December 22, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Dec. 25, 1878 – Santa Claus Comes to the Aivilingmiut


In 1878 the last of the American Franklin search expeditions left New York, bound for Hudson Bay. Sponsored by the American Geographical Society and financed on a shoe-string budget, the party travelled aboard a whaler, Eothen, which landed them at Camp Daly, just north of Chesterfield Inlet, where they passed their first winter.

This was indeed a small expedition. Its leader, Frederick Schwatka, was an American army officer. He was accompanied by William H. Gilder, a correspondent for the New York Herald; Heinrich Klutschak, a Czech artist and surveyor; another American named Frank Melms, and the famous Inuit interpreter, Joseph Ebierbing, whose Inuktitut name was really Ipiirvik, but who was universally known as Eskimo Joe.

Joe quickly became friends with the Aivilingmiut, a number of whom made camp near the white newcomers. They had heard of Joe’s reputation from his earlier travels in Hudson Bay with Charles Francis Hall. His wife, Hannah, who had accompanied him on those earlier expeditions, had died in the United States two years earlier, and Joe found a new wife among the Aivilingmiut shortly after his arrival.

Joe was a hunter who doubled as interpreter, although his English was rough, despite his many years of travelling with explorers. The white men’s knowledge of Inuktitut was as rough as Joe’s knowledge of English, and the account of this remarkable Christmas is riddled with the type of pidgin that often characterized meetings between Inuit and whalers or explorers.

Joe travelled and hunted with his new family that fall, and returned to camp just three days before Christmas. Accustomed as he was to life in the south, he was anxious to celebrate Christmas among his white companions, at the same time wanting to show off some of his knowledge of a southern Christmas to the Inuit.

As the writer, Gilder, expressed it, “Joe had explained to his companions this periodical generosity of white men which broke out in midwinter, and they, too, were anxious to be on hand when the giving commenced.”

Joe asked Schwatka if “any man he hang he stocking?” Schwatka told him that there would be no hanging of stockings this Christmas. But Gilder hatched a plan. After Joe and his wife had gone to sleep, he got Tulugaq to pilfer one of Joe’s stockings and one of his wife’s, explaining that he wanted to play a joke on Joe. The stockings were loaded with gifts in Schwatka’s snowhouse, then replaced under Joe’s caribou skin blanket.

In the morning Joe complained that one of his stockings was missing. When he discovered it, he pulled from it a frozen rabbit, a jack-knife, some matches and tobacco, bullets, caps and powder, and finally a fine-toothed comb. His wife found her stocking stuffed with hard-tack, a paper of needles, some thread and a thimble. Then the joke was on Tulugaq when he discovered one of his own stockings and his wife’s stuffed with the same articles.

Joe remarked, “I guess Santa Claus come this side, anyhow,” and tried to explain to the perplexed Aivilingmiut who Santa Claus was. But the Inuit would have none of it. The gifts, they insisted, came from Lieutenant Schwatka and William Gilder.

But Joe still thought something was missing. “No likee Keesmiss without Keesmiss Tree,” he complained. The artist, Klutschak, reassured him, “Never mind, Joe. Watchow Santa Claus kyete.” (“By and by Santa Claus will come,” Gilder remarked parenthetically.)

In the afternoon Klutschak paid a surreptitious visit to a man named Armow in the local village. About an hour later, a sled drawn by a dozen dogs raced towards Schwatka’s camp. It was guided by a big man clad in white fur robes, urging his dogs on with a booming voice that let everyone know that it was Armow himself.

“The sled stopped at the door of our tent,” wrote Gilder, “and up jumped Armow, covered from head to foot with a huge polar bear skin. On the sled were two large bags made of walrus hide, from one of which this Arctic Santa Claus took handfuls of hardtack which he scattered right and left among the crowd as preliminary largess. The delighted natives scrambled for these pieces of ship’s biscuit with as much pleasure and avidity as ever a crowd of civilized urchins did for candy or money.”

