Niviatsarnaq, also known as Shoofly. Her facial tattoos are not authentic. They were drawn on her face at the suggestion of Capt. George Comer, who wanted to document a style of facial tattooing. (Photo from A. P. Low, The Cruise of the Neptune, in Library and Archives Canada, PA-53548)

Niviatsarnaq and Angutimmarik

By Kenn Harper

On Southampton Island in 1922, Mathiassen ran afoul of a powerful Inuit woman — he called her the group’s “evil genius” — who urged her husband to kill the Danish archeologist. She claimed that his behaviour had violated certain taboos and caused illness in their camp.

She was Niviatsarnaq. Then probably in her late sixties, she had led an interesting life at the junction of two cultures.

The American whaling captain, George Comer, had spent considerable time in northwestern Hudson Bay two decades before the arrival of the Fifth Thule Expedition.

He lived for a time with an Inuit woman, Ukkuq, by whom he had one child, Pamiulik. Ukkuq died giving birth to Comer’s second child; the baby did not survive.

After Ukkuq’s death, her sister, Niviatsarnaq, lived aboard ship as Comer’s northern “wife” whenever the captain was in the country.

Comer had a qallunaaq wife back home in East Haddam, Conn. Niviatsarnaq was one of two wives of an Inuit man, Auqqajaq, who worked with Comer and saved his life in 1894 when Comer fell through thin ice.

Niviatsarnaq and Auqqajaq had one child, Aullanaaq, who rescued Mathiassen and Olsen at Southampton Island in 1923.

Joe Curley, the son of another Inuk who worked for whalers, said he didn’t know how many years Comer and Niviatsarnaq were together but “whenever he came up here, she would travel with the captain. They were looked upon as man and wife.”

Most whalers were incapable of pronouncing Inuit names correctly. Instead they gave them nicknames. That’s why they called Auqqajaq by the name Ben. His son Aullanaaq was known as John L., after a famous boxer, John L. Sullivan. He is the progenitor of today’s many Ell families in the eastern Arctic.

Of course, Niviatsarnaq was also given a nickname. She was called Shoofly, after a popular American song, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me.”

Auqqajaq’s death in 1905 occurred the same year that Comer departed for the south after a two-year wintering. The following year, he wrecked his well-known ship, the Era, off Newfoundland on his way north. He would return the following year with another ship, the A. T. Gifford.

By then Niviatsarnaq had taken a new husband. He was Angutimmarik, a powerful shaman who had worked for many years for Scottish whalers in the bay. He was known to them as Scotch Tom. They were living on Southampton Island when Mathiassen met them.

Mathiassen thought Angutimmarik was a “highly respected shaman,” but noted that he had a high estimation of his own worth.

He told Mathiassen: “As to myself, I believe I am a better shaman than others among my countrymen. I will venture to say that I hardly ever make a mistake in the things I investigate and in what I predict. And I therefore consider myself a more perfect, a more fully trained shaman than those of my countrymen who often make mistakes.”

Inuit interviewed by Dorothy Eber in the 1980s remembered that Angutimmarik had a sophisticated understanding of illness.

One Inuit woman remarked, “I think everyone remembers that man. Nobody was ever to use his things.… In our camp a couple of people were really sick, and Angutimmarik began doing his magical things to discover who was causing the illness. After using his magic, he knew I had used his cup, and he told me I was not to do this because in this way he would pass all his germs to me.”

Angutimmarik and Niviatsarnaq were “militantly anti-Christian.” Angutimmarik told Mathiassen that, although some in Repulse Bay had become Christians, he himself knew nothing of Jesus and as long as he knew nothing of him, he would stick with his old ways.

He said that the Scottish whaler, John Murray, had made fun of him and said that shamans did not speak the truth. But, he told the Dane, Murray had once said to Iteruuseq, a shaman, “Take out your two big front teeth without touching them to show that you are a shaman.”

One of the man’s teeth fell out. Murray then took hold of the other one but couldn’t budge it, but shortly after it fell out too.

Both Catholics and Anglicans established mission stations on Southampton Island in 1926. The following year, Father Fafard commented on the extraordinary influence that Niviatsarnaq exerted on all the Inuit of the island. He called her by her nickname, Shoofly, and said she was the queen of Southampton Island.

She was an excellent seamstress, and he reported that she had created a sewing school where she taught several girls. Her waterproof sealskin boots were said to be the best. She was the first woman in her community to have a sewing machine.

