Dispatches from a Northern Holiday

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

On Saturdays, Betty Ann pumps the gas in Wrigley. She’s in house number seven, with the two huskies out front, right next to the house with the VISA sign in the window. We get there around 2 p.m. and Betty Ann’s not there. Someone else opens the door a crack and tells us, “Store’s open now, she’s gonna meet you there.”

A half-hour later Betty Ann pulls up in an oversized black pick-up with flames on the grill. The “store” is a couple locked pumps.

For most of the year, Wrigley—kilometre 698—is the last stop on the Mackenzie Valley Highway; it’s the closest you’ll get to the Sahtu, home of the mountain Dene, without a bush plane or a boat. But for five weeks in late February and early March, graders clear a narrow winter road system nearly 600 kilometres through the muskeg, and transport trucks wind a slow convoy of supplies to the region’s five communities: Tulita, Délı¸ne, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake. Last year former Up Here editors Chris Windeyer, Angela Gzowski and I took a trip along the winter road to catch a glimpse of the NWT’s most isolated region.

In our eight days on the road, we’ll encounter 32 tankers, 15 flatbeds (and one in a ditch), 12 Ford F150 pick-up trucks, 22 empty 8-Hour Energy Boosters, a string of Kokanee cans, sugar packets and headlight shards, one overturned vehicle, countless cabins, a couple hidden homesteads, one stranded local, and a few quick and rich lessons in the region’s politics, history, spirituality and changing lifestyles.

I ask Betty Ann for some highlights to look out for, but she shrugs, handing us our $168 fill-up bill (cash-only). “I don’t know,” she says. “Your change is at the house.”

Back at house seven, she hands us our $12 and laughs as she locks back up: “Come again princess.”

KM 700 : Wrigley
Survival gear recommended

Malcolm MacPhail is using the last bar of cell phone service before the dirt road ends to call home, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. “My son knows I’m up here to better us,” he says, but he just wants to make sure. Before he chains up the wheels on his flatbed and heads out, he gives us a few points of advice for driving the winter road:

Number one: “Don’t do it. It’s cold.”

Two: Take your time. On the flat stretches, he maxes out at 40 km/h.

Three: “Watch your trucker mouth.”

Back in Yellowknife, we borrowed a satellite radio from a friend, and at the chain-up station, we set it to the frequency of the road. Right away comes a voice from the static: “Wide load at Dam Creek,” says a wide load, presumably at Dam Creek. “And there’s a nice little hole at the bottom here, that’s an axle-breaker.”

Other useful terminology for the winter road: truck killer (usually an unexpected rut or a pit on either side of a river crossing); overflow (a liquid or solid puddle formed when ice patches crack); highboy, fatboy, wide load, tanker, pick-up—that’s how you identify yourself to the other vehicles on the road.

For the next 1,124 kilometres, our Toyota 4Runner goes lovingly by “four-wheeler.”

KM 811 : Wrigley to Tulita
Is this the right way to Vegas?

The 248-kilometre stretch from Wrigley to Tulita is a truck-killing, axle-breaking, overflow-addled mess of hairpin turns up into the Mackenzie Mountains. We cross a thousand sublime landscapes—massive rivers, crevasses and waterfalls—with disappointingly utilitarian names like Pipeliner Hill, Steep Creek, Overflow Creek, Dam Creek and Bob’s Canyon. It’s all so treacherous; so unendingly beautiful, it’s quickly exhausting.

That’s when the radio gets really funny. We laugh too hard when a tanker calls out, “Is this the way to Vegas?” Another truck broadcasts his chuckle just to show he’s listening. It’s all so unbelievably nice; at one point a tanker mentions some mechanical troubles and a wide load leaves a set of bungee cords on the side of the road for him. “Highboy at Steep Creek,” calls out another. “Kettle’s boiling for whoever.”

All told, it’s about nine hours to Tulita—making our average speed 31 kph. We pass a flatbed in the dark, just outside of town, and he clicks on: “there you go, four-wheeler, I’ll move over for ya.” “Thanks flatbed.”

KM 946 : Tulita
Would you like to take a look at the menu?

Winter road rule number four: eat a good breakfast whenever you get the chance.

Luckily, the convenience store in Tulita is open after 11 p.m. They’ve got one burger and one slice of pizza in stock. Chris takes the pizza; Angela takes the burger; I buy a chocolate popsicle and a handful of gummy worms. The empty rooms in the Two Ravens hotel are open, so we each take one. A quick sleep and we’re off to Délıne in the morning.

KM 80 : Turnoff to Délıne
A pivotal moment, an empty town

From her picture window on the shores of Great Bear Lake, Helena Tutcho can tell who’s in town and who’s out by counting the smoking chimneys. “Most people are out,” she says. “It’s winter road season.”

Some people use the Mackenzie Valley road to pick up supplies and new vehicles in Yellowknife, but for the most part, she’s talking about a different winter road system. It’s Monday; there’s a hand games tournament in Whatì on the weekend, and anyone who’s not an elder or a politician has taken to the traditional routes by snow machine—they’re faster, there are no speed limits there, and they don’t close in March.

In the community hall, a roundtable discussion is being prepared for an upcoming ratification vote on self-government. (On April 1, 2014, Délıne residents and ex-residents voted yes to self-government, which will transfer control of services like housing and education, to the community. But while we were there, everyone was on the campaign trail.) In the radio station, announcer Michael Neyelle is broadcasting to whomever’s left to hear him: “the government officials stole and lied to us: they promised us flour and sugar for our help and they never delivered. So why would we want that form of government?

”We introduce ourselves and Neyelle quickly shuts the door behind us. Now it’s an interview, but we’re not sure who’s conducting it. “Will you talk to us a little bit about self-government?” Chris asks. “Maybe you could say you’ve seen our [self-government] Facebook page and website,” answers Neyelle. “Maybe you could say you’re supporting it?”

KM 62 : Great Bear River
Rule number five of the Sahtu

Eighteen kilometres outside of Délıne, we stop to investigate a tidy log cabin near the hoarfrost banks of the Great Bear River. There’s a bag of moose meat on the floor, a full can of Heinz maple beans, tea bags and a pile of cut logs for the fuel drum stove.

Rule number five of the winter road, maybe learned from the Sahtu: take care of each other.

KM 995 : Prohibition Creek
The Mason-Dixon line of the Sahtu

RCMP patrols run back and forth between Tulita and Norman Wells. Get caught speeding, that’s $850; tankers without chains, that’s $500 for each dual set of tires; bootlegging, seized liquor and a court date. Norman Wells has the only liquor store in an otherwise restricted region, and although it posts daily limits, “they’re more than I can drink in weeks,” says an employee. Winter road season is bootlegging season.

