Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History

Ohokto’s Story: Ross and the Nattilingmiut

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Inuit knowledge of historic events is long-lasting. We’ve seen how the memories of the meeting between the British explorer, John Ross, and the Nattilingmiut of the Kitikmeot region, recounted to Knud Rasmussen almost a century later, corroborated and enhanced Ross’s own version of those events.

Twenty-four years after Rasmussen passed through the area, another version of the story was told to Lorenzo Learmonth, a fur trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company, who had a passionate interest in local history. Learmonth spoke Inuktitut well, as many traders did in those days when trading posts were isolated and visitors few. He spent much of his time excavating archaeological sites and recording Inuit lore.

In 1947 he recorded a story told to him by Ohokto, a Nattilingmiut, whose ancestors had passed the story down from generation to generation. In many ways the story verifies the version collected by Rasmussen. There are differences, however. Rasmussen recorded the main character’s name as Aviluktoq, Learmonth as Ableelooktook. And Ohokto’s story presents a side of John Ross – his temper – that Ross sanitized out of his own published version. Learmonth told Ohokto’s story this way:

“One day in the middle of winter many years ago, off the north shore of Lord Mayor Bay … a number of natives were out aglo hunting [breathing-hole sealing] … when one, Ableelooktook, wandered far to the south of where his companions were hunting, led by his hunting dog straining eagerly at its leash. Ableelooktook believed the animal had scented a bear. But suddenly he pulled up short because what was that he saw ahead? – strange sight indeed – what appeared to be a house [a dwelling], but not such as he was familiar with, with smoke pouring from its roof and many human beings moving around in its vicinity.

“Not knowing what this strange sight could mean, Ableelooktook was greatly frightened, and without delay took to his heels and made back to the snow village, situated well back in the bay. There he arrived as darkness set in, and just as his companions also returned from their hunting.

“Soon he had told of his discovery, upon which the whole population of the village quickly gathered together in the large village dance house to discuss the matter. Here the principal angakkuq [shaman] donned his main belt of charms and his cape, made of pieces of white deer belly hide, and without delay got to work. He first took a large deerskin and pegged it to the west wall inside the dance house so as to leave the lower side resting partly on the floor. He then obtained a pair of deerskin pants from one of the men and carefully laid them out on the floor behind the deerskin curtain with legs pointing towards the back wall, then crawled in behind the curtain, ordered all kudlik [stone lamp] lights to be extinguished, and the séance was on.

“As the crowd of scared men, women and children huddled together and anxiously waited in the darkened dance house, the Angekok got in touch with his familiar spirits and through them with all the other spirits that mattered …

“When all the spirits had gathered together under the curtain, they informed the Angekok that the strangers seen by Ableelooktook were white men and that they would welcome a visit by the Eskimos. Then the spirits of the white men themselves arrived behind the curtain and invited all the Eskimos to visit their camp … the following day.

“Thus it was the entire population of the village turned out by daybreak the following morning and proceeded to Felix Harbour. When they came in site of the house [the Victory under canvas covers] they halted and sent forward Nalungituk to await the arrival of some of the white men who could be seen approaching without knives or spears or anything in their hands. Soon they were all on friendly terms with each other and moved over close to the house, where the boss of the white men came forward and greeted them.

“After the second round of greeting was over, the boss [John Ross, presumably] enquired for the man who had been seen near the camp on the previous day as he wished to make him a present. Whereupon Ableelooktook stepped forward and went with him into the house. Once inside the boss handed him an ooloo, a woman’s knife, which offended Ableelooktook, because he was a man and a great hunter. What did he want with a woman’s knife? So he pointed to a hand saw which was hanging on a nail and indicated that he would prefer that to the ooloo. This in turn made the boss angry, and he thereupon took the ooloo back from Ableelooktook, refused him the saw and chased him out of the house.”

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History 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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