Normally, the plan for this column is to share observations and insights from the perspective of a former public sector executive. But this time I will share a personal story, as the North is a pervasive part of my family legacy and, I hope, of all Canadians. It is worth telling if only to give you a fleeting glimpse of what life was like in the Arctic in the 1950s from the perspective of a white woman.
The enduring philosophy of the Inuit is “ayurnamat” – so be it. Do not stress over what one cannot change.
In the summers of 1957 and 1958, my mother Joan accompanied my father Dr. William E. (Bill) Taylor Jr. on archaeological expeditions in the Arctic. As an Arctic archaeologist, Bill Taylor’s mission was to disprove the prevailing theory at the time that the Dorset (500 B.C. – 1000 AD) and later the Thule – predecessors of the Inuit – did not come northwards as natives from North America, but rather travelled across the Bering Sea from Asia. The expeditions were a success, the sites discovered provided strong evidence, and many artifacts have since become very well known worldwide as iconic symbols of the Dorset and Thule way of life.
In 1957, the Inuit were on the precipice of major cultural change in their traditional way of life – living off the land in tents in summer and in snow houses in winter. The newly created Department of Northern Affairs and National Development had a mandate to implement a 1939 Supreme Court decision that gave the Inuit the same rights as Canadian Status Indians in education, health and welfare. To make the administration of these rights easier, and because the traditional way of life was becoming increasingly difficult, the government encouraged the Inuit to relocate to government settlements which had schools, nursing, housing and trading posts. Construction of homes began in 1958.
Up until this time, the Arctic was open to the men – mostly of the Hudson Bay Company, groups of scientists, government officials and the occasional tourist on the ships that supplied the Arctic communities. My mother, Joan Taylor, was the first white woman on Sugluk Island in 1957. She was 27 years old. What follows are excerpts from the diaries that she kept of her experiences and of the language and culture of the Inuit during this period of transition.
They travelled by ice breaker – the Montcalm – as there were no flights at the time: a long and difficult journey to Payne Bay up on the Ungava coast. “We were on our way to Frobisher (Iqaluit). The Torngat mountain range of the Labrador coast fringes the horizon on our left like two-dimensional hunks of cardboard scenery. We could only proceed slowly against the strong tides. We bobbed for hours in the icy grey waters as the millions of ice cakes rose on the waves with a sucking sound and sunk again with a splash.”
When they arrived, she observed, “So huge a country, and what an exhilarating feeling of being entirely alone in it with rolling hills, scudding clouds and blue sparkling water.”
Of Sugluk, she wrote, “The high hills rising sharply from the U-shaped valleys, ribboned and capped with mist.” Sugluk was originally called Sulluit. Native lore tells us it means “the thin ones,” deriving from a story that the first inhabitants found poor hunting and, although they faced starvation, they became survivors.”
Mansel Island the following summer of 1958 was “a low flat blob of limestone gravel covered with patches of water-soaked moss and grass off the coast of Ivujivik in Hudson’s Bay. In Inuit, it is ’the island that appears and disappears’.”
Life on the tundra in the 1950s was rough. Supplies were basic and the base camp was tents made of thin waxed cotton. Mosquitoes and blackflies were dense and ever-present. The Inuit were struggling to live off the land. Yet despite the deprivations and challenges, a sense of humour remained: “A horrible nightmare of a wind hit our tent at 50-60 mph, and we woke to a howling storm. I’m so tired of bulky ill-fitting clothing, cold feet, straight hair, dirty nails and most of all the confinement of a wind-flapping tent. What I would give for a hot bath, and, yes, high heels and a girdle. All of which must mean that somewhere under these stinking bulky layers of wool there is a woman.”
Over time, the barrier in language and culture became less and less. Traditionally the Inuit gave names to the people of the south but they were rarely shared with the one so named. In their case: “We learned our Inuit names – Angookarapuk (Little Boss) and Angevoot (The Only Woman). Of course, we were pleased, but would we ever understand their ways? They have no word for goodbye. They simply get up and leave. And it is considered impolite to say thank you for hospitality received; better to return the hospitality another time.”
Inuit carving has and continues to be an integral part of their culture: “I watched Keeatina use a bow drill on his model of a kayak – the same tool used 1000 years ago by the Thule.” Of their dress, she wrote: “The parka is a very neat form of dress. A group of men with hoods-up, walking in the distance, looks more like a short parade of monks.”
Friendships were developed with many Inuit, but none more lasting than the leader Tyara and his clan. The main Sugluk archaeological site would be named in his honour.
“Kululat came in to visit and said it was his birthday. I baked a cake and after it was devoured, the plate was handed back to me. I didn’t expect a thanks of course, but Tyara was quick to notice that I had come over the slippery rocks, and he took my arm with one hand and, with a flashlight, guided me back to our tent. This was indeed more courtesy than I expected to be shown as a woman – a white woman – but when we reached the tent, he dropped my arm, brought his heels together and with a slight bow and all the dignities of an oriental emperor, uttered the only English words that I had heard from his lips: ’Good night, my lady, and thank you very much.’ I was stunned. In those words, he had tried to span another culture over across many years in order to thank me in our way not his. Inuktitut often lacks the words we often use.”
And later on:
“With much ceremony, Tyara presented us each with a pair of duffel mitts. We were more touched than they will ever know. This was not gratitude for the food we gave, as they expect a share of food that anyone has, and each man takes care of his neighbour in the practical way their life demands. But this was thanks for the good time, the company, the friendship, the patience with their ways and language. The mitts will never wear out.”
The next summer, she wrote: “We feel so at home with them now; I cannot believe them any different from any men of our father’s age at home.” They changed Joan’s name to Arnapik – Our Little Woman. Bill Taylor’s name became Tunitshe-uti – The One Who Hunts Tunit (Dorset).
My father Bill Taylor retired in 1989 after a stint as President of SSHRC and managed to return to the Arctic for two more digs in 1990 and 1991. He passed away in 1994 at 67-years old. My mother Joan Taylor died in 2011 at 80-years old.
Much has happened in the Arctic since the 1950s of course. It became Nunavut with its own provincial government, although the settlements now all have Inuit names. The people are no longer called Eskimos, which is a derogatory term from native Indian meaning “eaters of raw flesh.” They have always called themselves the Inuit – the people – and the language is Inuktituk. “Inuk” means a person. While the language has been slowly disappearing, there have been recent efforts to revive it. Facebook, for example, recently announced a plan to provide the social media platform to the Inuit in their own language.
For better or worse, the people have changed. Ayurnamat. So be it.
Have views on this column or suggestions for future columns? We would love to hear from you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.