On to Nattilik country
On March 11, 1923, Knud Rasmussen began the trip he had dreamed of for so long.
He left Danish Island to head over the top of North America to Alaska to visit as many Inuit groups as he could, including many with little experience of the Qallunaat culture which would so rapidly encroach on their ways of living.
He would be accompanied on the entire journey by only two Inughuit, the young man Qaavigarsuaq and his female cousin, Arnarulunnguaq.
They had two long sleds of the type used by the Aivilingmiut, fitted with peat and ice shoeing, and each drawn by 12 dogs. Each sled carried about 500 kilograms of supplies, two-thirds of which was dog food; the rest was tea, coffee, flour, tobacco, goods to trade with Inuit, clothing, guns and ammunition.
A day earlier, his companions Anaaqaq and Aaqqiuq had left for Repulse Bay with a letter from Rasmussen for the Hudson’s Bay Company manager, George Cleveland, to try to sort out some difficulties between the two.
Rasmussen headed first for Repulse Bay where he made peace with Cleveland, then left with his party on March 18, heading northwest across Rae Isthmus.
Helge Bangsted and Anarqaaq, along with Taparte, Aua’s son-in-law, would accompany Rasmussen’s party as far as Pelly Bay, transporting additional supplies. Both Anarqaaq and Taparte were immigrant Nattilingmiut (sometimes spelled Netsilingmiut) who had relocated to Repulse Bay and could be expected to know the Nattlingmiut Inuit Rasmussen hoped to meet.
They reached Committee Bay on March 28 and there, in a snowstorm, they encountered Inuit.
Anarqaaq, who was outside repairing the snowhut, removed the snowblock from the doorway and shouted in that he had seen men. Rasmussen rushed outside and saw two “stoutly built men” approaching the camp.
Meeting strangers was a serious matter in this land. The men carried snowknives and harpoons. Rasmussen, unarmed, approached them and greeted them in their own language, “You can put your weapons away! We are peaceful people who have come to visit your country.”
The Inuit were astonished to be greeted by a stranger in their own language, and the greeting broke the ice.
“We are just ordinary people, and you need expect no harm from us,” they replied.
The two men were father and son, Orpingalik and Kanajuq, members of the Arviligjuarmiut group of Nattilik Inuit. They were on their way to Repulse Bay to trade their fox pelts for guns and ammunition. They were curious to know all about the trio of strangers who had appeared unexpectedly in their land and shared their language.
Rasmussen and his party soon decamped and moved, at Orpingalik’s invitation, to the latter’s camp, two interconnected snowhouses accommodating eight people.
Rasmussen, whom Canadian Inuit called Kunu, stayed with Orpingalik’s extended family for eight days “as he proved to be pleasant and interesting.”
He wrote of the occasion, “We met as if we had known one another for years, and an encounter between old friends could not have been more cordial.”
British explorers had previously encountered the Nattilingmiut in the 1800s, but their interests had been largely confined to collecting geographical information and learning what the Inuit knew about the fate of the missing Franklin expedition.
Rasmussen’s goal was quite different. He wanted to record the social life and the religious beliefs of the Inuit before both were irrevocably altered by an expected influx of white traders.
Orpingalik was a shaman who was held in high esteem, well versed in the old traditions of his people, intelligent and witty. He was an expert archer and the quickest kayaker of all his people in pursuing caribou at the river crossings.
Rasmussen’s interest was primarily in folk tales and he collected many from his host.
Orpingalik was more than a shaman. He was also a poet. Rasmussen, clearly impressed with the man, described him thus: “His imagination was a luxuriant one, and he had a very sensitive mind; he was always singing when he had nothing else to do, and he called his songs ‘comrades in solitude,’ or he would say that his songs were his breath, so necessary were they to him.”
Orpingalik also offered him the words to a number of magic songs. Rasmussen had to pay for these and he did so by trading magic songs he had earlier learned from the Iglulingmiut.
Rasmussen asked Orpingalik how many songs he had composed and the hunter-poet responded, “How many songs I have I cannot tell you. I keep no count of such things. There are so many occasions in one’s life when a joy or a sorrow is felt in such a way that the desire comes to sing; and so I only know that I have many songs. All my being is song, and I sing as I draw breath.”
Rasmussen titled one of Orpingalik’s songs, in translation, “A poor man’s prayer to the spirits.” It was used when hunting seal in winter:
“You, fatherless and motherless,
You, dear little orphan,
Kamiks of caribou.
Bring me a gift,
An animal, one of those
That provide nice blood-soup,
An animal from the sea depths
And not from the plains of earth.
You, little orphan,
Bring me a gift.”
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.