July 25, 2008


Meeting Mandela


Iqaluit is blessed with an airport two miles in length, which means that it often attracts interesting and unexpected visitors.

From Hollywood movie stars to international political leaders, from rock stars to monarchs, the list of celebrities who have passed through this small city is impressive.

Some never intended to come here. Their planes land for fuel and are gone again shortly.

Some never leave the luxury of their private jets. Madonna famously refused to sign an autograph for an airport service worker. And when Robin Williams was asked if he would like to come into the terminal building, he glanced out the window and remarked, "I thought hell was a hot place."

Others revel in the opportunity to visit - however briefly - a place they would otherwise never see. In Arctic Ventures store, I've bumped into Henry Morgentaler and former president Jimmy Carter. The list goes on.

But perhaps the most unusual visit to Iqaluit was that made by Nelson Mandela on Canada Day 1990.

It wasn't an official visit. Mandela had been freed from his lengthy prison term in South Africa earlier that year. In June he made an eight-city tour of the United States, where he held rallies attended by hundreds of thousands.

The last rally was in Oakland, California. From there he left on a private jet bound for Dublin, the next official stop on his tour of triumph.

It was late in the evening that a very small group of Iqalungmiut heard the closely guarded secret that Mandela's plane would be touching down in Iqaluit for fuel in the middle of the night. In fact it was about 3:30 a.m. when the plane finally arrived. Being mid-summer, of course, it was broad daylight.

We went to the airport, but were intercepted by the RCMP and not allowed to enter the terminal. A good thing, otherwise we might never have gotten near the great man.

Denied entry to the building, we gathered at the high fence that separated Canadian and First Air's cargo facilities. The plane was parked at the refuelling tanks. No-one really knew if Mandela and his party would actually leave the plane. Finally, the passenger door came down.

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela made reference to his long walk across the tarmac. "As I was strolling on the tarmac, I noticed some people standing at the airport fence," he wrote. "I asked a Canadian official who they were. ‘Eskimos,' he said. In my 72 years on earth I had never met an Innuit (sic) and never imagined that I would."

In fact it was a cheer from our small crowd that attracted Mandela's attention. As he and his wife, Winnie, with a small entourage, walked slowly toward the terminal building, we realized that we would not have an opportunity to greet him unless we could somehow attract his attention.

We let out a loud cheer and began to wave. He and Winnie stopped, pointed toward the fence, spoke briefly to someone, then made a 90-degree turn and began walking directly towards us.

Our group numbered perhaps a dozen, Inuit and Qallunaat, adults, teenagers, and even a few curious kids out for middle-of-the-night bike rides. We spoke through the chain-link fence for perhaps 20 minutes. The irony of speaking to a man unjustly imprisoned for more than two decades through a wire fence was probably not lost on either side.

Mandela, wrapped with a blanket against the evening chill, was surprised that people knew of his long struggle and his release from prison a world away.

"What struck me forcefully was how small the planet had become during my decades in prison," he later wrote. "Television had shrunk the world and had, in the process, become a great weapon for eradicating ignorance and promoting democracy."

Security people approached him as he talked with us. They told him that he must go in to the terminal because VIP's were awaiting him. He chided them gently, "There are no more important people in this town tonight than these folks who have come out to talk with me. I'll be in when I've finished speaking with them."

All too soon the impromptu visit was over. In 1998, Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa, was appointed to the Order of Canada. Three years later the Government of Canada honoured him for the great moral leadership he had provided to all of humanity, by declaring him an honourary citizen of Canada.

In Johannesburg in 2000, when Mandela met Premier Paul Okalik and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, he spoke of his first chance encounter with Inuit in Iqaluit on his unexpected visit ten years earlier. He had not forgotten.

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.

July 18, 2008


Ruth Makpii Ipalook: 1911-2008


Seven years ago, an Alaskan Inuk woman, then 90 years old, visited Iqaluit to receive an award, presented jointly by the Canadian Polar Commission and the United States Arctic Research Commission for her family's contribution to Arctic science. The occasion was the Arctic Science summit, held in April of 2001.

The woman was Ruth Makpii Ipalook. In 1913, with her mother and father and her older sister, she accompanied explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the Karluk, one of the ships of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. She was only two years old.

The Karluk left Victoria in June, delayed by Stefansson's continuing attempts to raise money. When the ship reached Barrow, Stefansson recruited Inuit as hunters to keep the expedition supplied with food throughout the winter, which they expected to spend on uninhabited Banks Island.

One hunter, Kurraluk, was recommended above all others. He was willing to go, but he insisted on taking his wife and two children. So Qiruk, his wife, and two little girls, eight-year-old Qaualuk (later known as Helen) and little Makpii (later to be known as Ruth) went along.

Ruth Makpii Ipalook in a photograph taken in 2001 when she visited Iqaluit at the age of 90. Ipalook, who died June 2 in Anchorage, Alaska, was the last surviving member of the ill-fated voyage of the Karluk.

