January 27, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Feb. 1, 1924 — The Only Hanging of Inuit in Canada


In 1920, word reached Cst. W. A. Doak at the newly-established Tree River RCMP detachment that five Inuit had been murdered on Kent Peninsula. Doak set out to investigate. He discovered that a number of the reported killings had occurred because of domestic disputes. One man, Tatamigana, had killed two other men, then together with his nephew, Alikomiak, a young man about 16 or 18 years of age, killed a third man, Pugnana. Doak arrested both men and took them back to Tree River.

The officer took a personal interest in young Alikomiak and made him a kind of servant. Alikomiak cleaned the house, looked after Doak’s clothing, and did other menial work. On April 1, Doak rose from bed and called for his young servant to bring him his sealskin boots. Alikomiak threw them to him, but Doak threw them back at him, telling him that the soles were not supple enough and needed to be chewed.

This was woman’s work, as Alikomiak well knew. He also spilled the slop bucket, and was chastised and thrown out of the house. Alikomiak brooded throughout the day. That night he went to a storehouse and came out with a rifle and four bullets. He entered the house and, with no warning, shot Doak in the upper leg. He then sat down and calmly watched as the officer bled to death.

The trader, Otto Binder, who lived nearby, was in the habit of making a morning call on Doak. The next morning, when Binder was half-way to the police post, Alikomiak broke out a window pane and fired one shot through the trader’s heart. He died instantly. Alikomiak then went to Binder’s house and told the trader’s Inuit common-law wife what he had done, and announced that he was going to the camp nearby to kill all the other white men. One of the Inuit secretly sent his son ahead to warn the whites, and Sgt. Woolams arrested Alikomiak, who had just finished boasting that killing a white man was as easy as killing a ptarmigan.

That summer Alikomiak and Tatamigana were both taken to Herschel Island aboard a Hudson’s Bay Co. ship. They would be tried for murder. But the policy makers in Ottawa had made a strategic decision. Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, two Inuit who had earlier been tried for the killing of two priests, had been treated leniently, to no avail; the leniency shown them had not deterred further murders. This time there would be no leniency. Tatamigana and Alikomiak would be found guilty and hanged.

The RCMP wrote to the Department of the Interior in 1922, recommending that a trial be held in the Arctic, where Inuit could see first-hand the workings of white man’s justice. T. L. Cory, solicitor for the Northwest Territories Branch, concurred when he wrote, “The advantage in having the accused murderers tried in their own country among their own people, will be to bring home to the natives the result of their comrades’ actions... As kindness has failed in the past I strongly recommend that the law should take its course and those Eskimos found guilty of murder should be hanged in a place where natives will see and recognize the outcome of taking another life.” Amazingly, only a few months later, Cory was appointed to defend the very men he had thought should be hanged.

Judge Lucien Dubuc of Edmonton, a stipendiary magistrate of the Northwest Territories, was assigned to carry out the trial at Herschel Island. The jurors were all white.

Tatamigana was convicted of the murder of Ikpukwak, but the six-man jury recommended mercy. Both Tatamigana and Alikomiak were next convicted of killing Pugnana and sentenced to death. Finally Alikomiak was tried for the murder of Constable Doak. The trial occurred on July 18, 1923, and took only one day. The verdict was guilty.

But the trial, regardless of the guilt of Alikomiak, was a sham. The lumber to build the gallows accompanied the judge’s party when it left Edmonton. A hangman travelled incognito with the court party. But most damning is the existence of a telegram from the Deputy Minister of Justice to Judge Dubuc before the judge’s departure from Edmonton for Herschel Island. It reads, “Eskimo trials you should consult police authorities as to the date and place of execution, understand they favour Herschel Island.”

So the authorities had decided before the trial that a verdict of guilty would be the result, and that the inevitable sentence of death would result in a hanging.

Judge Dubuc waited some weeks before actually passing sentence. By the time he did, the gallows had already been constructed in the Herschel Island bone house, an old building for drying whale bone, left over from whaling days. After sentence was passed, Alikomiak, grinning and uncomprehending, left the prisoner’s dock and handed the judge a cigarette as he passed the bench.

