Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History

First Encounter – The Other Side of the Story

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KENN HARPER

Last week I wrote about the first meeting between the British explorer, Sir John Ross, and the Nattilingmiut Inuit, who met Ross on Boothia Peninsula in the winter of 1830. They had never seen white men before. That story was told mainly from the perspective of Ross, who left a detailed account of it.

Almost a century later, the Danish-Greenlandic explorer and ethnographer, Knud Rasmussen, visited the Nattilingmiut as part of his major ethnographic expedition, the Fifth Thule Expedition. On this expedition, Rasmussen and his fellow travellers documented the legends, life-stories and material culture of many groups of Inuit in the farthest northern reaches of Canada.

In 1923, Rasmussen spent the better part of the year among the Nattilingmiut, one group of whom were the Arviligjuarmiut, the people of Pelly Bay. From them, he learned their version of the encounter with Ross that had taken place so long ago. He wrote:

“The Arviligjuarmiut still had many recollections of their first meeting with white men, and the sober manner in which they told of these experiences, now almost a hundred years old, is good evidence of how reliable the Eskimos can be as narrators if only they have to do with people that understand them.

“They tell that John Ross’s ship was first seen early in the winter by a man named Aviluktoq, who was out sealing. When he caught sight of the great ship lying like a rock out in the middle of a small bay, his curiosity at first made him approach to see what it could be, for he had never noticed it before. But when he saw the ship’s high masts he thought it was a great spirit and fled. All that evening and night the men considered what they should do, but as they were afraid that the big spirit might destroy them if they did not forestall it, they set out next day to attack it, armed with harpoons and bows.

“Then they discovered that human figures were walking about it, and they hid behind a block of ice to see what sort of people these could be. They had heard of kinsmen who in far distant lands had met white men, but they themselves had never done so. However, the figures round the ship had also seen them and made their way over the ice towards the ice blocks behind which they were hiding. They saw at once that the strangers must be the famous white men of whom they had heard so much talk and who were said to have come from the offspring of a girl in their own country and a dog.

“All the Arviligjuarmiut now wished to show that they were not afraid, and came out from their place of concealment. The white men at once laid their weapons on the ice, and the Eskimos followed suit. The meeting was a cordial one, with both embraces and what each party took to be assurances of friendship, for of course they could not understand a word of each other’s tongue. The Eskimos went along to this great, wonderful ship and received precious gifts such as nails, sewing needles and knives, in fact everything that they could not get in the country itself. And the white men seemed to have such an abundance of wood that they could even live in it – indeed, however incredible it may sound, they lived in a hollowed-out floating island of wood that was full of iron and everything else that was precious in their own country.

“This was the first meeting. Later on they often came together and the Eskimos vied with each other in accompanying them on journeys and assisting them in a region that they knew inside out. They were very fond of going on journeys with them. One of the big chiefs on the ship (the second in command, James Ross) they called Agluugkaq (he who takes the long strides), for he always seemed to be in a hurry and was impatient to advance quickly on all his travels.

“When the strangers went away they left large quantities of wood, iron, nails, anchor chains, iron hoops and other valuables which to this day are used for knives, arrow heads, harpoon heads, salmon leisters, caribou lances, and hooks. Once a mast drifted ashore, and of it they made sledges, kayaks and harpoons. The mast was split up by first making saws of barrel hoops; this took the whole of the summer and autumn, but time was not of much consequence if only they were able to utilize the valuable wood.”

Rasmussen commented that “so many years afterwards they preserve the traditions of their experiences with unembellished and sober reliability.” Rasmussen had read the reports of John Ross and other later visitors to the Nattilingmiut. He added, “If the particular reports of these expeditions are turned up, the ancient verbal traditions will be found to be in the best agreement with the books.”

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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