“When this part of the performance was concluded he opened the other bag, and calling in a loud voice, ‘Iggaaktualuk,’ which is Lieutenant Schwatka’s Eskimo name, handed out a handsome brand-new suit of fur clothing to our astonished and delighted commander.”

Armow proceeded to hand out a new fur suit to every white man in the party. Then there were gifts for every member of the Inuit community: hunting knives, snow knives, tobacco and ammunition for the men, and knives, needles, thread, thimbles and matches for the women. The visit of this Arctic Santa had been surreptitiously arranged, probably by Klutschak with the help of Joe, who longed for a southern Christmas.

Other activities marked the day. A target shooting match was organized. Then the white men visited the Inuit in their homes and took part in their games. Finally, the day was topped off with a dinner of boiled char with melted margarine sauce, fried caribou steaks, pork and pancakes. “Taken altogether,” wrote Gilder, “there never was another such a Christmas Day in Esquimaux Land.”

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

December 15, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Dec. 21, 1913 – Church at Lake Harbour Opens


When the London-based Church Missionary Society closed its station at Blacklead Island in Cumberland Sound in 1905, the religious needs of the Inuit in southern Baffin Island were left in the hands of local men trained by Reverends Peck, Bilby and Greenshield.

Then in 1909 the Anglican Church decided to open a mission at Lake Harbour, now Kimmirut, on the south coast of Baffin Island, in Hudson Strait. A small vessel, Lorna Doone, was chartered in St. John’s to carry supplies for a four-room mission house and the necessities of life for two years. Reverend Peck, now superintendent of the church’s arctic mission, accompanied the two missionaries who would remain at Lake Harbour, the veteran Julian Bilby and the newcomer, Archibald Lang Fleming.

As at Blacklead Island, so too at Lake Harbour, the missionaries were not the first white men there. The Inuit of the Baffin coast of Hudson Strait had traded with Hudson’s Bay Company ships bound farther west for well over a century. A Scottish whaling enterprise, Robert Kinnes and Company, had a mica mine near Lake Harbour at which both Inuit and white men were employed. In addition, about 80 men worked seasonally in Kinnes’s whaling operation. Moreover, some of the Inuit had been to the Blacklead Mission and had heard the gospel there. But Bilby and Fleming would be the first trained missionaries to live among them.

The first church service conducted at Lake Harbour was an open air one that Peck held on Sunday, August 29, shortly after the missionaries’ arrival, “under the shadow of a rocky cliff.”

With the ship still in harbour, the missionaries and their Inuit helpers quickly erected the dwelling that would be the missionaries’ home. Putting up the shell of the building took a week, so that on the following Sunday, Sept. 5, they were able to hold their service inside the cramped dwelling. “Thus was it dedicated to the service of God,” wrote Fleming. But it still wasn’t a church. That would have to wait.

Eventually it was decided to modify a small storehouse by removing one end and adding to that open end a second building, the frame of which had been prefabricated in St. John’s in 1909 but had not been sent up until 1912. Bilby erected the frame.

Then both buildings, now one, had to be completely renovated. Fleming noted, “The result of our work really seems quite satisfactory, and we are justly proud of the little building when we compare it with the places in which we have hitherto had to hold our services.”

In September of 1913, with the church still not quite ready for use, Bilby departed Lake Harbour aboard the ship, Pelican, leaving Fleming to finish the building and continue missionary work on Baffin Island alone. The next year, in his annual letter, he wrote about the first service held in the new church:

“On Sunday, 21st December, 1913, the little church at Lake Harbour was formally opened. It was far from being complete, but the intense cold had made it impossible to do anything more to it for the present. In the morning we had a joint service for white men and Eskimo, when everyone turned out.”

He continued in the deprecating tone that missionaries often adopted in letters to their far-off supporters, “It was most interesting to see the extraordinary decorum with which the Eskimo conducted themselves in the Church, and their soft staccato singing contrasted strangely with the more refined music of the English voices. In the afternoon the services were for Eskimo only. After worshipping in a snow hut at camp it was a great comfort to come into the Church where everything was clean, where the atmospheric conditions were somewhat more normal, and where no unseemly spectacles disturbed one’s thoughts and meditations.”

