturmiut” — the people with short tails on their parkas. Greenlanders referred to Canadian Inuit as “akilinermiut” — people on the other side of the water.
In the 1950s, a cultural awakening began. In 1952, N. O. Christensen, a senior official in the Greenland administration, visited northern Canada. Two years later, Jorgen Melgaard, a Danish archaeologist, and Robert Petersen, a Greenlandic scholar, visited Igloolik. Then the Greenland Council developed a plan for an official visit of Greenland’s cultural leaders to Baffin Island.
The trip finally took place in 1956, when the governor made available the small ship, H. J. Rink. It departed Nuuk on Aug. 15, accompanied by a larger cutter, Skarven, bound for Baffin.
On board, in addition to the two-man crew, were Peter Neilsen, a member of the Greenland Council; Frederik Nielsen, a writer and teacher; Uvdlorianguaq Kristiansen, a journalist; Knud Hertling, a lawyer; and Robert Petersen, a teacher.
On Aug. 18, their dream was realized when they reached Pangnirtung. Frederik Nielsen wrote about the visit:
“The people of Pangnirtung greeted us with both friendliness and interest. We visited them often in their tents and were always welcome. The first day that we were with them, a gathering was held on a grassy area in front of the store and all the residents, both Eskimo and Canadian [white] came. The meeting began with a blast from an old whaling cannon. Peter Nielsen spoke, and brought greetings to the people from their fellow Inuit in Greenland. The community’s Eskimo leader, Kilabuk, answered with a speech and presented gifts — a skin rug and two dolls clad in Inuit winter clothing. After that, a letter from the community council in Godthab [Nuuk] was read, in which they requested that Pangnirtung become twinned with Godthab. A tremendously good idea, which came to pass when Pangnirtung agreed. We then sang one of our Greenlandic songs in harmony, and the Pangnirtuumiut responded with a hymn…”
In this way Pangnirtung and Nuuk became twin towns.
The expedition continued on to Frobisher Bay, as Iqaluit was then known. Nielsen reported that there were about 300 Inuit in Frobisher Bay, living in tents like those in Pangnirtung. But life in Frobisher Bay was strongly influenced by the presence of white Canadians and Americans. In place of soapstone lamps, the people used primus stoves and gas ovens, and many of the tents had proper beds, tables and even linoleum.
The five Greenlanders returned home excited about having made contact with their fellow Inuit. Nielsen wrote that they hoped that the Pangnirtuumiut would make a visit to Nuuk in the future. Fifty years later, the esteemed Robert Petersen is the only one of the group still living. A retired professor, he visited Canadian Inuit often during the remainder of his academic career. He lives in Denmark today, retired, but has an ongoing interest in circumpolar affairs.
Fifty years later, Greenlanders and Canadian Inuit remain almost as isolated from one another as they were when five young, educated and idealistic Greenlanders made their treacherous crossing of Davis Strait. Twenty years of regularly scheduled flights between Iqaluit and Greenland ended in 2001 when First Air/Greenlandair cancelled their joint route. What remains are chartered flights, priced out of the reach of most people. In the interim, trade agreements and memoranda of understanding have been signed between the governments of Nunavut and Greenland. What remains is for the re-establishment of an air link to reunite people of a common culture and language.
(I want to acknowledge the assistance of Hugh Lloyd in the preparation of this article.)
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.