The executions took place on February 1, 1924. At dawn on that date, Alikomiak and Tatamigana were led to the gallows. They appeared to be in high spirits and shook hands with everyone there. Alikomiak offered the executioner a cigarette and gave a small ivory carving to the wife of the police superintendent. But once he stood on the scaffold, his final words were a declaration that the police had long been the enemies of his people. Both men were buried in the graveyard at Herschel Island.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

January 20, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Jan. 21, 1926 - The Passing of Lars Møller, Greenland's Printer

Lars Møller, a hunter, fisherman, printer and lithographer, served as the editor of the Greenland newspaper Atuagagdliutit from 1874 until 1822. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Greenland has the longest history of printing and publication in an Eskimo language, of any of the four countries in which Inuit live. After the colonization of Greenland by missionaries began in 1721, hymn books, prayer books, and eventually translations of the Bible were published in Europe.

But in 1793 the long tradition of publishing in Greenland itself began. A missionary, Jesper Brodersen, brought a primitive printing press to Nuuk (then called Godthaab) from Germany, and on it he printed a psalm book, "Tuksiautit akioreeksautikset," usually translated as "Choral Songs." This oldest example of Greenlandic printing is also the rarest - only one copy is known to exist, in the Royal Library in Copenhagen, and it is incomplete.

Printing in Greenland then took a holiday for a half century before Hinrich Rink, the Danish inspector for South Greenland, reintroduced it in 1855. Rink apparently found Brodersen's press and began to print some small informational items on it. The first was a handbill dated Oct. 21, 1855. It was, in fact, a mini-newspaper. The text was in Greenlandic and read:

"Exciting news! The ship, which will make two voyages this year, has arrived. England and Russia are waging mighty war against each other, but there is no fighting in the North (i.e. in Denmark). When the King was out riding recently he fell off his horse and injured himself, but is now recovering. Reindeer hunting has been bad in this district, but there are many seals. God be praised, there is almost no sickness. The Danes in Godthaab wish you all well!"

In 1857, Rink brought back from Denmark a small printing press and a lithographic press, and printing in Greenland entered a new era. Five men were largely responsible for the cultural renaissance that followed. One was Rink himself, the enlightened inspector who encouraged Greenlanders to use the new medium of print to educate and inform. Another was Carl Emil Janssen, the Danish priest and principal of the seminary in Nuuk. Samuel Kleinschmidt, a Moravian missionary, became well-known for his writings in Greenlandic and for his standardization of the Greenlandic orthography. But it is unlikely that their efforts would have had the success that they did without the collaboration of two Greenlanders, Rasmus Berthelsen and Lars Møller.

Berthelsen had worked with Rink on his earlier publications using Brodersen's press. The son of a hunter in Holsteinsborg (now Sisimiut), he was educated in Godthaab and Denmark. This multi-talented man was a poet and composer, as well as being a self-taught wood engraver and printer. Lars Møller, known affectionately to everyone in Nuuk as Arqaluk, had been a hunter and fisherman, but trained as a printer and lithographer for a short period in Denmark, before returning to Nuuk and apprenticing under Berthelsen.

Perhaps the scarcest of the books that these two men produced under Rink's watchful guidance was what is known as the Pok book. The full title (in translation) almost tells the whole story; it was: "Pok, a Greenlander who has traveled abroad and on his return tells of his adventures to his fellow country men, and meets the priest and enters into discussions with him. From ancient manuscripts found among the Greenlanders at Godthaab." Printed in 1857, it told about a Greenlander's experiences in Denmark over a century earlier. These books, immediately popular up and down the coast, were not distributed free of charge but rather were sold in community stores. A notation in the book informed the readers that the proceeds of the sale would be distributed to support widows whose husbands had drowned in kayak accidents.

The crowning achievement of these men was the publication of a national newspaper, Atuagagdliutit. It had long been Rink's dream. It commenced publication in January of 1861, and is still published under the same name today, although now it is a bilingual paper. Rasmus Berthelsen was the paper's editor from its inception, and Lars Møller his secretary and assistant. In 1874 Berthelsen stepped down and Møller became editor. He held the position until his retirement in 1922.

Atuagagliutit appeared to be a monthly paper, but in fact the monthly issues were bound annually as a book and distributed to the local councils, which lent them out to heads of families. They were read and passed back, to be relent to other families. As a result, sets of this periodical are extremely rare today, and prized among collectors. The contents were eclectic - they included memoirs of native Greenlanders, hunting stories, reports of wars and battles, and a Greenlandic translation of Robinson Crusoe.

Holding the position of editor for almost half a century put Møller in a position of tremendous influence in Greenland. A modest man, he used his position fairly and for the betterment of his countrymen.

It was not until he reached the age of eighty that he retired. Four years later he died. A commemorative issue of Atuagagliutit marked his passing. It was entitled simply: "Lars Møller, the Greenlander."

