In Those Days : Inuit Lives
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Arctic historian Kenn Harper gathers the best of his columns about Inuit history, which appear weekly in Nunatsiaq News, in this exciting new series of books.

Each installment of In Those Days: Collected Columns on Arctic History will cover a particularly fascinating aspect of traditional Inuit life. In volume one, Inuit Biographies, Harper shares the unique challenges and life histories of several Inuit living in pre-contact times.

The result of extensive interviews, research, and travel across the Arctic, these amazing short life histories provide readers with a detailed understanding of their specific time and place.



Publié par
Date de parution 13 décembre 2013
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781772272772
Langue English

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Table of Contents
A Note on Word Choice
Collected Writings
Almost Anonymous: The Life of Inuk Charles
Who Was Albert One‑Eye?
Mikak: Friend of the Moravians
John Sakeouse: Inuit Explorer
Tatannuaq: Inuit Peacemaker
Ohokto’s Story: Ross and the Nattilingmiut
Akkatook: An Inuit Boy in Scotland
Memiadluk and Uckaluk Visit England
William Ouligbuck: John Rae’s Interpreter
Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua: Inuit Theology Student
Uugaq: Inuit Traveller
Burial at Sea: The Death of Kudlago
Stories of Hannah and Joe
The Life of Hans Hendrik
Simon Gibbons: First Inuit Minister
Aleqasina: The Mistress of Robert Peary
Inuit at the World’s Fairs
Annie Atungaujaq: First Inuit Convert at Blacklead Island
Ruth Makpii Ipalook: “We’re Going to Keep on Living”
In Memory of John Shiwak, Inuit Sniper
The Heroism of Ada Blackjack
Orulo’s Story
Aua: Stories of a Shaman
In Search of Igsivalitaq, the Outlaw
Tatamigana and Alikomiak: The Only Inuit Hanged in Canada
Ataguttaaluk: The Queen of Igloolik
Inuutersuaq Ulloriaq: Inughuit Historian

I have lived in the Arctic for almost fifty years. My career has been varied; I’ve been a teacher, businessman, consultant, and municipal affairs officer. I moved to the Arctic as a young adult, and worked for many years in small communities in Qikiqtaaluk (then Baffin) Region—one village had a population of only thirty‑four. I also lived for two years in Qaanaaq, a community of 500 in the remotest part of northern Greenland. Wherever I went, and whatever the job, I immersed myself in Inuktitut, the language of Inuit.
In those wonderful days before television became a staple of Northern life, I visited the elders of the communities. I listened to their stories, talked with them, and heard their perspectives on a way of life that was quickly passing.
I was also a voracious reader on all subjects Northern, and learned the standard histories of the Arctic from the usual sources. But I also sought out the lesser‑known books and articles that informed me about Northern people and their stories. In the process I became an avid book collector and writer.
The stories collected in this volume all originally appeared in a column that I write for Nunatsiaq News under the title “Taissumani.” This Inuktitut word means “long ago.” In colloquial English it might be glossed as “in those days,” which is the title of this series. The columns appear online as well as in the print edition of the paper. Because of this, it came as a bit of a surprise for me to learn that I have an international readership. I know this because of the comments that readers send me. I say it was a surprise because I initially thought of the columns as being stories for Northerners. No one was writing popular history for a Northern audience, be it native or non‑native. I had decided that I would write history that would appeal to, and inform, Northern people. Because of where I have lived and learned, and my knowledge of Inuktitut, these stories would usually (but not always) be about the Inuit North. The fact that readers elsewhere in the world show an interest in these stories is not only personally gratifying to me, but should be satisfying to Northerners as well—the world is interested in the Arctic.
I began writing the series in January of 2005. Originally the articles were datelined. I picked an event in the past that could be accurately dated and wrote a column about it on the anniversary of that date. But I eventually found that formula unduly restrictive. Since shaking off the shackles of the dateline, I have simply written about an event, person, or place that relates to Arctic history. Most deal with northern Canada, but some are set in Alaska, Greenland, or the European North. My definition of the Arctic is loose—it is meant to include, in most of the geographical scope of the articles, the areas where Inuit live, and so this includes the sub‑Arctic. Sometimes I stray a little even from those boundaries. I don’t like restrictions, and Nunatsiaq News has given me free rein to write about what I think will interest their readers.