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

December 8, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Dec. 9, 1939 – Mercy Flight to Repulse Bay


Father Joseph Buliard lay injured and in agony in Repulse Bay. Not exactly dying. But it could yet come to that.

A 25-year-old French missionary, he had been in the Arctic, at Our Lady of the Snows mission, for only three months. On Nov. 6, he was hunting alone on the ice of the bay, about three miles from his mission. Suddenly the ice broke beneath him. The temperature was minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

He was in the water for about 10 minutes, struggling to pull himself up onto the ice surface. Time and time again, the ice gave way under his weight, until finally he found a patch that was strong enough. Once back on the surface of the ice, he was not out of danger. His clothes were wet, his mitts were gone. He stumbled for about an hour in the direction of the tiny community before someone spotted the distant figure, lurching uncontrollably, and came to his rescue. His hands were the most badly injured part of him. They were frozen.

When his fingers began to turn black, it was apparent that he needed urgent medical attention. His fellow priest sent a message to Bishop Turquetil, who contacted Canadian Airways. Their man in Montreal sent an urgent telegram to Punch Dickens, a veteran of northern flying, who was the airline’s general superintendent:

“Msgr. Turquetil wants badly injured missionary rushed out from Repulse Bay with minimum delay as otherwise man will be maimed for life. Realizes difficult conditions but very anxious we make attempt.”

The company had a policy of not taking any charter work on the west coast of Hudson Bay from freeze-up until April. Conditions were simply too dangerous. Dickens would not order any of his pilots to make the flight. But he decided that if a crew were to volunteer, then he would approve the rescue attempt.

Bill Catton volunteered to pilot the aircraft, A. J. Hollingsworth volunteered as co-pilot and radio operator, and Rex Terpenning would accompany them as engineer. Dickens made available a single-engined Junkers, CF-ASN, with eight years of northern service. Its range was 300 to 400 miles, so the plane would have to hop-scotch its way north, stopping for fuel at a number of points between Winnipeg and Repulse Bay.

But the weather was not co-operative and Father Buliard’s condition was worsening. On Nov. 16, using only a kitchen knife and no anaesthetic, the other priest cut away pieces of rotting flesh from the priest’s fingers. Two days later, Dickens received another telegram: “Patient at Repulse taken turn for worse.”

The plane was delayed at its base, Lac du Bonnet, just north of Winnipeg, for a week. The weather was dismal, alternately fog, rain and sleet. Another message came in: “The condition of Father Buliard is critical, every minute counts.”

On Nov. 27, they were able to leave Lac du Bonnet and continue to God’s Lake. There they changed the wheels to skis, refueled, and made it to Ilford before dark. But fog prevented their departure for two days. Leaving Ilford, they navigated by following the railway tracks to Churchill. From there the task became trickier. The Keewatin coast is flat with few landmarks visible from the air. On Dec. 1, they left Churchill, refueled at Eskimo Point, and continued on to Chesterfield Inlet.

As soon as they landed, they received news that gangrene was spreading on the hands of Buliard. Time was of the essence. But bad weather had followed them north, and a blizzard kept them grounded at Chesterfield for four days.

Dec. 9 dawned clear and cold. They were off early for the longest and most dangerous leg of the flight. Headwinds bedeviled them. The engineer pumped gas to the wing tanks with a hand pump from the spare drum they had prudently carried. At thirty minutes past noon, CF-ASN touched down on the ice of Repulse Bay, with only twenty minutes fuel remaining. It would soon be dark. They would have to overnight.

The next morning they were off at first light. Just past noon, they landed near the mission hospital at Chesterfield Inlet. It was meant to be a short stop, but once again a blizzard overtook them. They were grounded for two days.

