Nunatsiaq Online
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 17, 2014 - 8:44 am

Taissumani, Jan. 17

Who Were the Kinipetu?

KENN HARPER
A group of Qaernermiut Inuit aboard the whaling schooner Era, in a photo taken by taken by Capt. George Comer. (HARPER COLLECTION)
A group of Qaernermiut Inuit aboard the whaling schooner Era, in a photo taken by taken by Capt. George Comer. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Whaling and early anthropological literature abounds with references to a group of Inuit called the Kinipetu. The word was used by whalers, explorers, some anthropologists, and early policemen. As is often the case with early renditions of Inuit terms, it was spelled in various ways.

But in fact there was never any such tribal designation as Kinipetu. It refers to a group that does not, and never did, exist by that name. The word comes to us as a misunderstanding, but one that was repeated a number of times.

The people called Kinipetu were in fact a group of Inuit called the Qairnirmiut, people who traditionally lived between Baker Lake and the seacoast near Chesterfield Inlet.

In his anthropological classic, The Central Eskimo, published in 1888, Franz Boas referred to these Inuit as the Kinipetu or Agutit.

He gave no explanation of the latter term and it did not appear again in his writings. Another writer in 1910 wrote, “The people here are called by the rest, Kinnepetu, which may be Englished [sic] ‘Damp Place People’.”

So how did this misunderstanding come about? And what did early white visitors to the Kivalliq region think it meant?

As is often the case, an explanation comes to us from the ethnographer and explorer Knud Rasmussen.

During his travels in the region in the early 1920s, he met an old man, Auruattiaq, who provided an explanation for the term, which Rasmussen paraphrased as follows:

“One summer at Marble Island his mother had been on board a whaling ship, and her clothing was wet. The rain was pouring down, and she had pointed to her clothing, which was dripping wet, saying: ‘kinipatoot’: ‘See how wet they are’; she had said this in order that she might be allowed to dry them at the white men’s stove, but the word, which no one understood, has since been taken to be the name of her tribe, and this is why all white men call the Qaernermiut the Kinipetu.”

Rasmussen noted that the Qairnirmiut (his spelling was Qaernermiut) were formerly inland dwellers who had modified their settlement patterns to benefit from proximity to the whalers on the west coast of Hudson Bay, in the process becoming “skilful sailors in whale boats.”

He observed also that they were “famous for their great skill at treating caribou skins and for the beautiful and festively trimmed clothing they nearly always wear.”

The word kinipavoq appears in the “List of Words” that Rasmussen included in his well-known Fifth Thule Expedition reports. The meaning is given as “is soaked through.”

He gives its Greenlandic equivalent as qauserpoq, which is also its equivalent in Baffin Island. “It is this word that, owing to a misunderstanding, has given the Qaernermiut the name of Kinepetu,” Rasmussen concludes.

The well-known whaler, Captain George Comer, who spent many years among the Inuit near Repulse Bay, called these Inuit the Kenepetu, but also referred to them by a wildly inaccurate spelling of their correct name —Kiackennuckmiut. Boas, writing again about the Inuit in 1901, and having learned from Comer, called them Kinipetu, but noted that “their proper name is Kiaknukmiut.”

Rasmussen’s colleague, Kaj Birket-Smith, noted that Inuit themselves never used the term. It was used only by white men.

He ridiculed the Canadian explorer, A. P. Low, saying, “Low calls them Kenipitumiut, which is pure nonsense, as the suffix [-mio] presupposes a local designation,” and suggested that the term should be “expunged from scientific terminology,” and replaced with Qaernermiut. He glosses the meaning of that term as “the dwellers of the flat land.”

Perhaps the last word on this peculiar term should go to the Inuit. In 1994, Dorothy Harley Eber, a writer to whom northerners owe a large debt of gratitude for her writings on Inuit in the whaling era, published an article, “A Feminine Focus on the Last Frontier,” about the Inuit photographs taken by Geraldine Moodie in 1903 and 1904.

She recounted a 1987 visit to Joan Attuat, a respected elder in Baker Lake, who had been born at Cape Fullerton:

“According to Attuat, it was the womenfolk of her family who were responsible for her people becoming known as the Kenepetu. Her grandmother Kookoo, and probably her great-grandmother Silu with her daughters, were out fishing. Hearing music, the women went aboard a whaling ship. ‘It was raining, and Kookoo was wet, and somebody called her over and said, ‘Come over here and dance with me,’ but she had a knapsack she was taking off and said, ‘Oh, just a minute! Kenepetu! I’m all wet.’ They nicknamed her Kenepetu and that way they all became Kenepetu.’”

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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