The teacher, the dogs, and the anthropologist
It must have been about 1962, probably late winter, in Puvirnituq. I was the school principal, in complete charge of the school and the entire staff, who consisted of another teacher and the janitor. Since we did not have an Area Administrator at the time, I was also Acting Area Administrator, which put me in administrative control of myself, the other teacher and the janitor.
It was a very tight hierarchy. There was also an HBC storekeeper and his wife, an HBC clerk, a married nursing couple and their child, and a Roman Catholic priest, the famous Father Steinman. The qallunaat contingent was rounded off with a sign of the times, an anthropologist, complete with wife and three children.
The Inuit numbered a couple of hundred or so (don’t ask me for statistics.) The dogs outnumbered the rest of us; it was the heyday of dog teams. There was one snowmobile in town, Father Steinman’s. In the absence of police, the dogs roamed free. Actually they did their own policing. Trespassers were bitten.
That’s the setting, now the plot.
Years later I was told that the illness was probably only distemper. We called it dumb rabies, and no matter what the name was, it was a killer, an infectious killer. Of course the dogs should be tied up, to prevent the infection spreading.
But this was an unprecedented nuisance, so although most people accepted the logic, few people tied their dogs up. This is where the police would have come in, if there had been any police. Instead of the police, Puvirnituq had me, the school principal who was also the Acting Area Administrator.
But I was a very modern Acting Area Administrator, far from the classic colonial district officer who barked out orders for the common good. So I had a series of meetings, in the course of which, step by step, meeting by meeting, we progressed from discussing that there was a sickness among the dogs, through acceptance that it was infectious, to agreeing that the dogs should be tied, and finally arriving at the realization that this agreement would need enforcement.
And there we stuck. The problem was that in a community where hunters depended on each other’s support in times of difficulty, the man who shot dogs would soon find himself isolated.
I wasn’t alone in all of this. One horrible evening there were two or three groups of visiting Qallunaat functionaries, (including a nasty hospital superintendent who insulted the young student who was interpreting, Zebedee Nungak of later fame.) The Inuit were sitting facing me. The Qallunaat were ranged behind me like a visiting Inquisition. Every time there was one of those pregnant pauses in a meeting that suggested an Inuk was assembling his thoughts to move us ahead, one of the damned white visitors would open his mouth and bring the proceedings to a juddering halt.
The worst blow, however, was private. After one particularly frustrating meeting (minus, thank God, any visitors) I stopped in at the house of Sebastian, the anthropologist, expecting the sympathy of a professional skilled in cross-cultural nuances.
“Good God, Mick!” he said, “This is too important for all this shilly-shallying around with meetings. Tell them to tie up the dogs or they’ll get shot! If you need help straightening all this out, just call on me.”
The next meeting we started to break through. The Inuit suggested that the young nursing interpreter be one of the two “dog officers,” since he didn’t go out on the land, and therefore didn’t need to rely on the help of his neighbours to the same extent as everyone else.
But who would be the second hit man?. Everyone looked at me. “No,” I said firmly, “I am the teacher.” Impasse.
Then a flash of brilliance from one of the hunters. “That qallunaaq Sebastian! He doesn’t do anything except wander around asking questions.”
I went up to Sebastian’s later. “We settled it,” I said. “They’ve elected two dog shooters.”
“Good” Who are they?”
“Well the first is young Atami (not his real name), the nursing station interpreter.” “Good, good, that’s a good choice. Who’s the second one?”
I’ll spare you the despair and the outrage and the expostulations. I had him fair and square. He couldn’t back out.
But then I blew it. I had been a school prefect in my Northern Irish boarding school, imbued with a sense of responsibility, a kind of “prefectus oblige.” So the next morning I took my pathetic single-shot .22 and joined the two slaughterers.
Within five minutes we came across our first delinquent, who sat looking shifty and uneasy. I looked at Sebastian, Sebastian looked at Atami, Atami looked at me. So the ex-school prefect raised his pop-gun and shot the dog. Fifteen minutes later there was another one. I looked at Sebastian. Sebastian accepted the white man’s burden and shot the dog’s jaw off, and then looked embarrassed. I killed it.
That night our leading citizen, the famous Johnny POV, phoned me up. “I hear you shot two dogs this morning. You said you were just the teacher. What business do you have shooting our dogs? Who asked you to?”
Well, I told you I was Irish, didn’t I? I lost my temper and ranted and raged for 10 minutes, then jammed the phone down, and felt very, very bad. The next morning I went and apologised. Johnny laughed and said, “When you hung up I turned to my wife and said, ‘Teacher’s not going to sleep well tonight.’ ”
There’s an afterword. A few years later Sebastian wrote an anthropological article about the Puvirnituq dog sickness. He didn’t mention his part in the incident.
Instead he pointed out the inherent flaw in the Qallunaat approach. The Inuit, he said, believed that sickness was a palpable object. It had settled on the dogs. When our forthright actions saved the dogs, sickness moved on to the people. Sure enough, a few months later a measles epidemic settled on the humans and killed far too many.
I was in Rankin Inlet when I read the article, and I checked with my mentor, Tautunngi. “Oh yes,” she said, “We had a dog once who loved my husband. When he got sick once and was close to dying, the dog took the sickness and died for him.”
Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
(Some names have been changed)