KM 1031 : Norman Wells
Something on four wheels will be a good investment

Back on the main route after the detour to Délıne, I feel like even the sign on the hotel’s bathroom door assumes I’m an oil worker: “If you don’t flush, get out,” it reads. “Some people don’t want to look at your shit.” At the front door, we’re supposed to take off our shoes and the whole place feels like a work camp. Truck cabs are lined up idling in the parking lot for those who just need an hour or two.

Twelve to 15 tankers per day go up the winter road and most of them are bound for Norman Wells. But at about $20,000 a trip, 40 kilometres per hour and the odd spinout can get expensive. “Oil production in the Canol shale within the next five to 10 years is expected to be about 45,000 barrels a day,” says mayor Gregor McGregor, an ex-oil worker himself. That’s why he’s lobbying for an all-season road through the Mackenzie Valley “that will cut shipping times in half.”

As it stands now, the winter road nearly triples the community’s population every February. Most of them are oil workers, but there is also a regular flow of Fort Good Hope, Colville Lake and Tulita locals who meet up in the 50-year-old Chinese restaurant. There’s an ongoing family reunion in the lobby. Still, my fortune cookie is fittingly industrial: “Something on four wheels will be a good investment for you.”

KM 1165 : A hazard
Rule Six: Watch out for helicopters

A helicopter starts up on the side of the road, about 10 feet away. Maybe we missed the announcement on the sat radio?

The hazards to watch out for on the winter road can be overwhelming.

KM 1160 : Norman Wells to Fort Good Hope
And all the good samaritans are out

Not an hour from Stella’s Place, we come across an overturned F150 in a snow bank. There’s a towrope and sling hitch on the front and back fenders but no driver. All airbags deployed and the driver’s side mirror sheared off.

Up the road we run into Ron Pierrot, ex-chief of Fort Good Hope. “Just came to check on that truck,” he says. (The driver’s from Fort Good Hope, and he’s okay, I later found out.) Pierrot writes down his phone number and says to call him if we need a local guide.

“You could help me right now,” I say, pointing to a cliff face ahead of us. “What’s that mountain called?”


Pierrot takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Ramparts, a sacred place where he says many spirits have been spotted.

KM 1165 : Steep Hill
Sometimes it’s mood appropriate

A sign warning of a steep hill has been flipped by the wind but now seems somehow more accurate: The car is upside-down, clinging to the underside of a downhill slope.

KM 1180 : Fort Good Hope
“The Sahtu is the forgotten region”

“Never had a beaver tail?” says Ron Pierrot, in mock surprise. “The skin’s a bit rubber. Before you put it in the fire, you wet it first, just roast it and it blows up. Then you eat the inside with a little HP Sauce and salt. Nice and fatty.”

Pierrot’s worn a lot of different hats—community chief, winter road trucker, oil worker, diamond mine security guard—but the one occupation that remains constant is trapping and travelling on the land. “The Sahtu, we’re the forgotten region,” he says, and I’m not sure how he feels about that. On the one hand, the fact that there are no all-season roads in the region keep it isolated, and that keeps it traditional. On the other, business is difficult to develop without infrastructure. There’s only one local shop in town, for instance—Dwayne’s Convenience, with an employment rate of one.

Pierrot doesn’t depend on a lot of outside services for his needs: he traps and hunts his own food and, like others in the region, still chops his own firewood. My lasting impression of the Sahtu will include a woodstove and a drying rack for meat in the living room.

“Oh oh. Oh oh,” says Pierrot’s brother-in-law, Manuel, tugging on one end of a beaver trap. “I feel something heavy.”

“Heavy’s good, right?” says Angela, gripping her camera.


No beaver. The trap just got tangled on a piece of dry wood. Manuel lowers the trap again. They’ll come back tomorrow. We’ll already be back on the road.

KM 1095 Man stranded
“I like to fix things.”

Robin Tobac’s got a load of spruce boughs piled up on the back of his quad when we find him broken down. He’s got no hat—just a baseball cap—and an empty looking backpack. It’s -37C. He’s unconcerned.

He was headed to Norman Wells, says maybe he was going too fast.

“How long does it normally take you to get there?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I always break down.”

“Then why don’t you go slower?”

He shrugs. “I like to fix things.”

KM 946 : Tulita
A Sahtu prophecy

It’s Sunday morning in Tulita and Sister Celeste is out of town, but the Dene of the Sahtu have always directed their own spirituality anyway.

In the lobby of the church, I sit beside Boniface Ayah, a square-jawed elder with a bit of an Elvis look. On the wall across from us, there are framed photos of lost elders and one of his ancestors, Eht’se Ayah, the prophet of Délıne.

Ayah was the last of four successive Dene prophets, who travelled through the region by dog team, teaching traditional ways, rooting out alcohol and providing spiritual guidance. “He never learned to read,” says Ayah, “but he could read the Bible.”

It’s said he prophesied climate change, the NWT diamond rush and regional self-government, like the one ratified in Délıne last April.

Ayah still travels the traditional routes every summer to attend Délıne’s spiritual gathering, and remember the words of prophet. “His travels tied the Sahtu together,” says Boniface, nodding.

KM 698 home stretch
“Anyone know if you can get into the store at Wrigley?”

Eight hours later, we’re back at the chain-up, hesitating to shut off our radio, even though we won’t need it for the highway back to Yellowknife.

“I wish every highway had a radio frequency,” says Chris. “Maybe there’d be less road rage.”

Through the static, we hear a few more transmissions:

“Sharla, did you text your auntie?”

(Silence. Implied: “Yes, I did.”)

“Hey, anyone know if I can get into the store at Wrigley?”

“What are you looking for, gas?”

“No, hoping to get some snacks.”

“No dice. First time on the road?”

“Yeah, just coming to the chain-up now.”

“Take ‘er slow, should be a few hours to Norman Wells.”

This story was originally published in the January/February issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with photography by Angela Gzowski, here.


Proof of Life

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

“Wanna see something neat?”

A few minutes later, Allan Wilson’s leading the way through an opening in the ground, not much bigger than a rabbit hole, and only distinguishable by a piece of cement-stuck rebar sticking out of the parched soil.

We slide down an avalanche pile of sand, around the “L” of an air duct, and land upright in the accounting office in the basement of the old Pine Point Hotel, established 1977.

Aboveground, more than 200 Pine Point expats have travelled from Yellowknife, Alberta, B.C., Ontario—as far away as Argentina—bypassing world-class fishing, paddling and hiking spots, to camp out in an industrial desert on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. Allan’s sharing a camper van with his dad, Bert Wilson, ex-owner and manager of the hotel-slash-restaurant. They’re parked on an old foundation.

