One tiny book contains a big piece of Inuit history

Published around 1856, the slender volume contains the first printed use of syllabics to represent Inuktitut

This book, which is a collection of selected gospels in the Inuktitut dialect of Little Whale River, is the first book printed in Inuktitut syllabics and is housed by Library and Archives Canada. (Photo from Library and Archives Canada/Facebook)

By Kahlan Miron

Tucked away in the storage vaults of Library and Archives Canada’s Preservation Centre is a book that, despite being just eight pages long, is an important milestone in Inuit history.

It’s not the contents that are so significant—the book, published around 1856, is a selection of gospels written in the Inuktitut dialect of Little Whale River, near modern-day Kuujjuarapik, Nunavik—but instead how the words inside are represented. Within its faded pages is the first printed use of syllabics to represent Inuktitut.

The vaults of Library and Archives Canada’s Preservation Centre in Gatineau, Quebec. Tucked away within these shelves are important pieces of history, including a book that features the first-ever printing of Inuktitut syllabics. (Photo by Kahlan Miron)

The book travelled a long way for its intended audience: it was originally published in Moose Factory, Ontario, by John Horden, a missionary for England’s Church Missionary Society. Horden printed copies of the book for fellow missionary Edwin Arthur Watkins, based in Nunavik.

Even though he had a major influence on the use of Inuktitut syllabics, Horden didn’t work with the language a lot. This book was his first and only book to be published in Inuktitut.

Instead, Horden primarily worked with Cree texts. He had a font for Cree syllabics on his printing press and so Horden applied that system to the Inuktitut gospel translations. Because of that, the syllabics in the book are different from the modern system. The text in these gospels actually uses the Cree writing system, applied to Inuktitut words.

Despite the mixed use of syllabic systems and language, the book is still understandable to modern Inuktitut speakers, says Meaghan Scanlon, a senior special collections librarian with Library and Archives Canada.

“I was able to send a copy to [Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami] and they circulated it to Avataq Cultural Institute, and I think one of the responses I heard was that they said, ‘Well, it looks like Cree, but it does seem to be in Inuktitut.’ So people can still read it, it’s just weird.”

Syllabics weren’t always the popular approach to Cree and Inuktitut, though, as there was disagreement among Church Missionary Society members over whether to use the Roman alphabet instead. Even Watkins, the person who most needed this book and its copies, disliked syllabics.

But Watkins reported to Horden, and Horden was a fan of the syllabic system, which was easier to learn and encouraged quick literacy among Inuit and Cree. When Watkins left, his replacement was also encouraged to use syllabics by Horden. Eventually, it became the norm.

That’s the story in most of Nunavut and in Nunavik, anyhow. But not all missionaries in Inuit Nunangat made use of syllabics. That’s why Roman letters have always been used to write the Inuit language in Alaska, the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region, Labrador and Greenland.

While it’s not known how many copies of the book were initially printed, the copy at Library and Archives Canada is the only one known to have survived. “Before this copy was acquired [by Library and Archives Canada in 1994], it was thought to be lost,” said Scanlon.

The book is significant enough to Library and Archives Canada that it’s been nominated to be part of the Canada Memory of the World Register, which is part of a UNESCO initiative that highlights important pieces of history.

Kenn Harper, an Arctic historian and Nunatsiaq News columnist, helped with the application.

“People heard that I knew quite a bit about this book,” Harper said. “And so people asked me if I thought it was a significant thing to be commemorated, which I do think it is, yes.”

The book is available to read digitally online for anyone who wants to take a peek at this piece of history. The digitization is part of Library and Archives Canada’s efforts to digitize their many Indigenous texts. The book can also be visited in person in Gatineau, Quebec.

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(8) Comments:

  1. Posted by Likely a Lone Voice on

    Let’s be clear: this is an important milestone in the colonization of Inuit.

    Why should we commemorate this colonial garbage? Missionaries did a great job of racing across the Arctic to convert as many Inuit as possible. It’s no wonder that Inuit elders end all their prayers with “in Jesus’ name, Amen” when there are people propping up religious texts like this. Where is the pride in our shamans? You can thank the missionaries for a lack of that. This article should be entitled, “One tiny book contains a big piece of colonial history that was shoved down Inuit throats”.

    And for the record, this is NOT an Indigenous text. And you want to have this commemorated by UNESCO? No thanks.

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      Of course this book should be commemorated, and not as a piece of “colonialist garbage,” which it is not. It is the first published use of Syllabics for Inuit. As a writing system which is still in use today, its origins should be known and its history commemorated. Library and Archives Canada deserves congratulations for taking this initiative.

      • Posted by An Elder on

        Kevin, Thank you. That’s the right one that we had. I still have my parents old hymn book with prayers in it. We still say ” In Jesus name, I pray. I am not too crazy about the new syllabics they use today.

  2. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    A bit more information. The missionary Watkins used Bibles published by Moravians in the Labrador dialect as the basis of his work. Instead of “translating,” he mostly “transliterated” the words from one orthography (roman) to another (syllabics). He was helped by an Inuk from the lower Quebec coast, Peter Okakteerok. So the book, although written for Inuit in Quebec, is really mostly Labrador dialect, and was published in Ontario. A bit of a hybrid. Some years ago, with the help of Mike Gardiner, I identified each Biblical passage in the book, so one can see what the first written gospel message to Inuit was. If anyone is interested, I would be happy to share that information.

    • Posted by Robert Mesher on

      That is very cool to know. If the Moravions, whom, like the Church of England, had split from the Roman Catholic church, had already done the footwork using Roman script, then why not borrow it. And, meanwhile syllabics were already adapted to write the Bible out for Cree.

  3. Posted by Potentate Mr. on

    The contents are very important.
    These words are not useless pondering but the knowledge of God.
    They are dead words to dead people but living to spiritually alive people.

  4. Posted by This is more literature than NTI produced on

    The only thing NTI has created over 30 years was an article in the news to deflect the attention from them shutting down Baffinland for 8 months. I wonder if someone’s bf still has head in the snowbanks?

  5. Posted by Aven on

    Could I see a picture of the front of this book? I am currently sorting through my father’s (Don Whitbread) collection of books and papers, which contain a lot of printed material in Syllabics. Wouldn’t it be great if he happened to keep a copy of this book?

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