This is the first volume in a series of texts emanating from the Taissumani articles. This volume presents Inuit biographies—the stories of real people whose lives can be documented from the historical record. For some, the record is extensive; for others it is scanty. But all led interesting lives, and a knowledge of those lives can enhance our understanding of Northern people and contribute to our evolving appreciation of their place in Canada’s history.
The stories are presented here substantially as they originally appeared in Taissumani, with the following cautions. Some stories that were presented in two or more parts in the original have been presented here as single stories. For some, the titles have been changed. There have been minimal changes and occasional corrections to the text. I have sometimes changed punctuation in direct quotations, if changing it to a more modern and expected style results in greater clarity.
The chapters have been organized generally in chronological order. They are meant to be read independently.

Kenn Harper
Iqaluit, Nunavut
A Note on Word Choice

I nuk is a singular noun. It means, in a general sense, a person. In a specific sense, it also means one person of the group we know as Inuit, the people referred to historically as Eskimos. The plural form is Inuit .
A convention, which I follow, is developing that Inuit is the adjectival form, whether the modified noun is singular or plural; thus, an Inuit house, Inuit customs, an Inuit man, Inuit hunters.
Some stories refer to Inuit in northwestern Greenland (the Thule District). They refer to themselves in the plural as Inughuit . The singular, Inughuaq , is seldom used, Inuk being used instead. The adjectival form is Inughuit .
The language spoken by Inuit in Canada is Inuktitut, although there are some regional variations to that designation. The dialect spoken in Labrador is called Inuktut. The language spoken by the Inughuit of northwestern Greenland is Inuktun.
The word Eskimo is not generally used today in Canada, although it is commonly used in Alaska. I use it if it is appropriate to do so in a historical context, and also in direct quotations. In these contexts, I also use the old (originally French) terms Esquimau (singular) and Esquimaux (plural).
I have generally used the historical spellings of Inuit names, sometimes because it is unclear what they are meant to be. The few exceptions are those where it is clear what an original misspelling was meant to convey, or where there is a large number of variant spellings.
Almost Anonymous
The Life of Inuk Charles

I n the early 1700s, the Hudson’s Bay Company conducted a vigorous fur trade into the interior of Canada. These were wild times, and the Cree Indians and Inuit were frequently in a state of war, their traditional enmity for each other augmented by the desire to dominate in trade with the white men.
The James Bay Cree frequently conducted raids against the Inuit of the East Main, as the east coast of James Bay was called. On one of these raids, in 1736, a group of about fifty Indians killed five Inuit men and fifteen women, and took ten children captive.
We know the fate of only one of those unfortunate children. A “Young Eskemoe Boy” was taken to Albany, on the west side of James Bay, and kept in servitude there for a time. His parents may have been among those killed in the raid. Then the HBC bought him from his Indian captors, in return for one pound of “Brazil tobacco,” one gallon of brandy, and one‑and‑one‑half yards of blue broadcloth.
Sent from Albany to Moose Fort (present‑day Moose Factory), the young man, now in effect a slave of the HBC, was given the name Charles and put in the care of Captain Christopher Middleton.
Middleton had joined the HBC as a young man in 1721, as second mate of the vessel Hannah , and sailed with her to Hudson Bay. Eventually he was made captain of the Hannah . During his career, he made a total of sixteen voyages to Hudson Bay and visited all the company’s main posts. A keen navigator, he made observations on magnetism and experimented with methods of calculating longitude. The same year that Charles was placed in his care, Middleton earned a distinction, rare among seamen, by being elected a fellow of the Royal Society for his contributions to navigation.
In 1738, Middleton took Charles back to England. A letter from Moose Fort, addressed to the London Committee of the HBC, reported: “Upon the request of Captain Middleton I have sent your slave home, the Escomay boy, he [Middleton] saying how serviceable he will be in informing them relating to the trade in the Straits relating to the whalebone.”