Pine Point’s a ghost town: though it’s still Google-able and the Weather Network still posts its daily temperatures, cloud cover and wind speed, the street signs and highway markers were taken down in 1989, when Cominco Mines demolished the townsite and auctioned the buildings off to the highest bidder who could transport them. The basement of the hotel was an accident—someone simply forgot to fill it in.

Flashlight in hand, Allan reconstructs the layout of a town that was only 0.64 square kilometres in size, but feels larger: “The hotel was here,” he says, pointing up, “then there was the IGA, the post office, the cop shop (chuckles). Then the town hall was here, and the QMart.” The QMart’s where his wife Eileen worked when they dated in high school. When Eileen moved to Fort Resolution, they broke up, but reunited years later, long after Pine Point was destroyed. “It’s actually not that rare,” says Allan. “There are a few people that met up afterwards, got married to other people, got divorced and married somebody else from here. Kinda weird.”

Moving towards the edge of town, Allan describes a road that led to the mill, workshops, crushers and administrative offices that reminded 1,200 residents or so why they were all there in the first place—to pull lead and zinc from the rocks for making batteries and skin lotion. “At one point, they started a mining pit right on the road,” says Allan. “There was a rumour going around that said one of the richest ore bodies was right underneath the town site.”

So while the experiment in town-building was intended to develop its own economy and outlast the mine, locals partied like a shutdown was imminent. Allan’s teenage memories run like a thousand scripts to the beginnings of slasher horror movies, mostly without the consequences. “Here I am hauling ass, 200 [km/h] in the middle of a rainstorm,” begins one. Another continues: “That’s where my goddamn Jeep caught on fire,” or “that time we blew up all the picture windows in the hotel.” At $100 a month rent, including utilities, a miner’s wage and practically no television, Pine Point was a breakneck getaway for a generation of families that were willing to leave their hometowns behind for a shot at work.

And then it ended. Cominco conducted surveys as production was ramping down, revealing that the beginning stages of shutdown were inducing symptoms of depression in the townspeople. A Cominco recruiter came into town to assign workers to newer mine sites in the Yukon, B.C. and Northern Ontario.

Twenty-six years later, the Pine Point Facebook page posts multiple updates per day. Pine Pointers meet almost annually to share scrapbooks and pass around a disproportionate amount of memorabilia—hats, sweaters, mugs, fridge magnets, patches and badges and tiny zinc tool kits—made at the time, like they were anticipating the nostalgia to come.

Only the real things collect dust. Rooting through the upturned boxes of paperwork, we find pay stubs as far back as 1977; receipts for hotel rooms at $18 a night, 8 a.m. poutine breakfasts paid by mine workers coming back from the overnight shift. “I spent a lot of hours down in this room,” says Allan. But that’s it for reflection. “Hey, you wanna sneak into one of the old pits?”

This story was originally published in the January/February issue of Up Heremagazine. Read that version here.

Siksik Parkas

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

When an elder dies in Igloolik, everything shuts down. The Nunavut hamlet, normally known for its streets full of people walking, goes inside. Planes bring long-lost loved ones into town and kids watch adults talk quietly around kitchen tables. The Co-op and Northern stores tape notes to their doors: “Closed at 4:30 for the funeral.” Government workers take the afternoon off.

Manasie Qaunaq works for the housing corporation—he almost never gets time off—and it’s springtime, so he takes advantage of the sun-drenched day to go walking. He climbs up to the top of Cemetery Hill and keeps going, towards a place that kids call “Itiveh,” on the western end of the island. All day, he soaks his running shoes, stomps on pond ice, chews 100-year-old willow branches, tightrope-walks along long shale ridges and hunts for eggs and upsets their parents.

He was playing a game that mostly children play—find a long, flat rock, then yank it up quickly to catch what’s crawling underneath—and found a siksik, an arctic ground squirrel, chirping, spread-eagle on its hind legs, little fists raised against the sun.

“I didn’t mean to kill it,” says Manasie, matter-of-factly. He opens his palm to show me the siksik, which looks like it’s sleeping, except for a dot of blood at the corner of its mouth. “The rock slipped out of my hand. But I thought at least I could use the pelt; it would make a nice parka for my niece’s dolls.”

“But why aren’t you at the funeral?” I ask.

His eyes widen. He forgot.

And with that, he’s off, down toward the base of the hill, where he dropped his bike earlier. I see him put the siksik in his bike basket and ride towards old town—the Anglican side.

The church door swings open. An untreated plywood box is loaded onto the bed of a pick-up truck and the first truck leads a convoy of pick-ups and a few ATVs up the hill and into the graveyard.

Past the missionaries’ plots, the Anglican plots, the Catholic plots and all the plastic flowers that adorn them, to the farthest yard where all the congregations’ dead now mix, there’s a clean white cross and an empty grave chipped into the permafrost, three or four feet deep. When the elder was born, they didn’t have graveyards; bodies were wrapped in skins and left for the animals on the highest point of land.

Trucks are still arriving as the box is slid into the grave and the widow takes her place on the right-side edge of the plot, bum on the shale and feet dangling into the pit. She wails loudly; then the crowd wails with her. When a group of sleddogs tied up a couple hundred yards away hears it, they wail too. Everybody keeps wailing as the relatives shovel shale high on top of the box lid and the convoy breaks up and heads back down the hill again.

All week, while the visiting goes on and afterwards, while the planes take the loved ones back to their homes in Hall Beach, Iqaluit, Ottawa, Montreal, I think about Manasie at home, making siksik parkas for his niece.

This article was originally published in the December issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with an illustration by Jonathan Wright, here.

If Any Living Inuk Knew

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Louie Kamookak has been on a 40-year quest to solve the Franklin mystery—for himself and for his people. That’s why he’s Up Here’s Northerner of the Year.

This past September, with the first snows of freeze-up, hunters were pulling their boats up on shore for the winter, and the community of Gjoa Haven was planning a feast—a pretty low-key party: some char, some caribou, the local accordion band The Gjoa Boys, and an award presentation to 10-year-old Charlie Qirqqut, who’d saved his friend from drowning in July.

And then in Ottawa, PM Stephen Harper made an announcement: one of the wrecks of the long-lost Franklin expedition had been found near Hat Island, about 180 km from Gjoa Haven, after 166 years of searching.

