Taissumani, March 4

Captain Cleveland’s marvellous language


Knud Rasmussen, leader of the renowned Fifth Thule Expedition.

Knud Rasmussen, leader of the renowned Fifth Thule Expedition.


In December of 1921, members of the Fifth Thule Expedition — the Danish-Greenlandic ethnographic expedition to northern Canada — began to travel extensively along the western shores of Foxe Basin, having settled comfortably into their quarters on Danish Island.

Early that month, Knud Rasmussen and his companions arrived at the Hudson’s Bay Co. post in Repulse Bay, where Rasmussen met the manager, an old whaler with the remarkable name of George Washington Cleveland.

His Inuktitut name — Sakkuartirungniq — means “the harpooner.” Later the same month, Therkel Mathiassen and Kaj Birket-Smith, Danish scientists, arrived at Repulse Bay and stayed with Cleveland; they were tremendously impressed with the whaler’s knowledge and assistance. The expedition’s summary report, written by Mathiassen, says that “in rich measure [he] gave them the benefit of his knowledge of the land and its people.”

Peter Freuchen’s account of this meeting adds some colour to the event. He wrote that both scientists were “overcome with joy as they met him. ‘He is the most amazing man!” they said. ‘He knows everything! He’s worth his weight in gold!’ They had their notebooks in hand and jotted down every remark he made.”

Freuchen wrote that Mathiassen and Birket-Smith were both great scientists and suspicion was not in their souls but, “Unfortunately I have never been a saint, but I was saved by experience from believing in the old man, and I told them that he was a damned liar, and nothing else. I recognized the stories he told as the same old ones that were always used in the North to impress greenhorns.”

Freuchen was right, for Mathiassen had to note that “afterwards his information proved not to be wholly reliable.”

Decades later, a Catholic priest, Father Lionel Ducharme, wrote down an amusing account of what he had learned from Rasmussen about his first encounter with Captain Cleveland.

Ducharme set the stage for this story by noting that Cleveland came to the mission station at Chesterfield Inlet the following summer and. “Knowing only a few words of Eskimo, he spoke a marvellous language that nobody understood, however everyone got along with him!”

Ducharme then recounted Rasmussen’s earlier meeting with the old whaler:

“So Rasmussen arrives with his fellow travellers. What an event! Cleveland is everywhere, giving voluble commands to the Eskimos. He invites Rasmussen and his party to come warm themselves at his house. Some Eskimos come in at the same time. Cleveland spouts words and gestures.

Rasmussen asks what language they are speaking, whereupon his host answers:

“’These Eskimos here on the west coast speak a language that I am the only white man to know and understand. For the success of your project, it is imperative that I accompany you — which I will consent to do, provided I am furnished a generous recompense for losses to be incurred during my absence.”

“Rasmussen said this fell like a cold shower on him and his companions. They recognized an obstacle to their project so serious as to make them start thinking of their voyage to the south, to Sikuligjuaq in particular, as a waste of money and energy.

“However, seizing an opportunity, Rasmussen went out to talk with the Naujarmiut, particularly with Cleveland’s right hand man.

“’Listen,’ he said, “I speak like people at home. Do you understand me well?’ ‘Of course,” answered the man, then the conversation started – in Eskimo of course. It was a revelation. ‘But what language does your boss speak?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘But you seem to understand him.’ ‘Listen. I’m so used to my boss that I understand his facial expressions and gestures. Me, and the rest of us, we imitate the dogs: we obey…’

“Rasmussen was relieved. He decided to follow through on the southern adventure, after having thanked Sakkuartirungniq for his services…”

This amusing tale is sad in a way. It shows that Cleveland succeeded in doing what few qallunaat ever accomplished in the “old days” – he lived intimately with the Inuit for years, often as the only qallunaaq among them, and yet failed to learn their language, relying instead on a clumsy substitute of words out of context, facial expressions and gestures.

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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