Qiruk - whom all the crew came to know as "Auntie" - would be busy; in addition to looking after her two children, she was seamstress, sewing skin clothing for 27 men.

Things started badly, and ended even worse. Ice prevented the ship from reaching Banks Island and it spent the early part of the winter locked in the ice of the Beaufort Sea. Stefansson, with five men, left the ship in September on a hunting expedition to the Alaskan coast and never returned; he spent the winter safely with the expedition's two other ships.

Meanwhile the Karluk drifted westward with the ice, slowly, towards Siberia. Kurraluk and another hunter, Kataktovik, kept the expedition supplied with fresh seal and walrus meat throughout the ordeal.

But on January 10, tragedy struck. The Karluk, built as a fishing ship for California, was never meant for the Arctic ice, and on that day she succumbed to its relentless pressure. The crew, the scientific staff and the Inuit took refuge on the ice, where they had already constructed a house of boxes and barrels, and an attached snowhouse for the Inuit.

Robert Bartlett, the captain of the Karluk, knew that their only hope of survival was to reach uninhabited Wrangel Island, north of Siberia. Eight men died on the ice of the Arctic Ocean in the attempt.

Makpii herself almost perished. Her daughter, Emily ­Wilson, recounted the tale that has been passed down in the family. "One night as the tired party slept fully clothed in case of emergency," she said, "my grandmother heard the sudden cracking of the ice and then saw the ice crack right under my mother. There wasn't even time to grab her. She just pushed her right to the other side of the crack, and that saved her life. Otherwise my mother would have fallen into the sea right there."

Makpii was remembered throughout her life for her unflappable cheerfulness. On one particularly bad day on the ice, her father, faced with the daunting task of feeding so many men, addressed her in Inupiat, "Makpii, are we going to live out this year?" Her cheerful reply was, "We're living now, and we're going to keep on living!"

For those that made it to Wrangel Island, the spring and summer that followed were marked by privation and the deaths of three more men. Bartlett and Kataktovik made an epic journey by sledge and foot to the Siberian mainland and from there to East Cape, where they crossed to Alaska and arranged rescue for those stranded on Wrangel Island.

Despite the written record of history, family lore says that Makpii, who had turned three in April, was the first to spot the ship. "Umiaqpak," she cried, as the trading vessel King and Winge came into view. Rescue had arrived. The following day, the twelve survivors transferred to the Bear, and sailed for Nome.

Makpii came through the whole terrible ordeal with only a scratch to her chin. Fred Maurer's black cat, with the tongue-twisting name of Niigugauraq, survived the entire trip. Makpii was always chasing the cat and one day it scratched her badly, leaving a scar that was visible for the rest of her long life.

Kurraluk and his family left the ship in Nome for their long overland journey to Barrow. Makpii grew up there. Qiruk had two more children, both boys. The parents named one of them Bartlett, in honour of the fearless Newfoundland captain.

Makpii, or Ruth as she was also known, married Fred Ipalook. They had nine children, four of whom died in infancy. Three boys and two girls grew to adulthood. A young girl was adopted in from another family.

Makpii was a housewife, and later a cook in a cafeteria. She loved to sew. Emily Wilson recalled, "I learned how to sew parkas from her, and how to knit socks. Mother learned how to make dresses by looking at pictures in old catalogues." Her children taught her how to speak English as they were growing up. She was a religious woman, in a family that is still strongly Presbyterian.

A photograph of a laughing young Makpii, taken in Nome after her rescue, is the only cheerful image from an otherwise disastrous expedition.

Ruth Makpii Ipalook suffered a fall and broke her hip in May. She passed away June 2 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97. She was buried in Barrow. She is survived by her sons, Lloyd and Arthur, and her daughters, Emily and Juanita, and by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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.

July 11, 2008


The Wisdom of Aua


February 1922. Knud Rasmussen, Danish-Greenlandic ethnographer and explorer, was travelling by sled with his Polar Inuit companions along the shores of Foxe Basin, north of Lyon Inlet.

They were about to make camp for the night when suddenly, out of the darkness, appeared a team of 15 white dogs pulling a long sled carrying six men. Sighting the party of strangers, a small man with a long beard, his face framed in ice and snow, leapt from the sled and ran towards Rasmussen.

This, wrote Rasmussen, was Aua, the shaman.

Rasmussen's mission was to study and record the myths and legends, the beliefs and the life stories of the Inuit of Canada who had had little contact with outsiders. He spoke Greenlandic fluently, and so he was easily able to understand the dialects he encountered on his sled-quest across Canada's north.

He had heard of Aua from Inuit he had already met in Foxe Basin and was overjoyed to finally meet him. From Aua, his garrulous wife Orulo, and the others who lived in Aua's camp, Rasmussen learned much about the customs of the Inuit.