Joe Curley, Angutimmarik’s son by another mother, said, “She was a wise person… People looked to her for advice… She was regarded as one of the leaders among our people.”

Even men came to ask Niviatsarnaq’s advice on various matters. In fact, she was so influential that Angutimmarik became jealous of her prestige.

Another priest, reporting what he had heard from Father Fafard, wrote: “When he [Angutimmarik] had puppies, he kept a young female and called her ‘Shoofly.’ When she was six months old, he harnessed her and delighted in whipping her repeatedly, shouting each time ‘Shooflyruluk! (wretched Shoefly).’”

The northern family kept in touch with Comer in his eventual retirement. John Ell — Aullanaaq — wrote to him in 1933, thanking him for a box of items sent the previous summer and giving him the sad news that his mother was in failing health.

He wrote that he was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and had purchased a large boat, and he asked for three barrels of gasoline and some Winchester rifles.

“If you send me this, I will be very glad,” he closed.

Niviatsarnaq — the famous Shoofly — passed away in the 1930s, Angutimmarik in the 1940s.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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(13) Comments:

  1. Posted by Manitok on

    If only those Inuit were alive to correct. angutimmarik was my father – Mikitok ‘s grandfather and he adored him. He was trained under angutimarik to survive. I think my father would be hurt by some I formation here. All of this information is from the point of view of non aboriginals and especially priests. Most of non aboriginals we know have been known to have a few wives themselves too.

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    • Posted by iWonder on

      What is the essential difference to you between an aboriginal vs a non-aboriginal historian that makes the former a more trustworthy, or accurate source than the latter?

      Is it possible to disagree with Kenn, without refencing his ethnicity or race as the source of his error (assuming he is mistaken at all)?

      What will you say when you disagree with an indigenous historian; they are from the wrong community, wrong family?

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      • Posted by Maybe on

        I do not know the basis for the criticism above but I think that people recording information about another culture, depending on their level of understanding and respect for the culture in question, will have a more or less accurate depiction of the culture and/or history. I think that this column points at some examples of that from time to time (references to the experience and knowledge of sources). So, the source is really important. Is is Rasmussen or a newly arrived priest or captain who does not have much knowledge of the culture or has an ideological agenda? I think the same principle applies to anyone describing anything; their knowledge and understanding of the topic really influences the validity of what they are describing, and their honesty in identifying unknowns and their possible biases is also important.

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        • Posted by iWonder on

          Thanks for your comment.

          Mea culpa… In retrospect I probably reacted to and misinterpreted Manitok’s original statement. So, while I think my question remains valid on a broad scale it is also, admittedly, a bit of a strawman in the context of what was said.

          We can probably assume everyone, regardless of background, has some kind of bias in some direction; this need not be an admission that there are always sinister forces serving an “ideological agenda” beneath all and any account of a particular event or observation.

          Granted, people can be plain wrong and their lack of cultural understanding can obviously lead to strange renderings of things. On the other hand, an individual who might record events from within their culture is no less susceptible biases that prioritize a narrative above something we might call objective (I don’t know if that is the best word here, but it must be at least close to it).

          For example, a Christian historian is likely to interpret events through a lens that is finely calibrated to perceive the broad forces of history being guided by the supernatural. An outsider, by contrast, is more (likely) well positioned to offer an understanding of events that map more plausibly onto known patterns of human behavior and psychology. Which would you prefer?

          My point was directed at what I took to be a kind of race essentialism in who gets to report history, or who can be trusted to report it. Outsiders can be great observers of a culture to which they do not belong, there is immense value in the histories of Alexis de Tocqueville, Gontran de Poncins or Knud Rasmussen.

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  2. Posted by Arctic Bookworm Club on

    Great read, Kenn.. thank you for these.

    I wonder if you would consider writing out a list of recommended reading for any aspiring Arctic historians out there, amateur or even the real deal.

    Thank you again!

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  3. Posted by Jeff Hunter on

    I find Mr. Harper’s contributions to the Nunatsiaq News to be extremely interesting and I hope they continue to appear. All historical recordings and interpretations are subject to some degree of bias, whether it be five minutes since the occurrence, five decades, or five centuries.