This was a reference to trade in Hudson Strait, farther to the north, where Inuit traded annually with the company’s ships. The trade was for more than just whalebone (baleen), though; the Inuit also provided skins, narwhal tusks, and seal and whale oil. Apparently, it was hoped that Charles would help in expanding this trade.
For the next three years Middleton was responsible for the well‑being of Charles. The HBC periodically reimbursed him for the boy’s care. These were tough years for Captain Middleton. He had been befriended by Arthur Dobbs, a member of the Irish House of Commons, who had a long‑standing interest in finding the Northwest Passage. But there were suspicions that Dobbs was not in favour of the HBC’s trade monopoly and wanted to support competitive interests. Their friendship strained relations between Middleton and the London Committee. Nonetheless, Middleton continued to sail annually to Hudson Bay. Records are scant, but Charles probably travelled as interpreter with Middleton in 1739 aboard the ship Hudson’s Bay , which travelled to Churchill in August and remained there for two weeks. The following year, he probably travelled again with Middleton on the same ship, visiting Moose Factory and Albany, the scene of his former captivity. On these voyages, Charles would have seen more of Hudson Bay than he had ever seen before.
On March 5, 1741, Middleton received a commission in the Royal Navy, and resigned from the HBC. In June, he left England in command of the first British naval expedition to search for a Northwest Passage.
With Middleton no longer an HBC employee, someone else had to take responsibility for the company’s slave. On March 26, Charles was brought to a company sub‑committee and given to the secretary to be cared for. That spring he left again for Hudson Bay, this time aboard a ship commanded by George Spurrell. The committee’s instructions to Spurrell were to “cause the Indian [Inuit] Ladd to tell them [the Inuit] they must Endeavour to get what Whalebone, Oil and Furs they can against the next year.” Spurrell’s ship, the Seahorse , visited Churchill in July and York Factory in August. It returned to London on October 3.
The story of Charles ends abruptly. Later that month, the records of the HBC note simply that on October 21, Captain Spurrell was reimbursed £3 15s. 8d. for “Physick and funeral Charges for Charles the Compys. [Company’s] Esquemay boy.”
Where and how Charles died is unknown, although the reference to funeral charges would indicate that he died back in England, rather than on the voyage.
An almost anonymous Inuk, his brief and incomplete story has been pieced together from the scattered references found within the records of a secretive trading company intent on preserving and extending a monopoly. Consider what we don’t know about him. We don’t know his real name or place of birth, anything about his parents, whether or not he had siblings, his date or place of death, nor his final resting place. Indeed, it is a small miracle that we know anything about him at all.
Who Was Albert One‑Eye ?

T he lives of Inuit who served on Arctic expeditions are poorly recorded. Often a name is noted, but the amount of detail that follows is maddeningly meagre. One such man was Albert One‑Eye, an Inuk born about 1824 on the east coast of James Bay, the so‑called East Main of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
One of the small mysteries that surrounds Albert’s short but eventful life is his very name. It was unusual, in those far‑off days, for an Inuk to use a surname. And this was an evocative surname, conveying an image of a one‑eyed man in the service of explorers. Yet, in anything written about him by the men he served, there is no reference to any physical handicap. One suspects that he had none, and that “One‑Eye” was indeed a quasi‑surname—he was probably the son of a man who had lost an eye.
Of Albert’s early life, nothing is known. In the summer of 1842, when he was about eighteen, he was at Rupert House. We know this because Chief Trader Thomas Corcoran of the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived there that summer en route to Moose Factory. He took notice of the boy, and thought that the Esquimaux Boy, as he called him, should see Moose Factory. This would indicate that young Albert had some abilities and that Corcoran thought he could be of use to the company. So on August 2, Albert sailed in the sloop Speedwell for the company’s main post in the region.
At Moose Factory, Albert entered into a contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company to work for them for seven years as an apprentice labourer. His salary would be eight pounds a year for the first two years, rising every two years, to ten pounds, twelve pounds, and finally fifteen pounds. But his duties would not keep him at Moose Factory. The same year he was hired, he travelled back to Rupert House with an Indian from the East Main—which would indicate that relations between Inuit and Indians were good on that coast at the time—and from there he travelled on to the company’s post at Fort George, where he and another Inuk named Moses acted as interpreters. This shows that it was the young man’s abilities in English that had brought him to the notice of the company’s chief trader.