Suddenly, the community feast was also hosting an official Franklin delegation. MP Leona Aglukkaq (a Gjoa Haven girl herself) was there, handing Qirqqut his certificate, and several national and international media outlets were crammed into the community hall, snapping shots. The first sonar photo of the wreck—“Canada’s moon shot,” said The Toronto Star—projected on a wall already covered with posters of explorers the way other community gyms display pennants. Huge news for a small town: in a blog post for the New Yorker, Canadian Adam Gopnik put the discovery in American terms. “It’s as if someone had found, in a single moment, the hull of the Titanic, the solution to the mystery of the lost colony at Roanoke, the original flag of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the menu for the Donner party’s last meal.” Now, Gjoa Haven, CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier Captain Bill Noon told Gjoa Haven—very much already on the map—“is on the map.”

And then someone noticed Harper hadn’t credited any local Inuit in his official statement, and suddenly Louie Kamookak, a high school special ed. teacher, found himself in the spotlight. Hadn’t Kamookak been researching and guiding search parties—without government support—along the route of the Franklin expedition for decades? Hadn’t he consulted with Parks Canada workers, who found the ship, for several years? If, as all the headlines read, Inuit had known where the ship was all along, why did it take 166 years to find it? If any living Inuk knew, it would be Kamookak.

Kamookak is a living library of Central Arctic oral history—maybe the only one of his generation—but he doesn’t feel comfortable being its spokesman. He’s no academic and he won’t bloviate. Yes, Inuit knew where the ships were, and finding the Erebus, he says, “is bigger than the Titanic…But it’s not my mission,” he adds.

“I’m looking for Franklin.”


“Franklin was a good man!” yells Kamookak, over a headwind and blowing snow. There’s a polar bear in town—there were tracks on the baseball field—and we’re headed out to his cabin, to check on a caribou cache nearby.

Kamookak seems tall, though he’s not. Deep-voiced and wry, he’s got the defiance of the autodidact in him, and the disregard for popular opinion. He likes to talk while he drives—it’s the closest he’ll ever come to debate—and as we veer off-road with a couple backpacks full of antiquarian books, he touches on hard topics: troubles with researchers, the politics of the Erebus find, the mass disdain for Franklin, growing steadily since Pierre Berton questioned the commander’s hero status in his 1988 book, Arctic Grail. In fact, John Franklin might have been a rigid, aging Victorian, who only took the position because his wife lobbied for it, and Lady Franklin was a powerful woman. Margaret Atwood summed up the growing collective scorn for Franklin in a 1994 CBC interview: “He was a dope.”

Kamookak disagrees. “He’d been on two expeditions, to the Coppermine and Mackenzie rivers,” he says. “He knew how to communicate with Inuit.”

We park the red Honda outside a heap of plywood near a small char pond, unofficial address: “101 DEW Line Trail.” Outside, it’s dump material. Inside, it’s a masterpiece of jury-rigging, powered by solar panel, heated with expired fuel, and equipped “with the best internet access on King William Island.” He pumps the Coleman stove for tea water and continues: “There’s a story that says the leader of a great ship died, there were shots and [his men] put him in the ground. That leader was a great shaman.”

I think about what Atwood said next: “After we’ve had Franklin the dope for a while, undoubtedly we’re going to get a different Franklin. People will say, ‘Wait a minute now, Franklin wasn’t such a dope. Really, he was a mystic.’”

“Of course,” says Kamookak, “for Inuit, way back, every story had to have a shaman involved.”

Most of what Kamookak knows about storytelling comes from his great grandmother, Hummahuk. Hummahuk was a Boothian matriarch—you’ll find a faded photo of her, tattooed and smiling in a floral dress, on many a Gjoa Haven wall—and Kamookak travelled with her until he was nine. At night, she told him fairy tales.

“I come from a long line of high-profile Netsilingmiut people,” he says—including a great shaman on his father’s side—and William ‘Paddy’ Gibson, an Irish Hudson’s Bay trader (and Franklin scholar in his own right) on his mom’s side. He was born in 1959—a famine year—near modern-day Taloyoak, at a seal-hunting camp. His mom was so hungry she couldn’t produce breast milk that year, and the children’s first meals were mashed, raw seal blubber.

By the time Kamookak was born, Netsilik Inuit covered a huge hunting territory, from the Boothian Peninsula to King William Island, and as far south as Back River. Two groups—the Utjulingmiut and the Utkuhikjalingmiut once dominated the area. But a few generations before Hummahuk, two ships of white men arrived on King William Island; and a Boothian shaman cast spells to keep the animals away from them. “The Innuits (sic) never knew such very cold weather” as that year, said witnesses shortly after. Starvations thinned the tribes and the Netsilingmiut saw an opportunity to expand: they moved west and pushed out the stragglers.

One night in the canvas tent, when Kamookak was nine, Hummahuk told a story: “She was very young,” remembers Kamookak. “I think she was about six or seven.” That summer, she travelled with her father down the north coast of King William Island. “People hardly went down that coast back then,” he says. “It was filled with ice. The only purpose in the world to go down there was to get driftwood to make kayaks and stuff. Close to the ocean, they came to a ridge with real fine gravel. And they started finding stuff on the ground: metal and round muskets. They found spoons and forks, and Hummahuk’s father grabbed a dining knife and made an ice chisel out of it.”

And then they saw it: “A mound, and at the end of the mound, there was a rock with markings on it. The mound was the length of a human, and because it was the length of a human, they were afraid to go near it.”

“In later years, the missionaries came and started burying people. My great grandma realized it was a grave she saw.”

That was the last summer Kamookak spent with Hummahuk. “The next year, the plane came and took us to school and she died.” (Later on, Kamookak would search the Boothian Peninsula for her grave, but she’d been laid out the traditional way—uncovered, unburied—and the land took every trace of her body.) Meanwhile, he forgot about the story.

Then one day, when he was 12, Kamookak’s teacher gave a lesson on the Franklin expedition. He learned about two ships, carrying 134 sailors, that left England in 1845 and got trapped in thick ice two years later—two cold and unusually barren years later—near King William Island, never to be seen again. The captain was dead but no one knew where his body had gone.

Hummahuk’s story was real.


Igloolik Inuit have a creation myth for white people, and Rosie Iqallijuq once told it to Encounters on the Passage author Dorothy Eber.

“There was once a girl, Uinigumasuittuq,” said Iqallijuq, “who was married to her dog … She gave birth to six babies [and] two were half-white half-dogs.” The two half-white half-dogs—one boy, one girl—were set in the ocean in the sole of a kamik, and returned, generations later, in search of their mother. That’s why white people are always collecting bones.