    Although I recognize that Nunavummiut may not take kindly to recordings of their history, they are in a sense fortunate to have them. Many first nations cultures in Canada do not have a record of their first encounter with outside culture, and certainly not an account of (albeit, possibly biased view) of their societies prior to widespread context. This fortunately is not the case with Nunavut.

    You have to recognize that texts written many years ago have inherent bias in them, and need to be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak. They are not going to be impartial, totally unbiased accounts of anything that occurred.

    I think Mr. Harper does an excellent job of relaying the content of these old texts into easy-to-read copy that is accessible to all. But even the “new” translation needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Respectfully.

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    • Posted by WestKit on

      Tuharnaarnaqtuq, quana. We were last to be introduced to the outside world but fasted for degradation of many cultural practices. Little is known now or passed on. Appreciate the reading, whether or not it is absolutely correct. Time is a fuzzy interpreter.

  4. Posted by Respect and Open Mind on

    Since it’s beginning, I’ve always loved reading Mr. Harper text. I receive it with a fully open mind and amazing respect for the rich Inuit history knowing that it’s coming from the interpretation, false or true, of the Qablunaat who were lucky enough to witness the millenary Inuit traditions while it was still untouched and influenced by southern culture.

    But what I like most is when Inuit closely related or aware of the story of these great Inuit characters joint the conversation and share with us their part of the missing history !

    All we see lately is people arguing about their side and their thruth of a story…I wish we would just received it as great gift that opens a constructive and rich discussion to bring people closer together and learn from each other.

    Long life to Taissumani and all “Inuit Culture Lovers” like Mr. Harper !

  5. Posted by Descendant on

    Aullannaaq and Qunguliq (my name sake) worked at the HBC during the mid thirties. That is how they adopted my father, Jackie, from Charlotte who was the daughter of Sam Ford, HBC Post Manager and his wife, Mary Edmunds. who was part Inuk. Sam Ford’s family migrated from Europe and lived in Labrador prior to taking the post duties and relocating to Southampton Island. There are still families of the Fords and the Edmunds that live in that province at Northwest River. Aullannaa-John Ell, was Angutimmarik’s, Ben Ell’s son.
    Joe Qajaaqjjuaq Curley was my grandfather and Tarralik, my grandmother on mother’s side. They would be the Aivilingmiut families of Coral Harbour who had migrated there from the Inuit of Igulik and possibly the Inuit of Arctic Bay and Mittimatalik later on, after the pandemic at which all the prior Dorset Inuit there had perished but for four people who were relocated to Naujaat. There was much whaling then and often people stopped over on Southampton Inlet on their trips north and south of there. It was thought the Inuit decided to stay behind on the island once the whalers began heading back to their own lands. The Inuit were hired by the whalers and travelled with them on their hunts in the seasons.

    • Posted by Respect and Open Mind on

      Thanks a lot for sharing your family story ! It’s really great and appreciated that you took time to put it in writing for all readers like me who never have enough of the amazing Inuit History.

  6. Posted by “Has Been Hunter” on

    Have read parts of the 5th Thule Expedition written by Rasmussen. He states the first Canadian Inui he met were led by a man named Papak. In later searches, it was Angutimmarik he first met. Was his other name Papak? And if Nivisinnaaq had concerns about members of the group, then it may be unwritten that there was more that transpired during that long expedition than was written.

  7. Posted by visitor on

    A Well written piece, as authentic as can be found anywhere no doubt the photo of Niviatsarnaq brings us back to a different time. People are by nature curious and like to know of their roots, good stuff.

  8. Posted by Qajarjuaq on

    As the grandson of Joe Qajaajjuaq Curley, and avid reader of all things in this time period, I find the new presence of the RCNWMP at Cape Fullerton in 1903′ – started causing friction between the American and Scottish whalers on what was deemed “a free for all” in Roe’s welcome sound was soon to come to an end.

    thus the move to South Hampton wishing for a quick turn around by Comer – but then the tragic timing of the “Era” sinking, forcing a two year absence Is strikingly at the same time the 120 or so Inuit remaining at the time – dropped if I can say without pun “like flies”,

    that is what I find the true tragedy

    The tragedy of South Hampton is something our “whaling” families never recovered from in the transition into a world that would see 2 world wars and the rise of Canadian politics as well as the disappeance of all forms of Whaing and the goods and bad it brought.

    These photos remind me that there is much more to teach about the pioneers (on both sides) that lead to that very outcome…

    Beautiful read, Nakkurmiik Kenn.

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