Albert worked in the Rupert River District until early 1848. By then his apprenticeship period was not quite ended, but he was needed elsewhere. The previous year, the British Admiralty had sent an expedition, led by Sir John Richardson, to search the Arctic coast between the Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers for the missing Franklin expedition. The Admiralty had requested that Albert join the expedition as interpreter and assistant. Albert’s abilities as an interpreter must have been widely known by then, but it was probably through the expedition’s second‑in‑command, John Rae, that he was brought to the Admiralty’s attention. John Rae was a surgeon and fur trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as being an explorer in his own right. He had served the company at Moose Factory for ten years, starting in 1834, and must have met young Albert when the Inuk was recruited in 1842.
Albert had been a valuable and popular employee of the company at Fort George. John Spencer, the company’s trader there, was “exceedingly sorry to part with him.” He wrote that Albert was “a nice steady lad, and a favourite with his Tribe.”
On March 12, 1848, Albert reached Moose Factory and left shortly thereafter for the far northwest, travelling by way of Michipicoten and Cumberland House. He would never see his homeland again.
From Cumberland House, John Rae wrote a letter on June 13, 1848, to the company’s governor, Sir George Simpson. In it, he stated that they were taking no hunters with them to the Arctic coast, and would depend on Rae’s own hunting ability “and the exertions of our Esquimaux Interpreter,” whom he described as “a fine active lad” who would “no doubt prove to be a good deer hunter.” The lad he was referring to was Albert One‑Eye.
In August, Albert was with Richardson and Rae in the Mackenzie Delta, and, according to Richardson, had no great difficulty in understanding and making himself understood by the Inuit there. The explorer’s narrative tells little about the interactions between Albert and the Inuit of the delta, but one anecdote is perhaps instructive about the delicate work of being an interpreter.
In answer to Richardson’s questions about whether any white men had been seen in the area, one man told him that a party of white men were living on Richard’s Island. But he didn’t know that Richardson had been there the previous day. Richardson instructed Albert to tell the man that he knew he was lying. “He received this retort with a smile,” wrote Richardson, “and without the slightest discomposure, but did not repeat his assertion.” Albert probably conveyed Richardson’s doubts about the man’s truthfulness with considerably more tact than the explorer himself recounted it in his memoirs, for the role of an interpreter among his fellow Inuit, especially those distant and unknown, required diplomacy and discretion.
Early the following year, writing from Fort Confidence, their winter quarters at the northeastern corner of Great Slave Lake, Rae informed Governor Simpson of his plans to reach the Coppermine River. The crew would include Albert, once again described as “a very fine lad” and “fit for any of the duties of a labourer.”
The men who travelled as part of such an expedition, with its attendant dangers, received a salary much higher than Albert had ever earned at a Hudson’s Bay Company post. His was a whopping thirty‑five pounds per year. Still, he was the lowest paid of any of the crew, everyone else earning forty‑two pounds, and the steersman, forty‑five pounds.
The party left Fort Confidence on June 7. They reached the Arctic coast in early July, and Albert found no difficulty in communicating with the Inuit they met there. But ice prevented them from crossing to Victoria Island, where, the Coppermine Inuit reported, there lived Inuit who had never seen white men before. The party returned to Bloody Fall and began to travel up the Coppermine River on their return journey to Fort Confidence. Then, on August 24, tragedy struck.
They had successfully manoeuvred their boat up the dangerous part of the rapids and had reached an area where the current was strong but the river smooth. Rae thought it was safe to take a loaded boat up the river, with some of the men on shore tracking with a small line.
Wrote Rae:
When halfway up, some unaccountable panic seized the steersman, and he called on the trackers to slack the line, which was no sooner done sufficiently far, than he and the bowsman sprung on shore, and permitted the boat to sheer out into midstream [where] the line snapped, and the boat driving broadside to the current was soon upset.
