Nunani: In the bones of the world (Part eight)


In 1824, the HMS Griper, under Captain G.F. Lyon, anchored off Cape Pembroke. The Cape was part of Coats Island, which is situated in the northernmost portion of Hudson Bay.

According to Lyon, the Griper was soon approached by a man riding a vessel composed of three inflated sealskins, held together by intestines, with a piece of whalebone fashioned as a paddle. The strange man was at once fearful and curious. Dealings with him led Lyon to go ashore, intrigued by this peculiar people, of, “…mild manners, quiet speech, and as grateful for kindness, as they were anxious to return it.”

The women, by his account, wore their hair twisted into a short club, hanging over each temple. They were tattooed. The men wore a huge ball of hair (“…as large as the head of a child…”) upon their forehead. They also wore murr-skin mitts, and polar-bear pants (the latter, as the northwest Greenlandic Inussuit people do, incidentally).

These people were known as the Sadlermiut, and they have left many of their stone cairns, houses, and graves upon Coats Island — having favoured angular shapes in their architecture. It seems that isolation upon their island had preserved their culture, an Arctic tradition far more ancient than any of those previously encountered by occidentals.

Unfortunately, the Sadlermiut have to be spoken of in the past tense, because they died out in the early part of the 20th century.

Traffic between these mysterious people and sailors seems to have been friendly, and there even exist writings from late 19th century whalers, applauding the bravery and strength of Sadlermiut hunters. Disease, as usual, is the villain here. From the time of contact, it whittled away at the Sadlermiut population, until by 1896 it was noted that only 70 of them remained.

The ultimate fate of the Sadlermiut is well known. In the fall of 1902, some of them visited a ship — the Active, a whaling vessel — that had made its stop at Southampton Island, a short distance to the northwest of Coats. They brought something back with them, something they had caught from a sick sailor aboard the Active: a disease that spread like a grease-fire, dealing its victims agony and death. Whether it was typhoid or typhus, by the time winter was upon Coats, the isle was silent and dead. As a people, the Sadlermiut were extinct.

The extinction of the Sadlermiut is a loss beyond the level of similar mass starvations or plague outbreaks, since it represents not only the death of a population, but of a people — an entire ethnicity. And the loss cuts even deeper with the realization that the Sadlermiut culture could have offered the rest of us a glimpse into the prehistoric past, into the Stone Age itself. It is a blow to the human race — to the very sciences based around its study.

For in 1954, Henry B. Collins was to speak of the, “largest aggregation of old Eskimo house ruins in the Canadian Arctic.” These he found at Native Point on Southampton Island, while working with the Smithsonian Institution. He determined that these ruins were characteristic of Sadlermiut culture, an indication that the Sadlermiut had once been quite numerous, and had long ago dwelled in lands other than Coats Island.

Throughout 1954 and ‘55, Collins studied the house ruins upon both islands, leading him to a discovery both startling and tragic in nature. He finally stated that he had, “found evidence that the Sadlermiut descended from the Dorsets — that they were in fact the last survivors of the Dorset culture.”

And if these had indeed been the last descendants of the Dorset culture, then they had also been the last of the Tunit.

To think, they had really been there — breathing the very air that our great-grandparents breathed — those people whose ancestors had seen the coming of the Thule, of those who would be the first to call themselves Inuit.

The death of these last Tunit truly leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, and yet it cannot dull my euphoria at the thought of this meeting of myth and fact. For such records of existent Tunit, living as recently as our last century, serves to bolster the credibility of Inuit folklore. It proves that Inuit have always known their world well — and forget nothing.

(Concluded next week.)

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