Saturday is Biscuit Day

Leo Manning, an HBC trader, works in a trading post at Coppermine. (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

By Kenn Harper

This column will complete my trilogy on the days of the week. (I’ve written about the word for Saturday before, in “Sivataaqvik: Biscuit Day” in Taissumani, on 20 July 2007). This column is modified from that previous version.

Although many of the whalers who came to the Canadian Arctic were rough-and-tumble types, a number of the ships’ captains were devout Christian men who observed the Sabbath.

On some ships, all work stopped at midnight on Saturday night and did not resume for 24 hours. Often the ship’s doctor or the captain himself would conduct divine services.

The Inuit quickly learned which captains observed the Sabbath and which did not, though they can only have had a rudimentary idea of the reasons behind this forced and artificial abstinence from activity.

Margaret Penny accompanied her husband, William Penny, a well-known whaling master, on a wintering voyage to Cumberland Sound in 1857. Penny observed the Sabbath, and Margaret recorded in her journal for Sunday, Oct. 11, that six or seven whales were seen, and that divine service was held at 2 p.m.

She wrote, “The Esquimaux seem to understand very well that they are to respect this day, for they go about very quietly & forego their usual occupations.”

For the Inuit, time had been governed by the seasons, the regular ebb and flow of the tide, the coming of light and dark. But it had never before been broken up into artificial units wherein every seventh day was one of refrain from unnecessary labour, no matter how conducive the weather might be to profitable or pleasurable activity.

This new regime necessitated new words, and in particular there was a need to define this artificial seven-day period. In Inuktitut, there is a verb, “pinasuaqtuq,” to describe working or being active.

On Baffin Island and in some other parts of the Arctic, the root of this word, with an appropriate suffix, “rusiq,” became “pinasuarusiq” — a unit of time measuring activity, therefore a week.

For Catholic Inuit it was generally “Sanatailiup akunningani” — the time between Sundays.

Individual days also needed defining. And the most important day for the pre-Christian Inuit was not the Sabbath but the day before the Sabbath, for this was the day on which most whalers paid off the Inuit in their employ.

Of course, money was an unheard-of commodity in the Arctic. Rather, the whalers paid their assistants in goods like guns, ammunition and clothing, and with food items, like tea, coffee, molasses, sugar, and the ever-popular ship’s biscuit.

Pilot Biscuits were once a staple of the northern diet. Biscuits were given out by whalers and traders on Saturdays. (Facebook photo)

Inuit have a word, “siva,” which Lucien Schneider’s dictionary defines as “the solid part of a piece of blubber or fat that was melted over a fire.”

By analogy, because of its hardness, some Inuit used this word to describe the ship’s biscuit that was so popular a food item. One of the joys of Inuktitut, a characteristic that makes it so capable of describing new concepts, is its ability to add an affix or a series of affixes to modify a root word and give it a new or related meaning. In this way, in most Baffin communities and some other places, “siva” plus “taaq” (an affix showing getting or acquiring) plus “vik” (an affix denoting the time when something occurs) becomes “Sivataaqvik” —the time when you get your biscuits. And that day was Saturday.

Interestingly, Fabien Vanasse, in Pond Inlet in 1906 shortly after a whaling station was established there, recorded a completely different word for Saturday. He wrote “Namuksipan,” defining it as “time for ration.”

It is possible that alternative words were in use at different times and places.

The name “Sivataaqvik” continued into the trading era, even though most Inuit lived in camps rather than settlements with trading posts. Elder Noah Piugaattuk explained “Naattiingujaaq [Sunday] is only a day away when everyone would have to rest and do nothing, so the women [who lived near a trading post] would go to the store to get their rations.”

Catholic Inuit in the Kivalliq adopted a different word — Sanattailiarusiq — “a day before Sanattaili” or “almost Sanattaili.”

Similarly, some areas used Naattiingujalaarniaq (Cape Dorset) — a day before Sunday. But, said Mark Ijjangiaq, most in the Igloolik area, even Catholics, used Sivataaqvik, a word brought there from Pond Inlet.

In Nunavik, the word Allingisungaq was used — the time before the taboo is respected.

Today in most Baffin communities the word “Sivataaqvik” still means Saturday. Of course, when one hears the word, no-one thinks of biscuits anymore.

The word has become lexicalized — it has a new meaning divorced from the sum of its parts. But it was once the most important day of the week — the day when rations were given out.

Biscuit Day.

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

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(15) Comments:

  1. Posted by Wondering on

    Leo Manning is showing in the picture. It seems there another Manning that used to go up north. I have lots of cousins of Manning’s either in Cape Dorset and Lake Harbour and else where in Nunavut?. I remember the big Hudson’s Bay Company manager used to go Iqaluit. The people called him egeekii (small eye’s). I do not know his name and he was the father of my several uncles. The last time he was in Iqaluit, he has died in his sleep when Apex was a new town in the middle of the 50’s or perhaps little earlier. You think you would investigate that for us?. I always wonder if he was Manning too. Thank you so much and all your wonderful true stories about us Inuit.