John Rae and Albert ran down the bank of the river, expecting the boat to get caught in an eddy. The boat passed close to where Albert stood waiting, and he managed to hook it by the keel with an oar. Rae ran to help him and snatched a pole from the water and jammed it into a broken plank. He called to Albert to hold on with him. Either Albert didn’t hear him, or thought he would be of more assistance on the capsized boat. He sprung onto the bottom of the boat just before the current carried it towards the head of a little bay. Rae thought Albert was safe there, but in less than a minute he saw the boat come out of the protection of the bay, driven by the current, and sink gradually beneath the water.
The last John Rae saw of Albert was the young man attempting to leap from the boat to the rocks. But he missed his target and disappeared into the water, “nor did he rise again to the surface.”
John Rae placed the blame for Albert’s death solely on James Hope, the Cree steersman, whom he described as “a notorious thief and equally noted for falsehood.”
In 1848, Rae had been promoted by the company to be in charge of the Mackenzie River District, with his headquarters at Fort Simpson. He was to take up this post as soon as his service with Richardson was at an end, and he had hoped to retain Albert there as an employee. Recognizing the young man’s abilities, Rae noted that “he would be useful in the event of it becoming desirable to have any negotiations with the Esquimaux at the mouth of the McKenzie [ sic ],” and he hoped “to make him in every way a most useful man to the Company.”
The tragedy ended these well‑intentioned plans. “This melancholy accident has distressed me more than I can well express,” wrote Rae. “Albert was liked by every‑one, for his good temper, lively disposition and great activity in doing anything that was required of him. I had become much attached to the poor fellow . . . .”
Friend of the Moravians

S ome years ago, I was invited to give a lecture at the Ethnological Institute at Göttingen University in Germany. When I entered the building, I was startled to see a large portrait of an attractive Inuit woman, her face delicately tattooed, hanging in the stairwell between the first and second floors. Although the portrait was over two hundred years old, I recognized her at once. This was, I knew, the famous Mikak.
Mikak was the most well‑travelled Inuit woman of her time. Born in Labrador in about 1740, she was the daughter of an influential man, the kind of man that British explorers liked to refer to as an Eskimo chief. We know virtually nothing of her life until she was twenty‑five. From that point on, her story is intertwined with the lives of the Moravian missionaries who were to have such an influence on the Inuit of Labrador.
In 1765, she met the missionaries Jens Haven and Christian Drachart, who were on a mission to explore the Labrador coast and make contact with the Inuit. She memorized a prayer that Drachart taught her.
Two years later, after a group of Inuit had attacked a fishing station in the Strait of Belle Isle, a detachment from Fort York at Chateau Bay retaliated. They killed the men and carried away the women and children, among them Mikak, to be imprisoned at Chateau Bay. The second‑in‑command of the garrison there was Lieutenant Francis Lucas. Attracted by Mikak’s intelligence, he taught her English and she reciprocated by teaching him some Inuktut words. Through him, she met the Governor of Newfoundland, Hugh Palliser, who sent her, her son Tootac, and an older boy, Karpik, to England. Palliser’s hope was that they would learn English ways there and, on their return, influence the Inuit to trade peacefully with the English.
Mikak was a sensation in England, the talk of London society. John Russell, a well‑known painter, did her portrait. (See Figure 1 .) Augusta, Princess of Wales, presented her with a gift: a dress trimmed with gold lace, a possession that would be handed down in Mikak’s family for well over a hundred years.
In England, Mikak once again met Jens Haven. She advocated strongly on his behalf, arguing that the Moravian mission should be given a grant of land in Labrador. In part because of her advocacy, the Moravian request was granted in May of 1769.
That summer, Lieutenant Lucas returned Mikak and her son to Labrador. The next year, when the Moravians sent a ship to look for a suitable mission site, she once again met her friends Haven and Drachart. She dressed up in her British finery for the meeting, wearing her golden gown and a medal presented to her by King George III. She and her new husband, Tuglavina, an influential angakkuq (shaman), guided the Moravians north to the site where they established their first Labrador mission, at Nain.
