Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Iqaluit January 23, 2017 - 8:30 am

How Hollywood helped Inuit be Inuit: 40 years after The White Dawn

“I guess it was a renaissance back to our language"

LISA GREGOIRE
Ann Meekitjuk-Hanson talks to Iqalungmiut about what it was like acting in The White Dawn, a 1974 Hollywood production, after a screening at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre. (PHOTOS BY LISA GREGOIRE)
Ann Meekitjuk-Hanson talks to Iqalungmiut about what it was like acting in The White Dawn, a 1974 Hollywood production, after a screening at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre. (PHOTOS BY LISA GREGOIRE)
Ann Meekitjuk-Hanson's original script of The White Dawn from 1973.
Ann Meekitjuk-Hanson's original script of The White Dawn from 1973.

Ann Meekitjuk-Hanson didn’t really want to be in The White Dawn. She was breastfeeding a young baby back in the early 1970s and was busy with work.

But writer James Houston and director Philip Kaufman kept coming to her Apex home and they wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She eventually agreed to play the part of Neevee, actor Timothy Bottoms’ love interest.

In fact, said Meekitjuk-Hanson, following a public showing of the 1974 film at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre in Iqaluit Jan. 19, 1970s heartthrob Robert Redford was actually pegged for Bottoms’ character, Daggett.

“He was already committed to doing The Sting but he really wanted to do this one,” Meekitjuk-Hanson said. “Damn!”

It’s been more than 40 years since The White Dawn was released, but it must have seemed like yesterday when Meekitjuk-Hanson watched it again in Iqaluit with husband Bob Hanson, several of her children and a number of city residents.

When it was over, Meekitjuk-Hanson got up to say a few words, bringing with her the original script from the film and a copy of The White Dawn novel that Houston wrote and upon which the film was based.

Houston based his book on real life stories, recalled by Meekitjuk-Hanson’s great-great uncle and other Inuit, of a group of whalers who got separated from their main ship in 1896 and got stranded in northern Quebec.

Some died but three were saved by Inuit who welcomed the “dog children” into their nomadic group, against the wishes of a local shaman who warned they were bad luck.

Shot near then-Frobisher Bay, mostly on the Sylvia Grinnell River, The White Dawn was the first big made-in-the-North Hollywood production. But instead of having a modernizing influence on local people, the film did the opposite, Meekitjuk-Hanson said.

“We were relearning our songs, our culture, our way of life,” she said. “I guess it was a renaissance back to our language.”

Meekitjuk-Hanson said she was born on the land, but was part of the first generation of Inuit children to be brought into permanent settlements and sent to English schools, by federal government order.

The 1970s was a time of widespread social upheaval for Inuit, she said. Former clan leaders weren’t leaders anymore. There was alcohol, gambling, gossip and sexual assault. Elders were struggling in a new world and everywhere, people were speaking “Qallunaattitut,” or English, and adopting European ways.

The White Dawn, which depicts Inuit at the turn of the 19th century, required authenticity, which meant remembering or relearning the old songs and dances, sewing skin clothing and tents, making qajaqs and iglus, re-enacting shaman and hunting practices and flying in dog teams from other communities because there were none in Frobisher Bay.

It was shot over three months in spring 1973 and days were long—beginning around 7 a.m. and often going until 10 p.m. Transportation to the site was scarce so many just walked, Meekitjuk-Hanson said.

At the start of every shoot, someone on the crew would call out, “No Qallunaat showing!” to everyone to remind them to take off watches, rings and anything else that might give away the modern era.

Meekitjuk-Hanson entertained the crowd with her insider knowledge. Early in the film, camp leader Sarkak, played by Simonie Kopapik, kills a polar bear using nothing but a spear, establishing himself among the Qallunaat as powerful and fearless.

Though it looks fierce, the bear was a trained animal, and quite small, flown in from Hollywood, Meekitjuk-Hanson said.

“The dogs didn’t even bark at it. It didn’t smell like a bear. It was a vegetarian bear,” she said, drawing laughs. “It was very strange.”

She also talked about the red carpet Hollywood release that she attended along with some other cast members. She said she wore a dress she made herself and that several dignitaries attended, including Prince Charles and then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Several of Meekitjuk-Hanson’s children made comments after the film as well, including Udloriak Hanson.

One day, Hanson said, she was in an electronics store with friends as an adult and a bank of televisions was playing The White Dawn. Hanson bragged that her mother starred in the film, but no one believed her.

Later she rented the film to prove it, but when the credits came, sadly there was no proof.

Despite the large supporting role Meekitjuk-Hanson plays, you won’t find her name in the credits among the “Eskimo People of the Canadian Arctic” which the film boasts about.

Instead, she appears as Pilitak, one of her Inuktitut names. It was Houston’s suggestion.

“He was worried I might get harassed by fans, crazy people,” Meekitjuk-Hanson said.

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