In 1848, England declared Franklin officially missing and offered a £10,000 reward for “any information leading to the discovery of what happened to the Franklin expedition.” Over the next six years, public and private funders would devote £760,000 (more than $100 million in today’s currency, much of it donated by Lady Franklin) to the mission. In 1850 alone, 12 expeditions travelled the Northwest Passage, from the east, west and south, searching for lost ships and men. They found very little, apart from an 1846 note, written by officer James Fitzjames, declaring “All well,” and updated the following year with some devastating news: Franklin and 23 crewmembers were dead, and the remaining 105 men were abandoning ship and marching to Back River. A trail of skeletons, lifeboats and impractical items—porcelain teacups, silver spoons, curtain rods—led down the west coast, ending at the entrance to Back River.

Meanwhile, Inuit were also reeling. In the winter of 1853-4, eastern and western Inuit held a conference at Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk), to swap stories of first contact. They traded wood and metal objects. A Netsilik man said he’d fed and sheltered four qallunaat for a winter—their skin was black and the meat above their teeth was gone; others told the same story but with slight variations: there were 10 men, maybe, or 40. One man found gold and paper on the Adelaide Peninsula—useless objects, so he gave them to his children and they ripped them up and tossed them into the wind. There were many stories of ships trapped in ice; one was filled with dead bodies and apparently sank in the shallow waters of Utjulik, an area about the size of Southern Ontario, south and west of King William Island.

In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, another Netsilik man who attended the conference, met Franklin searcher John Rae, also in Pelly Bay, in 1854. The Inuk described a gruesome scene and Rae relayed it directly to England: a long day’s sled trip from Back River, Inuit had seen about 35 corpses—some in tents, some under an overturned boat, some out in the open air. They’d been eating fish, geese, and, judging by “the contents of the kettles,” each other. The Admiralty paid Rae his £10,000, but Victorian England used the occasion to hurl racial slurs at the colonies. To Charles Dickens, the testimonies of the last living people who’d seen Franklin alive were “the chatter of uncivilized people.”


Igloolik Inuit have a creation myth for white people, and Rosie Iqallijuq once told it to Encounters on the Passage author Dorothy Eber.

“There was once a girl, Uinigumasuittuq,” said Iqallijuq, “who was married to her dog … She gave birth to six babies [and] two were half-white half-dogs.” The two half-white half-dogs—one boy, one girl—were set in the ocean in the sole of a kamik, and returned, generations later, in search of their mother. That’s why white people are always collecting bones.

In 1848, England declared Franklin officially missing and offered a £10,000 reward for “any information leading to the discovery of what happened to the Franklin expedition.” Over the next six years, public and private funders would devote £760,000 (more than $100 million in today’s currency, much of it donated by Lady Franklin) to the mission. In 1850 alone, 12 expeditions travelled the Northwest Passage, from the east, west and south, searching for lost ships and men. They found very little, apart from an 1846 note, written by officer James Fitzjames, declaring “All well,” and updated the following year with some devastating news: Franklin and 23 crewmembers were dead, and the remaining 105 men were abandoning ship and marching to Back River. A trail of skeletons, lifeboats and impractical items—porcelain teacups, silver spoons, curtain rods—led down the west coast, ending at the entrance to Back River.

Meanwhile, Inuit were also reeling. In the winter of 1853-4, eastern and western Inuit held a conference at Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk), to swap stories of first contact. They traded wood and metal objects. A Netsilik man said he’d fed and sheltered four qallunaat for a winter—their skin was black and the meat above their teeth was gone; others told the same story but with slight variations: there were 10 men, maybe, or 40. One man found gold and paper on the Adelaide Peninsula—useless objects, so he gave them to his children and they ripped them up and tossed them into the wind. There were many stories of ships trapped in ice; one was filled with dead bodies and apparently sank in the shallow waters of Utjulik, an area about the size of Southern Ontario, south and west of King William Island.

In-nook-poo-zhe-jook, another Netsilik man who attended the conference, met Franklin searcher John Rae, also in Pelly Bay, in 1854. The Inuk described a gruesome scene and Rae relayed it directly to England: a long day’s sled trip from Back River, Inuit had seen about 35 corpses—some in tents, some under an overturned boat, some out in the open air. They’d been eating fish, geese, and, judging by “the contents of the kettles,” each other. The Admiralty paid Rae his £10,000, but Victorian England used the occasion to hurl racial slurs at the colonies. To Charles Dickens, the testimonies of the last living people who’d seen Franklin alive were “the chatter of uncivilized people.”

From there, the eyewitness accounts get blurry. The next investigator to focus on Inuit oral history arrived 10 years later, via Cincinnati businessman Charles Francis Hall. Inspired by Rae’s accounts of packing light and travelling with Inuit, Hall convinced himself that some of Franklin’s men had “gone native” too, and were living among the locals. He hired two guides—a Baffin husband and wife team—and travelled five years, from Repulse Bay to King William Island.

Hall conducted the only systematic survey of what Inuit knew; it’s the only reason we can say, with any legalistic certainty, that locals saw the men and the ships—because Hall created a written record. But by the time he arrived, Inuit worlds had changed. Utjulingmiut, who’d had the most contact with Franklin’s men, were dying off. Some eyewitnesses were gone, or had grown too old to remember. And by 1864, more than 40 ships had gone through the waters near King William Island. The question, “Umiak-soamik taekkolaung-ilasse im-mane?”—Have you seen any large ships lately?—produced a confused tangle of stories, involving many aglookas—sailors—a few eshemutas—captains, and many, many umiaqs—large ships.

Sure, Hall heard many stories of debris washing up on a group of islands called Shartoo, “the flat place.” He’d also heard the wreck itself had been pillaged there, and sank, “but not so bad…the topmasts were above water.” But on Hall’s (often inaccurate) maps, there was no Shartoo, only O’Reilly Island, southeast of Hat Island, in the Royal Geographical Society Islands. Naturally, these direction markers were nonsense to Inuit, as were “miles,” and “feet,” and “years,” and “Franklin” and “England.”

In 1927, when the British Admiralty printed a map collating evidence collected to date on the lost Franklin ships, it colour-coded Inuit evidence blue, and qallunaat evidence red. “The information shown in blue,” it was noted underneath the map, “is based upon the various Eskimo reports obtained by … explorers, and is probably not altogether trustworthy.”

“There’s a saying amongst the group of people who look for shipwrecks,” says David Woodman, who revisited and helped reinterpret the Hall testimonies for his 1991 book, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery. “They’re never found in the water, they’re always found in the library—because you have to know where to look first.” That’s good news, Kamookak jokes, “because I wasn’t about to go out there and stick my head in the water.”

