Taissumani, July 9

World’s Fair Babies


An early photograph of Nancy Columbia.

An early photograph of Nancy Columbia.

I’ve written before about the 60 Inuit from Labrador who were taken to Chicago in 1892 to appear the following year at the World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair.

Some of the Inuit women were pregnant when they left Labrador. On November 1, the first Inuit baby was born in Chicago to Susan, the wife of Simon Manak. This was the fifth child born to the couple.

Because this was the World’s Columbian Exposition, the promoters of the fair prevailed on the couple to name their child Columbia, even though one of the fair’s directors lamented the fact that an American child could not have had the honour of being first to be born within the fair grounds.

In fact, her parents named her Columbia Susan. Unfortunately, she died less than a week later.

So the first Inuit birth at the fair necessitated the first funeral a week later. One of the Inuit made the tiny casket. A local Episcopal clergyman performed the burial service, assisted by an Inuk described as “their own village minister, a Moravian.”

The Inuit conducted the service as closely as possible to the way it would have been conducted in Labrador. They sang hymns and read scripture passages from the Moravian translations of the Bible.

“It was, indeed, a strange scene for Chicago,” the press reported, “a circle of sixty Eskimos clad in sealskin chanting a song of farewell to one of their people, who had been born and was now dead and to be buried far from their northern home, there among a cluster of skin tents, with the white palaces of the World’s Fair rising for a background.”

Only two days after Columbia Susan’s birth another girl was born. Her parents were Kupah and Kuttukitok from the farthest northern part of Labrador. The newspapers noted that the new baby’s parents were of “a heathen ancestry that has neither religion nor family name.”

One paper went so far as to call them “the most absolute of heathens.” The parents named the child Kotuktooka, which the newspapers claimed meant “the stutterer.”

Of course the fair’s organizers also took a hand in her naming. One report indicates that they expected to name her Columbia. The name Columbia was, of course, available, since the unfortunate death of Columbia Susan.

But for some reason fair officials did not follow through with their intention. Perhaps they were hesitant to bestow such a prominent name on a heathen child. Instead they named her Evelina, after the ship which had brought her parents to America.

By the end of that same month, a third baby was born, this time a boy. It’s not known what name his parents gave him, but the fact that he was male gave the promoters an opportunity to evoke the name of Columbus once again.

They called him Christopher Columbus Tooktoosina! We don’t know who his parents were because the only person on the ship’s list of Inuit going to the fair, with the surname Tooktoosina, was a 17-year-old unmarried man named Abraham. But he may have been the son of Jonas and Susan Palliser from the Rigolet area.

The birth of each of these children was written up in the American newspapers in 1892, and the press made much of these children, mourning the death of little Columbia Susan, celebrating the birth of a boy named after Christopher Columbus, and lamenting the heathen lineage of Kotuktooka.

But the most famous Inuit baby of all was yet to be born. When the Evalina left Labrador, three of its passengers were a man named Abile, his wife, Helena, and Esther Enutseak, their daughter. Esther was only fifteen, unmarried, but pregnant.

On Jan. 16, 1893 she gave birth to a daughter. Once again, fair officials had a hand in her naming.

She was given the unwieldy name Nancy Helena Columbia Palmer. Nancy was said to be chosen after Abraham Lincoln’s mother, although it was a common name in Labrador at the time, and it may just as easily have been the name that Esther herself chose for the baby. Helena was for her grandmother. Columbia by now needs no explanation.

And Palmer? Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer, usually known as Mrs. Potter Palmer, was the wife of a prominent Exposition official, a real estate tycoon and hotelier.

She herself was President of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers. She took an interest in the child, became her godmother and gave her her name. She is the young woman that I have written about before, who went on to become the most famous Inuk of her time — Nancy Columbia.

Taissumani 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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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