Through several evenings of discussions with the men of the camp about the rules and taboos that governed life, it was apparent that everyone knew what had to be done in any given situation.

But Rasmussen wanted to know more. He wanted to know why. And to this simple question, he wrote, they could give no answer. "They regarded it as unreasonable," he added, "that I should require not only an account, but also a justification, of their religious principles."

One evening, unable to answer the repeated question of "Why," Aua rose suddenly and invited Rasmussen to follow him outside, where a storm raged. He pointed to the ice, and calmly remarked:

"In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?"

By chance hunters were returning from an unsuccessful day of hunting for seals at the blowholes on the ice. Their efforts had been in vain, and Aua, turning the tables again, asked his companion, "Why?" Rasmussen could give no answer.

Aua led him to Kublo's snowhouse, where the qulliq gave barely enough light and offered no heat to the children shivering under a skin blanket.

"Why should it be cold and comfortless in here?" the shaman asked. "Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful, the children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?"

They continued to the house of Aua's sister, Natseq, where Aua again questioned his questioner:

"Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil; she has lived through a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days end. Why? Why?"

Silently they returned to Aua's snowhouse and resumed their conversation.

"You see," Aua began. "You are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life. We explain nothing, we believe nothing. But in what I have just shown you lies our answer to all you ask.

"We fear the weather spirit of earth, that we must fight against to wrest our food from land and sea. We fear Sila."

"We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts."

"We fear Takannakapsaaluk, the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beasts of the sea."

"We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering. We fear the evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and the earth, that can help wicked shamans to harm their fellow men."

"We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed."

"Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard of in our forefathers' stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not the same as those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways."

This was Aua's explanation. Clearly and calmly, he had outlined to Rasmussen why his question of "why" must remain an enigma.

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.

July 4, 2008


Butterfly Bay


One of the names that Charles Francis Hall placed on the map of Baffin Island was Tukeliketa Bay. Of course Hall, with his penchant for writing long Inuktitut words in syllables separated by hyphens, wrote it as Tuk-e-lik-e-ta.

This bay, north of Cyrus Field Bay, was named for Hannah and Joe’s son, born in 1861 before the couple left for the United States with Hall. In Inuktitut, the name should properly be spelled Tarralikitaq. It means butterfly.

Hall wrote of the boy for whom he named the bay, “I never saw a more animated, sweet-tempered, bright-looking child. Its imitativeness was largely developed, and was most engaging. Tuk-e-lik-e-ta was a child to be remembered by all who ever saw him.”

Unfortunately, neither the child nor his name on the map survived. The little boy died in New York in February of 1863, only 18 months old.

The name on the map survived longer. But in 1944, the United States Hydrographic Service asked the Canadian Department of Mines and Resources, Surveys and Engineering Branch, to confirm as official a list of 247 names in Frobisher Bay and vicinity for a marine map the U.S. government was making. One of the names on the list was Tukelik Bay. Somehow, over the years, Hall’s Tukeliketa had been abbreviated to Tukelik.

K. G. Chipman, a member of the executive committee of the Geographic Board of Canada, was not satisfied with the spelling of five of the Inuktitut place names listed, and wanted the “form and spelling” referred to the anthropologist, Diamond Jenness, then an advisor to the board.

Jenness studied the list and commented that Tukelik was probably intended to be “Tarkalikitark, meaning butterfly or moth,” noting that “the word cannot be shortened and still retain any meaning.”

Jenness was correct in that “Tarkalikitark” cannot be abbreviated. But ironically, he seemed unaware that “tukilik” (pronounced the same as the offending “tukelik”) means, among other possibilities, “that which has meaning”! Jenness misunderstood or simply didn’t know the meanings of some of the other Inuktitut words on Chipman’s list and recommended that some be replaced with English names.

When Chipman saw Jenness’s reply, he wrote back to J. H. Corry, the board’s secretary, with his opinion, “I think it would simply make the Board appear ridiculous if we were to approve Eskimo names which are meaningless and unintelligible or inexplicable. I recommend that the advice of Dr. Jenness be followed.”

Inexplicably, F. H. Peters, the Surveyor-General and Chief of the Hydrographic Service, instead of using Jenness’s spelling of Tarkalikitark or restoring the original Tukelikita to the map in place of the discredited Tukelik, recommended it be discarded completely and replaced with the English translation Butterfly Bay. None of the other four Inuktitut names that Chipman had questioned survived Jenness’s and Peters’s scrutiny either. One was replaced with an English mistranslation. The others were replaced with English names that had nothing to do with the original Inuktitut ones.

And so, through a series of errors and misunderstandings, the name of Tarralikitaq, son of Joe and Hannah, survives on the map of Baffin Island only in translated form as Butterfly Bay.

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


Takuginai joins the parade. The cast of the Inuit Broadcasting Corp.’s popular Takuginai children’s show rode their own float at Iqaluit’s Canada Day parade this past July 1.