Actually, Kamookak did start in the only library available to him in Gjoa Haven in 1971: the elders. And the first thing he learned, as a teenager, “was to start listening more…I started getting more stories from the elders”—not official interviews (Kamookak can count the amount of formal interviews he’s conducted in his lifetime on his two hands), “just visiting. Asking. Getting more stories. And the elders got the hang of me that I would listen to many stories.” Franklin was his main point of interest, but he said it didn’t matter “if it was a Franklin story or a if it was a legend or if it was a life story, I was always there to listen.”

Given the choice, he might have been an academic, but Kamookak finished high school in Grade Nine. (“I just had the bad luck to be an in-between year,” he says. “The students ahead of me were sent to Inuvik for residential school. And the students behind me were sent to Yellowknife. But my age group, they told us, ‘You’re too old to go to school.’ So we were done.”)

Instead, he went to field school—on the trapline. From age 16 to about 20, 21, he and his dad ran 500 snares west from Gjoa Haven, all the way to King William Island’s southernmost tip. By the time he left to take a job at the Polaris zinc mine near Resolute, he knew every ghost story and skeleton on the south coast.

He spent every out-rotation on his ATV or snow machine, cutting through the middle of King William Island to the northwest coast, where the stories had told him there was a vault, with a wooden cross, and large, flat stones. Later on, when he started a family and took a job at the housing corporation in town, he followed the same process: consult the testimonies, travel the land—documenting place names, artifacts, skeletons and cairns along the way—return to the elders, ask them “what do you think of this or that?” Years into his research, he ran into an elder he’d known his whole life, at the Hunters and Trappers office. There happened to be a map behind them, and it tripped the elder’s memory: he’d seen the vault too, and beside it, he’d found a long, rusty, copper rod. Kamookak’s knowledge deepened, year after year.

It also broadened, as he established a name for himself as a local Franklin authority. In the mid-‘90s, a Calgary-based antiquarian bookseller, Cameron Treleaven, got stranded with a friend near Collinson Inlet, on King William’s west coast; he had to be choppered back to town. Hamlet-locked and bored, Treleaven called Kamookak, and they’ve been friends ever since. Treleaven sent Kamookak a first edition of Hall’s journey, and a library of other books to bring him into the international conversation.

In the meantime, Kamookak’s guided Hay River’s resident Franklin fanatic, Tom Gross, on several trips; and in 1999, he tracked the route of John Rae—Rae Strait—with Fatal Passage author Ken McGoogan. (McGoogan and Kamookak chatted recently about collaborating on a biography, but Kamookak says, “I might do it independently.”) Treleaven came on that trip, and another, in 1998, to Victory Point, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Franklin’s disappearance.

Then one winter in 2004, Kamookak found them: long, flat rocks, four-by-12 feet across, “ideal to cover the vault.” He logged their location and planned to return in the summer.

But then he got sick—spent four months in an Edmonton hospital getting open heart surgery, then eight months later, had a tumour removed from behind his right eye. His family lost their house, and they moved out to 101 DEW Line Trail. “People in town were saying it was the curse of Franklin; that I was getting too close.” He shrugs. “I haven’t gone back.”

Instead, in early 2006, he and a few collaborators, including some French and British researchers and Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Robert Grenier, submitted an International Polar Year project proposal. It describes a helicopter survey and sidescan sonar trawl of an area west of King William Island, guided by local knowledge. Kamookak won’t say why the project never happened (“It’s political.”), but in 2007, he found himself in Parks Canada headquarters in Ottawa. A new government was elected, and it was sympathetic to the search.


Early August this year, Kamookak was returning home from a medical trip to Edmonton when he saw the young man sitting next to him was reading a Franklin book. “A new guy on the search,” he says, “doing some homework on the plane.” He struck up a conversation: “I’m from Gjoa Haven,” he said. “I’m Louie.” (Silence.) “Kamookak.”

“Then he recognized me,” says Kamookak—and led him to Ryan Harris, who’s been heading Parks Canada’s search since 2008. Harris and his team were headed to Cambridge Bay, where the main research ship, the Martin Bergmann, is docked. “Before they left,” says Kamookak, “I remember telling them, ‘You should look down near the mouth of Back River.’”

Actually, the team intended to search farther north, closer to Victory Point, where the ships were first locked in ice in 1846. But just like that summer for Franklin and his crew, Victoria Strait was too ice-choked to navigate. Forced to abandon their original plan, Parks Canada and its partners—including major donor and BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie—travelled south instead, to Utjulik. Several expeditions have searched there before; most notably David Woodman, with a magnetometer, between 1998 and 2004. But not with such high-tech sonar equipment.

And then a couple of serendipitous things happened. A helicopter pilot on another project—assisting federal hydrographers charting the sea bed—offered a few extra seats to GN archaeologists. They stopped off on Hat Island. There, the helicopter pilot stumbled on an iron fitting—part of a boat-launching davit—with the broad arrow of the British Admiralty. The research boats shifted the search area, and two days later, a near-perfect image of the intact ship appeared on Ryan Harris’ sonar screen.

In the end, a lot of collaboration, a lot of technology, a lot of money and a lot of dumb luck found Franklin’s lost ship.

It took about three weeks for Parks Canada to identify the ship as the Erebus. During that time, the Facebook page, “Remembering the Franklin Expedition,” exploded. Followers placed their bets on which ship it would be, along with essay-length justifications of their choices. The popular bet, hands down, was the Terror. Kamookak hid his reasoning (“He holds his cards close to his chest,” said a friend.), but added one word to the debate: “Erebus.”

“Hummahuk once told me, ‘Remember these stories,’” says Kamookak’s cousin, Jerry Arqviq, “because people from the south are going to be interested in what happened to those men.”

He tries to remember: “My mom talked about how her step-parents used to help out a lot, helped Franklin to survive in the Arctic…” He pauses. Something’s not right. “She said her parents used to take care of people that might need help to survive, like the whalers.” He gives up. “There are so many stories about the Franklin ships, and before and after them, I think people are starting to get them mixed up with Amundsen.” (Amundsen’s not as sexy as Franklin, Gjoa Haven’s visiting Norwegian scholar, Tone Wang, tells me sulkily—“probably because he didn’t screw up”—but he docked in Gjoa Haven’s harbour for two years and had much more contact with Inuit.)

I decide I don’t care if it’s a Franklin story, or if it’s about Amundsen or if it’s a legend or if it’s a life story. I just go visiting.

At the heritage centre, Jacob Keanik tells me how his grandfather took a piece of Amundsen’s boat and sewed it to his little boy’s clothes, as a sort of amulet, “to get him to be a wise sailor.” Keanik is also related to Hummahuk, and also heard the story of the grave, but in his version, Hummahuk found plum pits as well as musket pellets.

