Taissumani, July 10

Qillarsuaq – Part 1



The Inuit known throughout history as the Polar Eskimos, and who in more recent times have been known as the Inughuit, live in north-western Greenland, farther north than any other civilian population on earth.

Before contact with white explorers, their world was a narrow strip of coastline bounded on three sides by glaciers and on the fourth by the sea.

For reasons not known, by the mid-nineteenth century they had lost much of the material culture on which other groups of Inuit traditionally relied — the qajaq and the larger so-called woman’s boat, the umiaq, as well as the bird spear, fish leister, and bow and arrow.

The loss of sea transportation gave them a lifestyle different from other Inuit. It confined them to land during summer, where they survived on food cached during the long, sun-filled spring. The absence of the bow and arrow prevented the hunting of caribou.

Consequently, the Inughuit were primarily sea mammal hunters. They had adapted to their technological losses, but survival was difficult and the population was in decline. A fortuitous immigration of Inuit from Baffin Island in the 1860s alleviated their harsh conditions by reintroducing the technology that they had lost.

The migration was led by a shaman, Qillaq, more commonly known by his Greenlandic name, Qillarsuaq (also spelled Qitdlarssuaq), and it led from northern Baffin Island to north-western Greenland.

Qillarsuaq, however, was not a native of northern Baffin Island, but an Uqqumiutaq, a person from south-eastern Baffin Island. He may once have lived in Cumberland Sound. It is known that his son, Ittukusuk, was born at Cape Searle, an island off the north-eastern tip of Padloping Island, south of present-day Qikiqtarjuaq.

Research by Michael Hauser, a Danish ethnomusicologist, indicates that Qillarsuaq’s roots may go farther back, south-west to the Cape Dorset region. Hauser found marked similarities in the styles of drum dancing used in Cape Dorset and the Thule District of Greenland, but nowhere in between.

Qillarsuaq’s murder of a fellow Uqqumiutaq, probably between 1830 and 1835, caused his sudden departure north to the Pond Inlet area with his accomplice, Uqi, and their families and followers.

Some years later, near Pond Inlet, a party of their enemies attacked them in a memorable battle in which Qillarsuaq and his group survived by taking refuge on an iceberg. Once again, they fled for safety, first heading in the direction of Igloolik but eventually crossing Lancaster Sound to Devon Island.

On Devon Island in the summer of 1853, near Dundas Harbour, Captain Edward Inglefield of the Phoenix met a group of twenty-five Inuit men, women and children, led by Qillarsuaq. Were it not for the chance meeting with Inglefield, Qillarsuaq and his followers may well have remained on Devon Island.

Although Inuit legend tells of spirit flights in which Qillarsuaq learned that there were Inuit living far to the northeast, it is more likely that he learned this from Inglefield and his Greenlandic interpreter and possibly by a perusal of the explorer’s charts.

Nevertheless, even with his new-found knowledge, Qillarsuaq was in no hurry to leave the south coast of Devon Island, an area rich in game. Five years later Francis McClintock, an officer in the British navy, met him at Cape Horsburg, only fifty miles from Dundas Harbour.

It was probably in the spring of 1859 that Qillarsuaq began his great journey from Devon Island in search of the new land and the people that he knew to be farther north. Accounts vary, but probably he led a group of 50 to 60 people, which included his friend Uqi and his followers.

Qillarsuaq was already old. McClintock had noted that he was bald, unusual among Inuit, and that his few remaining hairs were white. But he was a born leader, remembered as someone to be “feared and obeyed”.

At the island of Ingirsarvik, at the mouth of Talbot Inlet off the east coast of Ellesmere Island, Uqi had second thoughts about the wisdom of this trip into the unknown.

He questioned Qillarsuaq’s leadership, something he had probably never done before. Then he turned back, taking at least 24 people with him. This occurred probably in 1861 or 1862.

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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