    • Posted by Leo Manning on

      That is the same Leo Mannng you are asking about, his nickname was iziki. I found his work history on Hudson’s Bay Company archives and he did pass away in Iqaluit in March 15, 1958. Had 2 sons in Lake Harbour and one in Kuujuaq, my uncle also mentioned he might have had another child in the west since he was posted in Coppermine. I am named after him since he was my late Grandfathers father originally from Lake Harbour but moved to Cape Dorset to manage a store there.

      • Posted by Kenn Harper on

        There was another Manning that worked in the Cape Dorset area. He was a scientist, Tom Manning. No relation to Leo, as far as I know.

    • Posted by Ituaq – Igloolik on

      the coats or parkas are not of south Baffin design and tailoring, the are arguably Arctic Coast Queen Maud Gulf, western Nunavut.

      • Posted by Kenn Harper on

        The photo is from Coppermine (Kugluktuk).

  2. Posted by Paul Fraser on

    Excellent Kenn! Always an enlightenment reading one of your articles. Thank yo.

  3. Posted by North Baffiner on

    Interesting that you would state that the Sabbath is the Catholic SUN day… it is not. The true Sabbath is the day before Sunday, the day the Jews (scions of Judah) keep, as they are the tribe of Israel ordained to keep true the Laws of God, while another tribe has the Sceptre (Crown) promise.
    I grew up an Anglican and even went to an Anglican private school, but in further studies found that rules changed after the massacre of Catholics in Jerusalem during the Crusades, as all previous rules associated with Judaism were then treated as heresy afterwards and Sunday became the new day of worship not associated with the Jews.
    More information is out there as I have read many other books not available in the public school libraries, which is also why I loved reading old whaling captains’ ships logs from Baffin Bay when and if copies were available…Ye Olde English… though.

    • Posted by Heretic on

      I used to have to go to church, when i was a kid , i hated it , in the spring, all my friends would be out sliding , and , i was stuck in the church.

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      Most people agree that Sunday is the Sabbath.

      • Posted by imposed the wrong way on

        the real sabbath is Saturday but the catholic for some reason changed it to sunday, remember it was religion that came first before christianity, so religion sabbath day is sunday, constaitine changed it, but Sun was worshipped by this roman catholic before they became roman catholics, since they were losing people to christianity, constaintine changed it to copy the christian, remember Anglican and catholic are not the christian churches, they are religion churches, that is where people get mixed up.

  4. Posted by Jobie Weetaluktuk on

    Very interesting.
    True Sabbath or Sabbot is indeed the Georgian calander Saturday.
    However in the context of Inuit history it is Sunday. Inuit were introduced to Sunday post Christian day of worship change. Both Ken Harper and North Baffiner are right.

  5. Posted by Paul irngaut on

    As a kid I remember the town of igloolik divided into two sections. Hudson day and the nursing station was right in the middle. That was before co-op was established. Anglican and Catholics were divided. As you stated Sunday was considered a day of rest. For anglicans , no work or hunting allowed. It was strictly followed by the Anglican. However Catholics did not work but they could hunt for food. I remember one fall, belugas came into town, because it was Sunday the whales swam by the Anglican side and all we could do was watch them. No boats took to water from the Anglican side. However as soon as the whales reached the Catholics side, there was a lot of excitement and yelling as boat after boat took to water. Anglicans could only watch with envy.

  6. Posted by Kuglukturmiutaq on

    Being from the west, I would translate “sanatailiup akunningani” as time between refraining from work rather then between Sundays.

    The Inuinnaq has a form fitting atigi which is unusual. Perfectly made it looks like though.

  7. Posted by Silas on

    With the inland Inuit, where there are no sea mammals, various words created when the traders and missionaries came are different. Some of the days of the week are also different all based on church or work days:
    Sunday – Hanattaili – Day of no work
    Monday – Hanattailiuganihaaq – Day after day of no work
    Tuesday – Tuksiarnaq Hivulliq – First church service in the week
    Wednesday – Pingajuat – Third day after Sunday
    Thursday – Tuksiarnaq Kingulliq – Last church service in the week
    Friday – Tallimangat – Fifth day after Sunday
    Saturday – Niqaiturnaq – Day of rations

    Today “Niqaituq” is referred to as Welfare.
    As I understood it Easter, the most important of the Christian faith, falls on a Sunday, therefore it became the day of rest and worship. Easter is resurrection day and if it were not for Jesus rising from the dead Christianity would not exist.

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      Silas, Thanks for this. It’s always good to learn the variant terms in other regions.

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