Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut July 09, 2014 - 11:57 am

On Nunavut Day 1999: the ultimate sacrifice

Rankin Inlet family members recall the courage of the late Hattie Qablutsiaq Amit'naaq

DAVID MURPHY
Hattie Qablutsiaq Amit'naaq. (PHOTO COURTESY DEBBIE AMITNAK)
Hattie Qablutsiaq Amit'naaq. (PHOTO COURTESY DEBBIE AMITNAK)

On July 9, 1999 — the year Nunavut was born, and the day that eventually became Nunavut Day — Hattie Qablutsiaq Amit’naaq did something quite extraordinary.

And then she paid with her life.

That day, a polar bear made its way into Corbett Inlet, near Rankin Inlet, where she and her family were camped.

Now Nunavut Day has a different meaning for Amit’naaq’s family, because of that bear.

Amit’naaq grew up in Corbett Inlet decades before, living a traditional life.

Weeks before July 9, a day that now celebrates both the creation of the new territory and the settlement of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, Amit’naaq, 64 years old and living in Baker Lake at the time, called all her friends and family, telling them how much she looked forward to revisiting Corbett Inlet. 

“I guess she had this feeling that something was going to happen,” said her daughter, Lucy Kanayak Nukik.

Maybe she wanted to say goodbye.

Amit’naaq was an archetypal Inuk woman. She processed the meat and skins which were harvested. She cooked and sewed. She was an artist and a skillful printer and spoke only Inuktitut.

“She was a very hard working person, loving and caring, and did a lot of sewing and tending to food and hunting, like a caretaker. Like a mother would be,” Margaret Amarook, Amit’naaq’s other daughter, said through an interpreter. 

Amarook was there when the attack happened.

It was an uneventful day at the camp, Amarook said. The sun was shining; it was a beautiful out, the last of a five-day camping trip.

Amarook went to get fresh water from a nearby stream in the afternoon. When she returned, a polar bear was eating something in the camp, three yards away from her.  She froze.

The bucket of water Amarook had been carrying over her shoulders dropped to the ground. She started walking backwards.

The polar bear looked up to see what made the noise, stared at Amarook, then continued on with its meal.

She wondered what the bear was eating and then came to the gruesome realization: it was Amit’naaq, her mother.

In the book Bear Country: Adventures Among North America’s Largest Predators, author Jake MacDonald interviewed Moses Aliyak, an elder who was camping with Amit’naaq and who chronicled Amit’naaq’s heroic last moments.

Aliyak told MacDonald that he was the first to spot the bear. His gun had been in a boat, which had unfortunately drifted away from shore during low tide. His hunting knife was in the tent.

Defenseless, he ran away from the bear, trying to distract it from his 12-year-old grandson.

The bear knocked Aliyak to the ground and went for his neck. Aliyak covered his head with his hands to protect himself. The bear also clawed at Aliyak’s face during the brawl, leaving half of the skin on his face hanging off.

Amit’naaq then came to the rescue. She distracted the bear from Aliyak by running to the scene, and then running away from the bear.

The polar bear ran towards Amit’naaq and her 10-year-old grandson. It knocked the grandson to the ground and continued to chase Amit’naaq.

Eventually the bear got her.

“[Aliyak] could hear her screaming as the bear dragged her away. He heard ripping sounds as the bear began eating [Amit’naaq], then he passed out,” MacDonald writes.

Amarook ran with Aliyak to a cabin at least two hours away.

There, two other campers called for help. Doctors, nurses, RCMP officers and wildlife officials arrived to rescue them in two helicopters.  Aliyak and Amit’naaq’s grandson were airlifted to Winnipeg for treatment.

Both survived, and told their tale of Amit’naaq’s sacrifice.

Amit’naaq was posthumously awarded the Governor General’s medal of bravery. Aliyak received the same medal.

Since then, their story has been shared far and wide — in various books, on polar bear websites and in international media including The Telegraph in the U.K.

And so, while people across the territory eat cake and celebrate every July 9, Nunavut Day is a difficult one for Amarook.

Now 15 years after the attack, Amarook, 72, weeps on the phone as she describes her late mother.

Nukik, Amit’naaq’s other daughter, said over the years, it’s become a happier day for them.

“Now we just go down and have fun. Be around people that are happy, that is what she would want,” Nukik said.

Nukik named her own daughter Sipporah because it was a name that Amit’naaq liked. And it was a way to honour her late mother.

There might even be a little of Amit’naaq in Sipporah, now 13. And, perhaps oddly, it has something to do with hockey.

“Every time Montreal’s playing, and the other team would score, my mom would get mad,” Nukik said, talking about Amit’naaq. “Sitting next to her… she used to pinch or hit when the other team would win.”

One day, out of the blue, and without knowing her grandmother’s NHL loyalties, her daughter started cheering for the Habs.

“She’s also a big-time Montreal fan,” Nukik said. “I don’t know how she started liking Montreal!”

The late Hattie Qablutsiaq Amit'naaq with her husband Jonah. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBBIE AMITNAK)
The late Hattie Qablutsiaq Amit'naaq with her husband Jonah. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBBIE AMITNAK)
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