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

January 13, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Jan. 16, 1893 – “The Most Famous Inuk in the World”

A group of Inuit from Labrador photographed in a studio in Chicago in 1893. Nancy Columbia is the baby being held by her mother, Esther Enutseak. Estherís father, Abile, is standing behind her, and her mother, Helena, is seated next to her. (HARPER COLLECTION)

In 1893, there was no Discovery Channel, no National Geographic, and very little international travel. Yet people were curious about distant lands, and about the people who lived in them. In North America, if those far-off people were not white, they were considered exotic, or primitive. And among the main objects of interest and curiousity were “Esquimaux.” (In those days, the old French spelling was still preferred.)

In 1893, an international exhibition was held in Chicago, to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World. (The exhibition had been some years in planning, but became such a mammoth undertaking that it was a year late in opening.) Officially known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, it was popularly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair. A contract was signed with a company based in Seattle, to operate an “Eskimo Village and Labrador Trading Post” at the fair. And so in the summer of 1892 a ship, the Evalina, headed for the coast of Labrador to recruit a cargo of Inuit to bring to the fair.

By late summer the ship had put in at a number of settlements on the Labrador coast. The promoters promised the Inuit that they would be paid for their attendance and performances at the fair. In return for lodging and food and a pittance in real money, they would be expected to put on demonstrations of kayaking, dog-sledding, native music, and hunting and fishing methods. By the time the ship was ready to depart, it had 58 Inuit aboard, along with 20 dogs, kayaks, sleds, tents, and personal effects.

The vessel reached Boston on October 14, and almost immediately the human cargo was transferred to rail cars, which set off for Chicago. They reached “the Windy City” three days later. The fair would not open for a number of months, so the Inuit men were set to work to assist in the construction of the very dwellings that they would live in, the so-called Eskimo Village.

Some of the Inuit women were pregnant when they left Labrador. On Nov. 1, the first Inuit baby was born in Chicago, and the promoters of the fair named her Columbia Susan, in honour of the fair. Unfortunately, she died less than a week later. But only two days after her birth another girl was born. Her parents were Kupah and Kuttukitok from the farthest northern part of Labrador. The organizers named their baby Evalina, after the ship that had brought them to America. By the end of that same month, a boy had been born. It’s not known what name his parents gave him, but the promoters called him Christopher Columbus!

The birth of each of these children was written up in the American newspapers in 1892. But the most famous Inuit baby of all was yet to be born. When the Evalina left Labrador, three of its passengers were a man named Abile, his wife, Helena, and Esther Enutseak, their daughter. Esther was only sixteen, unmarried, but pregnant. On January 16, 1893 she gave birth to a daughter.

Once again, fair officials had a hand in her naming. She was given the unwieldy name Nancy Helena Columbia Palmer. Nancy was said to be named after Abraham Lincoln’s mother, although it was a reasonably common name in Labrador at the time, and it may just as easily have been the name that Esther or her parents chose for the baby. Helena was for her grandmother. Columbia, of course — well, you know! And Palmer? Mrs. Potter Palmer, wife of a prominent exposition official and herself president of its Board of Lady Managers, took an interest in the child, became her godmother and gave her her name. She was usually known as Nancy Columbia.

When the fair ended, many of the Inuit did not go immediately back to Labrador — in fact it seems that some never made it back. Esther’s parents eventually returned to Labrador with Nancy, while Esther remained in New York City.

But a few years later, a promoter hired them all again and took them to Europe. From there they returned to the United States in 1901, where the three generations of this unique Inuit family performed in an Esquimaux Village at a major exposition in Buffalo in 1901, then again at St. Louis in 1904, and at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909. In Seattle, at the age of sixteen, Columbia, as she then called herself, won the beauty contest on the “Pay Streak,” the fair’s midway. In between fairs, the family performed with circuses and at the great New York amusement park at Coney Island.

Nancy Columbia was the most famous Inuk in the world, and certainly the most photographed. Born to a life of show business, she lived that life for all of her childhood and young adulthood. Long before “Nanook of the North” was filmed, Nancy and her family starred in two silent movies about the North; unfortunately no copies of them have survived. It was a long way from Labrador into the hearts of Americans from coast to coast. But Nancy made that journey, always smiling for the cameras, dressed in her trademark furs, and creating in American minds impressions — real or not — of Inuit life.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

January 6, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Jan. 11, 1914 – The sinking of the Karluk

Mukpie, the youngest passenger aboard the Karluk, whose doomed 1914 voyage permanently tarnished Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s reputation.

