Taissumani, July 17

Qillarsuaq – Part 2



(Continued from last week)

Qillarsuaq continued north, leading the remainder of the party, eventually crossing from Pim Island, off the Ellesmere Island coast, to Anorituuq, Greenland, where they found abandoned habitations but no people.

Hunting as they moved southward, they established a temporary camp at Taserartalik near Etah. It was there, probably in 1863, that they encountered their first Inuk, Arrutak, a man who had lost a leg in an accident but carved himself a wooden limb that allowed him to get about quite well.

As this was the first Inuk they had seen, Qillarsuaq and his party believed that they had arrived in the land of the wooden-legged people. At Arrutak’s insistence, the newcomers moved their camp south to Pitorarvik, where a large group of Inuit were encamped for spring hunting.

Qillarsuaq’s quest was over. He had finally reached a land where he had no enemies. For the Inughuit, a time of desperation was also at an end.

They had met new people, speaking a language similar to their own, who were, in the words of Father Guy Mary-Roussilière, who documented this migration, “bringing with them knowledge which would help them in their battle for survival.”

A few American explorers had already encountered the Inughuit and had predicted the extinction of the tribe; its population numbered no more than 140. The newcomers brought new blood and new hunting technology, as well as their stories and folklore.

But it seems that trouble followed Qillarsuaq wherever he went. He had left both the Cumberland Sound area and later northern Baffin Island to distance himself from his enemies.

But even in far-off northern Greenland, he was destined not to find peace. He had a falling out with a powerful sorcerer who had befriended him shortly after his arrival in Greenland.

Believing that the man, Avatannguaq, was plotting against him, Qillarsuaq and two accomplices murdered his former friend. Soon after, Qillarsuaq’s health began to fail and he was overcome with a strong urge to see his homeland again before he died. Not all of his fellow migrants agreed.

Qillarsuaq and his followers had been in Greenland for six years when the aging shaman set out again on his final journey, westward toward Ellesmere Island from where he would continue south to Baffin Island.

Twenty or so people accompanied him. But the journey had only begun when Qillarsuaq died on the ice off Cape Herschel, twenty kilometres south of Cape Sabine, just off the Ellesmere coast. His followers buried his body at Cape Herschel, a point that the Inughuit have known since as Qillaqarvik.

The rest of the party traveled south to Makinson Inlet, where game and fish were scarce. Starvation, murder and cannibalism ensued. With their leader dead, two brothers concluded that there was no point continuing southward with the remainder of the treacherous party.

Merqusaaq and Qumangaapik, with three relatives, began the arduous journey back to the safety of Greenland. They reached Etah, probably in 1873. They remained, and many of the families of north-western Greenland today claim descent from the “allarsuit” — the “Canadian” migrants.

The story of Qillarsuaq and the migration that he led from Baffin Island to Greenland may be representative of countless undocumented migrations by which Inuit from the Bering Sea gradually populated the North American Arctic. Unlike the relocations of later days, in which whalers, traders and government moved Inuit from location to location to satisfy their own commercial and administrative purposes, Qillarsuaq’s story is unique in that his motives were his own.

His brief encounters with non-Inuit explorers and the sparse tracks he left in the historical record enable a rich picture of his and his followers’ exploits to be fashioned from a combination of non-Inuit history and Inuit oral accounts.

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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