Taissumani, March 11
Mittimatalik — Tracing the Name
To Inuit, Pond Inlet is known as Mittimatalik. The double-barrelled suffix “–talik” holds a clue to the meaning of the word, for words ending in “–talik” usually denote the final resting place of a person whose name forms the first part of the word.
Thus, Mittimatalik should mean “the place of Mittima’s grave.”
But who was Mittima? No-one in North Baffin bears that name today nor has anyone in recent times.
Curiously, the answer to Mittima’s identity may be found in the historical record in the Thule District of northern Greenland. In the 1860s a number of Inuit from northern Baffin Island headed northward, then eastward, in search of new lands and new people.
After a number of years this group reached Greenland. The group was led by a shaman, Qillarsuaq, who is remembered to this day by the Inuit of both countries.
Although Qillarsuaq eventually tired of Greenland and returned across the narrow strait to Ellesmere Island in what would eventually be Canada, many of his followers remained in north-western Greenland. They intermarried with the Inughuit and their descendants live there today.
In the early 1900s, many of the stories that had accompanied Qillarsuaq’s group on their long trek remained alive in the memories of the Allarsuit, as the Greenlanders initially called the Canadian migrants.
Some of these stories were recounted to the ethnographer, Knud Rasmussen, and he retold some of them in his wonderful book, People of the Polar North. One of these stories was “Mittima who froze to death.” (Rasmussen gives the name as Mitsima. Mitsima and Mittima are synonymous — the pronunciation and therefore the spelling is a matter of personal preference.)
The story goes that Mittima was a hunter who had lost his way in a blizzard. He had frozen his hands and feet. To make it back home, he had to crawl on his hands and knees over the ice. When the storm broke his children saw him crawling over the ice, but they did not go to his aid. They were afraid of him because he was almost dead.
Slowly he inched his way home, only to collapse at the entrance to his snowhouse. “Oh! He is an old man, after all, said his children, and let him die there. Afterwards they went out and covered him with snow.
This is an interesting story, illustrative of the hard life of an unfortunate Inuit hunter. But is this the Mittima whose name lives on in the name of Mittimatalik?
Of course we can never know with certainty, but it seems likely.
Local tradition in Pond Inlet held that Mittima’s grave was not far from the coastline in the small valley beyond where the Catholic mission was built.
By chance, the local priest in Pond Inlet for decades in the late 1900s was Father Guy Mary-Rousselière, a trained archaeologist. He had searched in vain for the lost grave of Mittima.
Then, in the summer of 1965, he searched again and discovered a heap of stones that barely protruded above ground level. He had earlier dismissed this rock pile as insignificant, but this time, on closer examination, he found a human skull.
He excavated the site and was surprised to find two skeletons, one of an adult female in her late twenties, the other a mature man. Strangely, their bodies, though lying parallel to each other, were facing in opposite directions.
If this was the grave of the legendary Mittima, then who was the woman buried beside him? It must have been his wife? But why was the legend silent on the identity, or even the existence, of this second body? We will never know.
The man can only have been Mittima, whom local lore claimed was buried in the area in which the priest found him. He may also have been the Mittima of whom Rasmussen heard in Greenland.
We know none of the circumstances of his life, save the tragic event of his death. But we can be certain of one thing — that this unknown hunter would never have dreamed that a thriving community of over a thousand people would eventually bear his name.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.