The Mysterious 'Iisilantimiut'

Taissumani: 2008-12-05

By Kenn Harper

Southern Greenland was colonized over 1,000 years ago by Norsemen (and women) from Iceland. Having settled first in the southern fjords of the island, they expanded northwards to establish permanent settlements in the Nuuk area. Extended hunting trips took them even farther north.

In recent decades, Norse artifacts have been found in Baffin Island, near Kimmirut and Pond Inlet, and far to the north on an island off the coast of Ellesmere Island.

I've always been interested in the wanderings of these brave Norse refugees from Iceland. And almost 30 years ago I thought, for a brief and exciting time, that I had stumbled upon a linguistic artifact of their presence on Baffin Island.

I was researching the story of the killing of Robert Janes by Inuit in north Baffin Island in 1920. The hunter who had pulled the trigger that fired the bullet that killed the Newfoundland trader so many years earlier was Nuqallaq, but he had died in 1925. His young widow, Ataguttiaq, had lived on for another six decades.

In the early 1980s, I was talking with Ataguttiaq, by then a quite elderly woman, in her comfortable home in Pond Inlet. I suppose I was really interviewing her, but my interviews were seldom formal. I rarely used a tape recorder, preferring to take notes during relaxed conversations, punctuated by the requisite numerous cups of tea that were standard fare in Inuit households.

These conversations were more noted for their digressions than for sticking to any particular subject. On the day in question, in response to a comment of mine, Ataguttiaq referred to people she called "Iisilantimiut."

My heart raced. This was a perfect rendition of how an Inuktitut-speaker would transform the word "Iceland" into Inuktitut, and add the suffix "miut" meaning "the people of." Had I stumbled upon a linguistic vestige of an ancient memory of the Greenland Norse, originally from Iceland, and their visits to Baffin Island?

I thought I had, for the reference was to when the "Iisilantimiut" had come on ships to the Pond Inlet area, staying only for short periods of time. To me, this was of earth-shaking importance, a remembered word that would corroborate the archaeological record!

My excitement lasted about 10 minutes. Further questioning revealed that the "Iisilantimiut" had arrived with the "arvagasuaqtiit – the bowhead whalers – on Scottish whaling ships. Clearly then, these events had happened in the 1800s, and not six, seven or more centuries earlier.

But who were these mysterious "Iisilantimiut" of whom Ataguttiaq spoke? I searched my memory for what I knew of Scottish whalers in High Arctic waters. And then I made the connection.

I knew that Scottish whalers referred to the Inuit of Baffin Island in their journals as the Westlanders – the people on the western shores of Davis Strait. If the people of Baffin were the Westlanders, then the Inuit of the Greenland coast must be the Eastlanders.

Inuit on Baffin must have learned this word from the whalers, and modified it to the sounds of Inuktitut. Coincidentally, "the people of the Eastland" would be rendered into Inuktitut as "Iisilantimiut," exactly the same as would "the people of Iceland," the word I thought I had heard.

Indeed, in subsequent reading of whaling literature, I found scattered references to the Eastland and the Eastlanders, and they clearly referred to Greenland and the Inuit who lived there. The word was once common.

George Tyson, a whaling captain, wrote in 1878 of the Inuit of Cumberland Sound, "I have had several conversations with the Esquimaux in regard to their going with me to the East Land, as they always call the coast of Greenland."

Occasionally, Scottish whalers picked up Inuit from Greenland communities and took them along as assistants on whaling voyages bound for the Pond Inlet area. Occasionally, Inuit from both sides of Baffin Bay met – Eastlanders and Westlanders.

What Ataguttiaq had told me in casual conversation was a memory she had heard from her parents of one of these encounters, but she had used a very old word, a borrowed English term from the days of the whalers, to describe the Greenlanders. It's a word never heard today – a loan word that served its purpose and has passed out of use and probably, by now, out of memory.

This in itself was an exciting enough discovery for someone interested in language and in the intersection of whaling and Inuit culture. Just not as exciting as if it had been a memory of the ancient Norse in Baffin Island.

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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