Down in the old part of town, near the beach and the old Hudson’s Bay trading post, everyone tells me to go visit Tommy Porter. In 1973, Porter was working as a baggage loader for Northward Aviation; he looked out the window near Parry River, south of Cambridge Bay, and saw a ship in the water. “The pilot pointed out the bow—he’d seen it before. It was real shallow. And he told me not to tell the people we were flying back to Cambridge Bay.”

Ex-mayor Michael Angottitauruq says he knows a place where white men made bonfires on the sand with seal oil. Elder Matthew Tiringaneak says his ancestors boarded Franklin’s boats.

Rick Dwyer’s a Scottish ex-Bay boy, but he went on a few Franklin searches of his own, guided by his Inuit wife Martha (now deceased). He says he knows where you can dig in the sand for beads from the Back expedition, and he’s got a photo of a crevasse where Inuit say human bones are piled. He once found a 1792 Edinburgh coin in a grave on Todd Island. He also swears he saw a sasquatch out there, near the entrance to Back River.

The stories are mysterious, but not all reliable: in 2010, local Wally Porter told some GN archaeologists that Franklin’s logbook was buried under a cairn commemorating Kamookak’s grandpa, trader Paddy Gibson. Porter said he heard the story from his own grandpa, George Washington Porter. “I wrote a number of letters to the Nunavut government,” says Kamookak, “saying there’s nothing there, I’ve got tape recordings of elders that all say there’s nothing there.” It was no use. The cairn was destroyed, the box exhumed, Porter was flown to Ottawa for the opening, and there was nothing in the box. The cairn was never rebuilt, and Gibson’s commemorative plaque is still missing. “And,” Kamookak says, “that was one of the last historical things in the area.”


Next summer, several new Franklin-themed cruise expeditions are already booked solid, a few locals will be college-trained in tourism, and Kamookak’s thinking of resuming his search for Franklin’s grave (and maybe this time, asking for a little funding). “Curse or no curse,” he says, “I’m going back.”

We start packing up the books, getting ready to head back to town, but the blizzard’s raging full-force, and the polar bear’s still out there. Too windy to check the cache. “Doubt your plane will land,” he says. “Curse of Franklin.”

“People ask me why I want to find Franklin’s body so bad.” I hadn’t—Jerry Arqviq had told me Louie used to try to get him out searching, saying, “If we could just find this [grave], it would really help the people in the community. Get work for the younger people, get them back on the land.” I thought it was reason enough.

Kamookak’s still looking at the blizzard. “People get lost out there,” he says. “When they come back, they say it’s almost like they couldn’t
remember where they were, like everything gets the same. The landscape.”

“In the same way that when we go search for people, we find their snow machine and now we’re hopeful we’ll find that person…I think about [Franklin’s] wife, that if she were alive today, I know she’d hope that we would find his body.”

“Anything else?”

“I want Canada to be able to return his body to England.”

“Anything else?”

“I want to prove my great grandma’s story was right.”
This story was originally published in the December issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with photography by Riley Veldhuizen-Dunphy, here.

Bingo Night in the Sahtu

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Well that’s not a bingo but I guess we know the phone’s working.

Benji Wrigley’s right next to the radio. He’s got his sock feet planted square on the floor, elbows on his knees, slow-burning a cigarette in his right hand. The announcer’s been playing the same Loretta Lynn album all afternoon with a straight face, and she calls the Friday night bingo in the same style. She’s got a deadpan that cuts clear through the smoke.

I’ve been getting prank calls all day, I think I know who. I think they’re from the Wells. I 23.

Nadine Wrigley’s on the other side of the room, at the kitchen table. She’s got a stack of newsprint bingo cards piled up on her place setting and a red dabber. She works as a camp cook at a diamond mine near Yellowknife and just got back to Tulita yesterday, after 37 days out. There’s a lemon meringue pie on the counter, homemade white cake with frosting, a plate of escargots and stuffed mushrooms.

B15. Beeee…fif-teen.

The station phone rings, maybe a bingo. Nadine and Benji start new cigarettes while the announcer checks the caller’s card.


“37 days is too long to be away,” says Nadine, and over on the couch, Benji nods. On the dining room wall, there’s a photo collage that Nadine must have made after high school. There’s Nadine as a baby, in the bathtub; at three or four, covered in chocolate, Benji holds her; at about eight, in moccasins and an Inuvialuit parka; at her grade seven graduation, posing proudly beside her dad.

The announcer hangs up the phone. Sorry folks, no bingo this time either. I’m gonna bannock-slap that boy when I see him. 065. Ohhhhh six-ty-five.

Nadine laughs, then: “Bingo!” It’s a straight line through the centre.

The cordless phone’s on the table but the signal’s busy; two people ahead of her got bingo at the same time. The announcer checks their numbers and then the line’s free.

Your name? “It’s for Benji,” says Nadine. “Numbers are six, 28, 49 and 69.”

It’s good. Any more bingos? Okay, bingos by Dorian Campbell, Chantal Renard and Benji Wrigley. When you come down to pick up your money can you bring some change? I have no change. No change, no money.

The announcer spins the ball cage for the next round. There are four more rounds and then the Jackpot, which pays a couple thousand dollars; it’s what everybody’s playing for. Benji gives his cards to Nadine, says “good luck,” but they don’t win again.

By eight p.m., bingo’s over. “Mississippi Man” fades back in and Nadine’s going out to meet some friends. Benji heads over to the station to collect their $100 prize, split three ways between the winners: $33. “I don’t play bingo too often,” he says, steering his pick-up truck over the hard-pack roads. “But I really do like it when Nadine’s home.”

This story was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with an illustration by Jonathan Wright, here

Between the Lines

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Tracing the controversial history and recent revival of Inuit facial tattoos.

As a little girl, Ellen Ittunga loved to trace the grey lines in her grandmother’s upper arms. From the top of her shoulder, she’d start with a line of vertical notches curving around the joint, rising from a flat, double line. Those notches made her think of the flames of the qulliq, the seal oil lamp. Underneath that, several rows of upside-down y-shapes completed a cap sleeve, and all the way down the rest of the arm, there were short, broken stitches made to look like columns and columns of caribou sinews, neatly lined up for sewing; they fanned out across her heavy arms, almost to the elbow.

Underneath the old woman’s dress, Ellen saw her thighs were tattooed as well. The similar lines and notches formed “a living embroidery,” as one anthropologist called it, so her newborn babies had something to look at as they came into the world.

Ellen never thought to ask what the designs meant—she understood their purpose to be inherent in their uncomplicated beauty. But one day, after watching her grandma’s arms all morning—how they curved as she flexed while doing the dishes or just shifting on the couch—she searched for a black marker.