In 1913 the Canadian government sponsored an expedition to the western Canadian Arctic — today’s Kitikmeot Region — to carry out scientific work and geographical exploration. It was led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian of Icelandic origin, who would end up with a reputation seriously tarnished by the results of the expedition.

Stefansson himself commanded the expedition’s Northern Division, the one that would have exploration as its main objective. His ship, the Karluk, commanded by the veteran Newfoundland captain, Bob Bartlett, sailed from Victoria in July of 1913. The party had planned to winter at Banks Island, but ice prevented the ship from reaching the island. Instead, the ship spent the winter locked in the icy grip of the Beaufort Sea. This was, in fact, Stefansson’s own fault, for the departure of the ship from Victoria had been delayed while he continued to raise money.

Stefansson was one the few men on board who knew how to hunt. In September, he left the ship, taking five men with him — including two Alaskan Inuit — on what he said would be a hunting expedition to the Alaskan mainland. In fact, he made no attempt to return to the Karluk; he and his party wintered with the expedition’s other two ships at Collinson Point. Stefansson subsequently claimed that he had tried to return to his ship, but critics forever after accused him of abandoning the ship and its crew, and bearing personal responsibility for the tragedy that ensued.

While Stefansson wintered in relative comfort, the Karluk drifted westward towards Siberia for three months in the dead of winter, at the mercy of the wind, weather and cold. On January 10th, the crew was awakened by a harsh grating sound. A crack along the starboard length of the ship had opened and she was taking on water. That evening, realizing that the situation was hopeless, Captain Bartlett ordered the crew to abandon ship. Most of the men had no Arctic experience, but they were assisted by two Inuit, Kuraluk (whose wife, Kiruk, and two children, Helen and Mukpie (Mugpi), were with the expedition), and Kataktovik. Both men were excellent hunters, who kept the expedition supplied with fresh seal meat during the westward drift.

Captain Bartlett remained aboard ship that night, clearly distraught at the impending loss of a vessel under his command. William Laird McKinlay, a diminutive Scottish mathematics teacher who had signed on as meteorologist and magnetician, described that night:

“He had a huge fire roaring in the galley stove, and he had moved the gramophone in with the full stock of records. He played them one by one, throwing each record as it ended into the galley fire. He found Chopin’s Funeral March, played it over and laid it aside. He was really very comfortable, eating when he felt like it and drinking plenty of coffee and tea. There was just enough ice pressure to keep the ship from sinking... All day the Captain remained on board. For hours nothing changed. The ship was full of water and only prevented from sinking by the grip of the ice... Then at 3:15 a shout, ‘She’s going!’ brought everyone on to the ice. The Karluk was settling down at the bow. As the minutes went by, the deck sank almost entirely under water. Captain Bartlett put the Funeral March on the Victrola. With the water running along the starboard side of the deck and pouring down the hatches, he waited at the rail until it came down level with the ice. Then he stepped off. The Karluk slowly settled by the bow and sank gradually... Captain Bartlett, deeply moved, stood right alongside her until she was gone.”

The worst was yet to come. When Stefansson had abandoned the party, he had taken twelve of the best dogs with him. Now, with poor dogs, the remains of the Northern Division set out over the ice for Wrangel Island, north of Siberia. The Karluk’s first officer, Sandy Anderson, only 20 years old, was the first to die. An indication of the severity of the conditions is evident from the fact that two of the others who died early in the attempt to reach the island were two men who had been with Shackleton in the Antarctic in 1909, and who had crossed the land ice near the South Pole. In all, 11 men died on the ice of the Arctic Ocean or on Wrangel Island itself. Bob Bartlett and Kataktovik made an astounding journey to seek help, by sledge and foot to the Siberian mainland, then 700 miles along the coast of Siberia to East Cape, from where they crossed Bering Strait to St. Michael’s, south of Nome. From there Bartlett sent an urgent appeal for assistance.

The survivors of the Wrangel Island party were rescued by a trading vessel, the King and Winge on September 7. The U. S. Revenue steamer, the Bear, met that vessel a day later, with Bartlett aboard. The survivors owed their lives to Bartlett, and to the Inuit hunter Kuraluk and his wife. They owed nothing to Stefansson.

There is a local connection to this story. George Malloch, expedition geologist, who lies buried on Wrangel Island, is the great-grandfather of Patrick Akpalialuk, formerly of Pangnirtung and Iqaluit.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.