But the nuns were able to attend to Father Buliard’s gangrenous hands. On December 13 they were off again, with the priest aboard, to refuel at Eskimo Point and then make Churchill and on to God’s Lake. There the “impossible flying weather” kept them on the ground for five days. Finally, they reached base at Lac du Bonnet and Father Buliard was transferred immediately to hospital at St. Boniface.

This early air rescue has been called “one of the greatest mercy flights ever made in North America.” Father Joseph Buliard did not lose his hands or his life. The following summer he returned to Our Lady of the Snows at Repulse Bay.

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

December 1, 2006

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Dec. 4, 1791 – The Birth of Jane Griffin, the Future Lady Franklin


Jane Griffin, the future Lady Franklin.

Some years ago I stayed in a small hotel in London, Penn House. There was nothing special about it. Indeed, the rooms were cramped and the washrooms were down the hall. It was not until many years later that I learned that this hotel, once a fashionable row house, had been one of the childhood homes of Lady Jane Franklin.

Jane Griffin was born on Dec. 4, 1791. Her father was a silk weaver and he saw to it that his daughter had a good boarding school education. As a young woman, she continued to study, immersing herself in religion, history, languages, mathematics and music. Intelligent, she developed a life-long curiosity that would lead her to become one of the foremost female travelers and adventurers of her time. She was also an inveterate writer, filling thousands of pages of journals with observations on her travels.

A journal she kept in 1818 contains her first reference to the Arctic, but it was only a passing mention of the Buchan and Franklin expedition that attempted to reach the North Pole that year. Five years later she met John Franklin when her close friend, Eleanor Porden, married him. Two years later, Eleanor was dead of tuberculosis. Three years after that Jane Griffin married John Franklin.

In the 1830s, while Franklin was stationed in the Mediterranean, Jane traveled in Spain, Greece, North Africa, Syria and Crete. In 1836, Franklin was made lieutenant-governor of Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. It was a penal colony and Jane showed an interest in social reform and improving the lives of female convicts. True to form, she traveled and was the first woman to climb Mount Wellington.

Franklin’s time in Tasmania was clouded by controversy and he was recalled to England in 1843. Wanting to restore his tattered reputation, he accepted the appointment as leader of an expedition that would seek the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, even though at 59 he was far too old and unfit for the task.

In 1845 he left England, in command of two ships, the Erebus and Terror, on the expedition from which he would never return. Anticipating that her husband’s voyage would be a success and that he would return within a few years, Lady Franklin busied herself again with travel. This time, she was off to the West Indies and the United States.

When no news was heard of John Franklin by late 1847, the Admiralty began to send out relief expeditions and offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to ships that were able to find and assist the missing voyagers. Lady Franklin supplemented the reward money with 3,000 pounds of her own. With the help of public subscriptions, she also purchased the vessel, Prince Albert, which sailed twice to the Arctic in search of her husband, and the Isabel, a steam yacht, which made a search in 1852. She influenced the British government to continue its search long after many had given the expedition up for dead. Her perseverance even inspired the American philanthropist, Henry Grinnell, to sponsor two expeditions in search of the unfortunate party.

John Rae brought back news from the Arctic in 1854, that Inuit had seen white men dying in the central Arctic some years earlier. Still, Lady Franklin remained unshaken. Again, with money raised through public subscription and her own funds, she purchased the Fox, and sent Francis Leopold McClintock to the Arctic in 1857, in search of the facts of the disaster, harbouring a hope that there were survivors to be rescued. McClintock’s expedition returned two years later with the definitive word on John Franklin’s fate. Lady Franklin learned that she had already been a widow for 12 years.

The Royal Geographical Society awarded Lady Franklin the Founder’s Gold Medal, the first time a woman had been the recipient of that honour.

To have her years of effort, expense and hope come to naught might have crushed a lesser woman. But Lady Franklin was not one to sit at home and wallow in self-pity. She threw herself once again into travel – to South America, Japan, India, China, Africa, Hawaii, and again to the United States. Always she recorded in detail her thoughts and observations in the voluminous journals which survived her and are held in British archives today.

She died in 1875 at the age of 83.

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