Having helped the Moravians to establish in Nain, a move that would change forever the lives of the Inuit who adhered to the mission, Mikak and her husband chose to live elsewhere. Indeed, both husband and wife were attracted to the rougher life of southern Labrador. They visited the European traders whose posts were around Chateau Bay. Tuglavina was a middleman in the trade that developed between the more northerly Inuit and the traders who bartered guns, ammunition, and liquor for whalebone and furs. Indeed, their marriage was turbulent—Tuglavina chose to demonstrate his affluence as a successful businessman by taking additional wives, one of whom was Mikak’s sister—and they eventually separated.
Mikak married again in 1783. Although instrumental in the establishment of the Moravian church in Labrador, this intelligent, kind, and generous woman remained independent and strong willed until the end. She returned to the mission at Nain quite ill, only ten days before her death, telling the missionaries that she had never forgotten their earlier teachings. She died there on October 1, 1795, only fifty‑five years of age.
John Sakeouse
Inuit Explorer

I n 1816, a British whaler took a remarkable young Inuit man to Leith, Scotland. He was John Sakeouse, born at Southeast Bay, Greenland—the lower part of Disco Bay—in 1797. Different accounts describe how he came to be aboard the whaler Thomas and Anne in May 1816. He may have been swept out to sea in his kayak and picked up by the whaler as it left Disco Bay, or he may have stowed away, deliberately wanting to accompany the white men to Scotland. How it happened is unimportant. What is certain is that John Sakeouse reached Leith—Edinburgh’s harbour—in the summer of 1816. He was nineteen years of age.
News of the arrival of an Inuk spread quickly through Leith. Indeed, so many people came to the ship to catch a glimpse of him that it impeded the weighing of the whalebone, and the captain had to send him ashore to his own lodgings. The crowds then simply started going to Captain Newton’s house in the hope of seeing Sakeouse and his kayak. The press reported that his kayak was “esteemed a very great curiousity,” and that it weighed only sixteen pounds. Handbills were quickly prepared and circulated, announcing that he was to exhibit himself and some curiosities from Greenland for a few days to raise money so that he could purchase supplies.
Sakeouse often demonstrated his proficiency in his kayak in the harbour at Leith. The Edinburgh press reported at some length on his activities.
One report describes a contest, held in the harbour shortly after his arrival, between the young Inuk and six men in a whaleboat. A huge crowd assembled for this demonstration, described as “the greatest concourse of spectators ever known to have assembled at Leith.” People filled the pier, the windows, even the roofs of houses adjoining the harbour, as well as the decks and rigging of many ships. The harbour was crowded with boats filled, the papers noted, with “elegantly dressed females.” The crowd was so large that, in fact, several people fell into the harbour.
The exhibition started just before two o’clock and lasted until half past three. The course for the race itself was from the inner harbour, round the Martello Tower, and back. Sakeouse handily won the race in sixteen minutes, even toying with his opponents by occasionally falling back and giving them periodic advantages, only to overtake them each time.
From a considerable distance, he threw one of his darts at the beacon, striking its bulb with accuracy. After the race, he played in the harbour in his kayak for over an hour, throwing darts. He could strike a ship’s biscuit floating in the water and split it from a distance of thirty yards. He demonstrated his skill in rolling his kayak, a feat that the onlookers found astonishing. The press described it thus:
He was so fastened into his seat, that he could not fall out, as a drawing, like the mouth of a purse, girds him about the loins, so that, in an instant, he was seen to dive under the water, head down and keel uppermost; again in the twinkling of an eye, he raised himself erect out of the water, and scudded along as if nothing had happened.
In the spring of 1817, John Sakeouse rejoined the Thomas and Anne , ostensibly to return to his homeland. But on reaching Disco Bay, he changed his mind and decided to remain with the ship and return to Scotland at the end of the whaling season. Back in Leith, once again he lived with Captain Newton and his family.
Early in 1818, Sakeouse had a chance encounter on the street with the Scottish landscape painter and portrait artist Alexander Nasmyth. The artist took Sakeouse to Edinburgh, and discovered that the young man had a talent for drawing. He agreed to provide him instruction in art. In return, Sakeouse sat for a portrait by Nasmyth. That remarkable portrait hangs today in an ornate gold frame in Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery. (See Figure 2 .)
