Taissumani, Aug. 24
Tatannuaq, Inuk Peacemaker
Tatannuaq was an Inuk from the Kivalliq, born and raised about 200 miles north of Churchill. From 1812 to 1814 and again the following winter, he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Co. at its Churchill post, where he learned to be an interpreter. He went back to his Inuit community in 1816, took a wife two years later, and fathered three sons.
In 1819, John Franklin, an explorer, embarked on his first Arctic expedition. His instructions from the British Admiralty were to explore the north coast of America from the mouth of the Coppermine River eastward to Hudson Bay. He passed the winter of 1820-21 at Fort Enterprise.
Franklin had arranged that two Inuit interpreters join his party and accompany him to the Coppermine. Therefore Tatannuaq and another Inuk named Hiutiruq traveled overland from Hudson Bay through Great Slave Lake, and joined Franklin in January of 1821.
Franklin always referred to Tatannuaq as Augustus and Hiutiruq as Junius. The two Inuit accompanied Franklin’s party to the Arctic coast, and were invaluable in his exploration of the coast to the east. But on the return journey to Fort Enterprise, many of the party died of starvation. Hiutiruq disappeared while hunting and was never found. Tatannuaq became lost from the rest of the party, but eventually returned safely to the fort.
He returned to Churchill in 1822 where he was again employed by the Hudson’s Bay Co. The following year, while acting as interpreter for the missionary John West, he converted to Christianity
In the spring of 1825, John Franklin hired Tatannuaq again, to be interpreter on his second overland Arctic expedition. With another Inuk interpreter, Uligbaq (Ouligbuck), he joined Franklin at Methy Portage in what is now Saskatchewan. The party traveled via the river system to the Mackenzie and on to Fort Franklin, where they wintered.
On June 26, 1826 they set out down the Great Bear and Mackenzie Rivers for the coast in four eight-meter boats. The parties divided at the head of the Mackenzie Delta and Tatannuaq accompanied Franklin’s and George Back’s party.
On July 7, they unexpectedly encountered several hundred Inuit. At one point, Franklin and Back counted 73 kayaks and five umiaks, with more still arriving. Franklin prepared gifts for the Inuit, but unfortunately they had not approached with friendly intent. They pillaged both boats, and hauled Franklin’s boat ashore in the shallow water.
Franklin’s 16 men were seriously outnumbered. Tatannuaq was active in attempting to halt the pillage, and “endeavoured to stop their proceedings until he was quite hoarse with speaking.” Finally Back got his boat afloat again and his crew levelled their guns at the Inuit, who immediately retreated. These events did not augur well for the success of the rest of Franklin’s mission.
The boats had barely cleared the mouth of the river when they ran aground again in shallow water, about 150 yards offshore. A party of eight Inuit appeared and requested that Tatannuaq come ashore. Franklin at first refused to allow it, but Tatannuaq insisted on going ashore unarmed “as he was also desirous of reproving them for their Conduct.”
Franklin’s own words tell best about that meeting:
“He intrepidly went and a complete explanation took place. He pointed out that it was entirely forbearance on our part that many of them had not been certainly killed, as we were provided with the means of firing at a long distance. He told them that we were come here entirely for their benefit. In his own country he told them they were formerly in the same state of want as themselves, but that since the white people had come among them, they were supplied with every useful article… He was well clothed, got what he required and was most comfortable… The English love the Esquimaux and all Indians, and are kind to them and so they will be to you if you receive them as you ought. I repeat they are not afraid of you and can kill you a long way off if they choose… If you had killed any of the white men I would have shot you. This speech was addressed to upwards of forty persons who had now assembled round him and all of them with knives, and he quite unarmed. A greater instance of courage has not been I think recorded.”
Tatannuaq’s bravery mollified the Inuit who, he reported, expressed their sorrow and regret. They claimed that they had never seen white men before and that the material goods they saw were so “new and desirable to them” that they could not resist the temptation to steal them. There is little doubt that Tatannuaq’s skills prevented loss of life on both sides.
After a survey of a portion of the coast, Franklin’s party began its return to Fort Franklin. This time the Inuit they encountered were friendly, some even warning Tatannuaq of the harmful intentions of others. When the reportedly-treacherous Inuit approached, ostensibly to return pilfered items, Franklin refused to allow them to get close, and fired a shot in front of their bows.
When the expedition reached Norway House in June of 1827 Tatannuaq’s employment was at an end and he wept at the separation.