‘When all meat was juicy and tender’: Rasmussen meets Ivaluardjuk
In mid-September 1921 the little schooner Søkongen (Sea King), sailing from Nuuk, Greenland, made land at a small island near Naujaat (then Repulse Bay) in Foxe Channel in far northern Canada.
Knud Rasmussen, leader of the Fifth Thule Expedition, named the island Danske Ø (Danish Island in English) and established the expedition’s headquarters there. It would be their base from which to conduct scientific exploration and pursue Rasmussen’s dream of meeting as many Canadian Inuit as possible.
The material for the house he had hoped to build had gone down with a supply ship in Greenland, so he and his crew had to make do with hastily acquired emergency material. With what they had, they constructed Blæsebælgen. The name means “the bellows,” so named because of a wind that was all too common on the island.
Therkel Mathiassen, the expedition’s archeologist, described the building as “neither a large nor a comfortable erection, but it fulfilled its purpose in every way.”
Two thicknesses of timber were separated by a layer of insulation, and the exterior covered with roofing felt. In the middle of a large central room stood a cooking range. The rear half of the room had a large traditional sleeping platform where the six Inughuit, the Greenlander Jacob Olsen, and the Dane Peter Freuchen slept by night and worked by day. At the west end of the house, Knud Rasmussen had his own room with a storeroom behind it. At the opposite end was a room where the other three Danes slept, and behind it a storeroom for scientific equipment. Three windows all faced south.
It was a little over two months before Rasmussen first encountered Akilinermiut — the people from the other side of the water — or Canadian Inuit, the object of his quest. On Dec. 4, he, Peter Freuchen and an Inughuit hunter brought from Greenland, Nahaitsorluarsuk (more commonly known as Poorsimaat), were travelling by dogsled when they met a group of Inuit returning to their camp at Lyon Inlet from a trading trip to the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Repulse Bay. Rasmussen described the unexpected encounter:
“It was about noon; the red of the sun tinged the horizon … I perceived some four km distant, a black line extending across the ice midway out in the bay … I stopped the team at once and got out my glass; and now I could plainly distinguish a whole line of sledges with a great number of dogs…. One man broke away from the rest, and came running across the ice at right angles to the line I was following. I realized that he was making for me, and with the excitement natural to a first meeting with human beings in these wilds, I at once jumped on the sledge and gave my dogs the signal for full speed.”
“In a few minutes I had come up with him, and the dogs, themselves excited by the strange smell of him, and his unfamiliar dress, would have attacked him had I not shouted to him to stand still. I stopped the team at the same moment, cracked my whip over their heads, and leapt clear of the sledge in front of the dogs, so as to place myself between them and the stranger. I had made a long jump, and with such impetus that to avoid knocking him over I was obliged to throw my arms around his neck. So there we stood, laughing and shaking each other, while the dogs, crestfallen, lay down on the ice, as if ashamed at having mistaken a friend for an enemy.”
This was an auspicious start to Rasmussen’s expedition and boded well for its success. The man’s name was Papik and he was a Nattilingmiutaq, a member of a group of Inuit who had moved into the area from the northwest in the previous 50 years. Rasmussen was pleased that he and his new friend could understand each other. He was even more pleased to learn that in the immediate area were camps of Nattilik, Aivilik and Iglulik Inuit.
On the following day Rasmussen and his party continued on to Repulse Bay where they made the acquaintance of the trading post manager, George Cleveland.
While there, Rasmussen met a man, Ivaluardjuk, whom he described as the geographer of the tribe. The old man had travelled extensively throughout his life and drew for Rasmussen a map of the entire coastline from Repulse Bay to Pond Inlet. Rasmussen received his introduction to the folklore of the Iglulingmiut from this man. In a quiet and steady tone he narrated the traditional tales of his people and told of his own eventful life.
Rasmussen recorded a song that the old man shared with him:
“Cold and mosquitoes,
These two pests
Come never together.
I lay me down on the ice.
Lay me down on the snow and ice,
Till my teeth fall chattering.
It is I,
Aja —aja —ja.
Memories are they,
From those days,
From those days,
From those days,
The cold is bitter,
The mind grows dizzy
As I stretch my limbs
Out on the ice.
It is I,
Aja —aja —ja.
Ai! But songs
Call for strength
And I seek after words,
I, aja —aja —ja…”
Ivaluardjuk concluded his storytelling with a statement that embodies the beautifully poetic narrative techniques of the traditional Inuit storyteller:
“But when I chance to think of my childhood and recall all the old memories from those days, then youth seems a time when all meat was juicy and tender, and no game too swift for a hunter. When I was young, every day was as a beginning of some new thing, and every evening ended with the glow of the next day’s dawn. Now, I have only the old stories and songs to fall back upon, the songs that I sang myself in the days when I delighted to challenge my comrades to a song-contest in the feasting house.”
This was a fortuitous meeting. Rasmussen had met Inuit little touched by outside influences, and their Inuktitut dialects and his Kalaallisut speech from Greenland were mutually intelligible. The expedition was off to a good start.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.