That same year, plans were underway for two British Admiralty expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage. John Ross, in charge of one of the expeditions, would sail north through Davis Strait on his first Arctic expedition. Through Nasmyth, the Admiralty arranged that Sakeouse should accompany Ross as interpreter. Sakeouse accepted the offer, with one condition: under no circumstances was he to be left in Greenland.
In August, after travelling north along the western Greenland coast, John Ross’s ship, the Isabella , accompanied by the Alexander under William Edward Parry, crossed Melville Bay and reached the area of Cape York, the southern tip of the unknown district of northwestern Greenland. The Inuit there had never before seen a white man. But when John Ross met them for the first time, he had a distinct advantage over other white explorers in their first encounters with native people. He had an interpreter, John Sakeouse, who could help him communicate with these new people.
On August 9, near Cape York, the crew of the Isabella were surprised to see several men on the ice, and thought they were hailing the ship. At first they took them to be shipwrecked whalers, but on coming closer to the ice they discovered that they were Inuit travelling on dog sleds. When the ship tacked, they shouted in unison and fled landwards on their sleds.
The following day, eight sleds approached the ship, stopping about a mile distant on the ice. John Sakeouse, carrying a white flag and some presents, set off over the ice. Thus it was that the first meeting between Europeans and the isolated Polar Inuit was also the first recorded meeting between the Inuit of northwestern Greenland and a Kalaaleq (a West Greenlander), the latter being outfitted in European clothing and wearing a felt hat. He had his arm in a sling, having broken his collarbone on the trip north.
After some wariness on the part of the Inuit, and considerable bravery on the part of Sakeouse, they discovered that they could understand each other’s dialects, although with some difficulty.
The Inuit were fascinated and frightened by the ships. They wondered what great creatures they were. “Do they come from the sun or the moon?” they asked Sakeouse. “Do they give us light by night or by day?” Sakeouse explained that the ships were “houses made of wood,” but the Inuit would not believe him. They had seen the ships under sail and responded, “No, they are alive, we have seen them move their wings.”
John Ross and other officers joined Sakeouse on the ice. Finally, five Inuit men were convinced to visit the ship. They were astonished by everything they saw, but especially by the quantities of wood. In a land where even driftwood was scarce, any scrap of wood was a precious commodity. They left the ship with pieces of wood, gifts of clothing, and biscuits.
Two days later, three new Inuit visited the ship. The next day, ten men arrived, some from the previous parties and some new faces. Wanting more and more gifts, they refused to leave. A crew member gave a loud blast on the ship’s trumpet, but the Inuit were unfazed. Finally Sakeouse told them that the trumpeter was a shaman who would soon blow away all the ice between the ship and the shore if they did not depart at once. This ploy succeeded, and the Inuit quickly left.
Ross, a Scot, named these Inuit, never seen by white men before, the Arctic Highlanders. Later explorers made them famous as the Polar Eskimos. Their own name for themselves was simply Inuit, and in recent years they have been known as Inughuit.
When the exploring party returned to England, Sakeouse was of “great interest” in London, and some feared that “the poor fellow’s head would be turned” or that he would fall into bad company. But he soon tired of London and returned to Edinburgh. Plans were made for him to accompany William Edward Parry’s expedition in search of a Northwest Passage the following year. But it was not to be.
Early in 1819, Sakeouse took ill. His friends, Captain Newton and family, nursed him through his illness, and he made a brief recovery. Then, after a sudden relapse, he died on the evening of Sunday, February 14. Reportedly, he held a Greenlandic language catechism in his hands until his strength failed him and it slipped from his grasp just before his death.
Blackwood’s Magazine reported that he had a large funeral. “He was followed to the grave,” it said, “by a numerous company, among whom were not only his old friends and patrons from Leith, but many gentlemen of high respectability in this city.”
Perhaps it’s only fair to let the much‑maligned John Ross, who was responsible for much of Sakeouse’s fame, have the last word on the man. “He is indeed a most valuable man,” Ross wrote. “Very intelligent and willing to learn as well as being grateful to those who instruct him. A man on whom the utmost dependence may be placed.”

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