With great beauty and terrible anguish, Mowat traces the history of the Inuit, revealing how the arrival of the Kablunait — white man — in the early part of the century and the subsequent obliteration of the caribou herds combined to unleash a series of famines and epidemics that virtually wiped out the Barren Ground Inuit population.
Full of larger-than-life characters — old-time Hudson's Bay company men, eccentric priests, wild bush pilots and well-meaning interlopers — Walking on the Land is an unforgettable account by one of Canada's most committed and impassioned voices.
About the Author
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On a summer’s day in 1999 our aging Labrador announced the arrival of a visitor to our Cape Breton farmstead.
Nothing unusual in that. My wife, Claire, and I receive many visitors. However, this was an exceptional one. The small, solidly built, black-haired woman with darting eyes and gleaming smile who stepped tentatively out of a rental car was from another time.
She was Elisapee – a name given to her at three years of age when she was thrust into our world from another, older one. There she had been called Nurrahaq. Her people were Inuit whom I had met in 1947 and again in 1948. The Ihalmiut – People from Beyond – were inland dwellers with no knowledge of the sea and little of modern times. Nurrahaq was the youngest daughter of a woman named Kikik, whose tormented latter days impinged on my days for more than a decade.
Although Elisapee grew up on the fringes of the ancient Ihalmiut lands, and in the company of other Inuit, she was nevertheless walled off from her origins because the few remaining adult Ihalmiut believed the phantoms of the past could best be dealt with by consigning memory of them to limbo.
When Elisapee Karetak – her married name – was in her early thirties, she felt compelled to enter that place of shadows but was advised, “Leave it alone. It is all over now. It is nothing to you now.”
Elisapee might have obeyed these injunctions. Nurrahaq would not. So Kikik’s child embarked on a search “for understanding of what I was … of who my people were … of why I had no past.”
Severe disapproval from her compatriots and peers frustrated her early efforts. Yet she persisted with such intensity as to alienate her from her own community and threaten her health.
It was at this juncture that a worn copy of a book of mine, The Desperate People, published in 1959, made its way to the Arctic village of Arviat (formerly Eskimo Point), where Elisapee was living. In it she found an account of the ordeals endured by her mother and her people, and something of their history.
Heartened by this discovery, she eventually travelled from her home on the western coast of Hudson Bay to mine on the eastern seaboard of North America, determined to add whatever I might know to her knowledge of a forgotten and forbidden past.
Many others assisted Elisapee in her search. Foremost among them was Ole Gjerstad, a documentary film-maker from Montreal who became Elisapee’s champion. Such was his capacity for sympathetic mediation that the situation in Arviat underwent a sea change and the barriers between past and present were overthrown. Elisapee and the other surviving Ihalmiut became one again, and together they resurrected memories of other times, not as tales of suffering and guilt but as testimony to the indomitable spirit of their kind.
Elisapee and Gjerstad co-produced a docudrama about her mother’s life.1 Much new information came to light during the filming and one day Elisapee suggested that, in view of these discoveries, I should consider retelling the tale in print.
I demurred at first. After all, I had written two books about and around the subject. The first of these, People of the Deer, published in 1952, was a cri du coeur on behalf of the Ihalmiut, the last of whom were then living – and dying – in the Barren Lands of central Keewatin District.
It was also an account of their ancestral way of life and, especially, of their neglect and abuse by northern agents of government, by various commercial interests, and by missionaries – the combined results of which had amounted to something akin to unwitting genocide.
Not surprisingly the book came under furious assault from the established orders. Some claimed it was no more than a tissue of malicious falsehoods. Others, including the federal cabinet minister responsible for northern natives, insisted that the people I wrote about did not exist – had not ever existed, except in my imagination. So ferocious was the counter-attack from commerce, church, and state that echoes of it still reverberate and attempts are still being made to stigmatize me as a liar.
People of the Deer was followed eight years later by a second book, chronicling the further decline of the Ihalmiut. This one, The Desperate People, was partially concerned with documenting my earlier work but also included a detailed account of a new and ghastly calamity that took many Inuit lives and led to the virtual dissolution of the Ihalmiut.
This time the critics chose a different tack. Faced with unassailable evidence of what had happened, most defenders of the bad old days ignored the book, doubtless hoping that in time it would be forgotten.
Their judgement turned out to be close to the mark. Forty years have passed since publication of The Desperate People (almost fifty since People of the Deer) and the world has forgotten what little it ever knew about the Ihalmiut. Bearing this in mind, I decided to accept Elisapee’s challenge and tell the tale anew.
My principal reason for doing so is the same as that of writers who continue to tell the story of the Holocaust: to help ensure that man’s inhumane acts are not expunged from memory, thereby easing the way for repetitions of such horrors.
But I had another reason for writing the present book.
In 1958, while travelling through Keewatin gathering accounts of the Kikik tragedy, I learned of an equally grievous catastrophe that had befallen another and related Inuit group. This calamity proved to be so dark and terrible that I forbore from including it in The Desperate People for fear a surfeit of horrors would cause readers to shut the book and turn their hearts and minds away. Now I am able to make amends for that omission.
About a quarter of this book’s content concerns events previously depicted to some degree in People of the Deer and The Desperate People, but re-written with the addition of much new material. There may be some who will accuse me of self-plagiarism on this count, but I view what I have done as rescuing fading images from the erosion of time and have no apologies to make for that.
Table of Contents
|5||The Ordeals of Kikik||60|
|7||... and the New||83|
|8||Vatican of the North||93|
|11||Soldier of God||133|
|12||The Snow Walker||155|
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