Kakiniit!” She said. Tattoos. “Uvanga!” I want some! The older woman looked up. In the decades since she’d been tattooed in her outpost camp near Taloyoak, Nunavut, her tattoos had become a sin. The custom had gone from a widespread rite of passage and a source of Inuit pride to a mark of shamanism in a Christianized community. Ellen’s grandmother said nothing. She wouldn’t make the tattoos. Ellen kept drawing.


Elders’ stories, photos and anthropologists’ notes might reconstruct the tattooing process: It was mainly a women’s art. Just like the saying goes, “you can’t take a wife until you’ve learned how to build an igloo,” a girl wasn’t marriageable until her face was marked, and being tattooed meant she had learned the essential women’s skills: how to chop ice and melt it for water, make and repair sealskin boots, render seal-fat and light the qulliq. The tattooist was an older woman who had proven her embroidery skills, and she kept her tools—a bone, wood or steel needle, sometimes a poker, maybe a knife and a string of caribou sinew, hidden away in a seal intestine-skin bag between jobs.

A girl’s first tattoos, usually done in the face, on the forehead, cheeks or chin, were often excruciatingly painful, especially around the eyes, lips and between the eyebrows. “It would be impossible to keep your toes from wiggling,” said one elder, while the tattooist ran her needle and thread through the lampblack of the qulliq and stitched it through the young girl’s skin. “It felt like your face was on fire,” said another elder. Still others said it felt like sparks from the sun. Sessions could last whole days. At certain points, the girl might scream out for the tattooist to stop.

Some say the tattooist probably prayed with every stitch, sometimes rubbing the soot in with a finger or her poker. She would gently remind the girl that the sea goddess denied access to the afterlife to women whose fingers weren’t tattooed. Women without face tattoos were banished to Noqurmiut, the “land of the crestfallen,” where they spent an eternity with their heads hanging down, smoke bellowing out of their throats.

Often, the girl fell quiet after that. The tattoo was sterilized with a urine-soot mixture and over the next few weeks and months, the black of the individual stitches would spread under the skin and the dots would resolve into thicker lines that would fade, but never disappear.

The oldest firm evidence of indigenous tattooing in North America is an ivory mask found on Devon Island, now at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The face is decorated in much the same way the last tattoos were recorded in modern-day Nunavut. Radial lines branch down from the centre of the lips to the edges of the chin, arrowheads point in towards the corners of the mouth from the cheeks and several lines converge from the forehead to the base of the nose. The mask is radiocarbon-dated to 3,500 years.

“And the earliest evidence of tattooing on St. Lawrence Island [in Alaska] shows the same kind of tattoo patterns that you could still see in East Greenland in the 1880s,” says Lars Krutak, an anthropologist who’s studied indigenous tattooing globally for almost 20 years. “So you could trace the migration of people through material culture that shows tattoos. If you look at the prehistoric era and then the recent historic period, on either side of the Arctic, the tattooing was almost exactly the same.” For several millennia, Inuit tattooing remained widespread, strong and unchanged.

Why did they disappear then, in the space of just a few generations? Krutak says, “A combination of reasons,” because there were many reasons why Inuit tattooed in the first place. Some tattoos served as acupuncture, or for pain relief. But with the arrival of southerners, Europeans and modern medicine, he adds, “why would you subject yourself to all that pain when you could just pop a pill? And then with the coming of modern fashion, clothing and makeup, tattoos for beautification sort of fell out of favour too. The tattoos related to shamanic rights, repelling or appeasing spirits,” though, says Krutak, “those disappeared when the missionaries came.”

In particular, the early missionary Edmund Peck (particularly powerful because he was fluent in Inuktitut and built the first Anglican church on Baffin Island in 1894) did an efficient job converting shamans to Christians and wiping out cultural practices along with religious ones. Drum dancing and throat singing disappeared from everyday life, not necessarily because they were shamanistic, but because they were traditional, and when they were unable to tell the difference, the missionaries often erred on the conservative side. But as Jacob Peterloosie of Pond Inlet told Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, sometimes the traditional practices had no purpose at all outside of being beautiful and making people happy. “To think about the hard times,” he says, “the starvation they survived. Why did they bother having drums, fun things and tattoos? They had all kinds of games too. You’d think they’d only be concerned with food and daily survival, but they tried to rise above that. Looking back on their philosophy, it’s quite amazing. They were very wise.”

In place of those fun and beautiful and very wise things, Peck brought syllabics, quiet study, and expectations of extreme piety. He also brought the Bible and with it, Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”


“Oh yes, I know Leviticus,” says Mike Austin over the phone from his studio in London, Ontario. He quotes it verbatim. Austin’s been unofficial tattooist

to the Inuit since 2003, when Gerri Sharpe, a Gjoa Haven native living in Yellowknife, brought him pictures of her grandmother and asked him to mark her eyes, wrists and hands. He’s since done more than two dozen hand, wrist, arm, leg and face tattoos for Inuit in Iqaluit and Ontario.

In April 2013, talking with a friend in Iqaluit, Austin realized he’d never been to any of the North’s small communities, and a mutual friend in Igloolik, Annie Désilets, offered to gauge her community’s interest in getting him there. She posted to Facebook, “There is a great tattoo artist…who is interested to come to Igloolik. Any one (sic) would like to get one?” Of the 16 responses posted directly to her wall in the following eight hours, the majority—11—were positive. But over the next few days, Désilets says she received many more messages to her private inbox that were more polarizing.

“There were lots of people who were interested,” she says, “But lots of people who said, he should never come to town.” Lots more Leviticus, and then “people started arguing very badly, and I was feeling upset about that,” says Désilets. “It was weird, because I always thought tattooing was part of traditional Inuit culture. But some people don’t seem to know about that. They just said, ’Oh why would someone from another culture come up here with his own tradition and do it to us?’”

Désilets says she’s still interested in the idea, but she and Austin never took it further after her initial Facebook posting. “I’m still living in the community and I don’t want to be having issues with people,” she says. “So the project stayed on hold.” In the meantime, though Désilets says Igloolik has a lot of collective memory about traditional practices bound up in elders, the community could use a conversation-starter on “what the traditional tattoos are.” She suggests Iqaluit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2010 documentary, Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. As a public service, she says, “I’d like to project it on the gym wall.”


“It seems a lot of elders are regretting how much of our culture we so willingly threw away over the last 100 years.”

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is sitting in the summer sun on a hill in the Netsilik region of Nunavut. It’s 2008, and her face is as clear and unblemished as the day she was born. She’s in the middle of a five-year mission to research—and eventually get—Inuit tattoos. It began in Halifax, while she was studying film at Nova Scotia’s College of Art and Design. She’d been away for 12 years, and though some memories of Nunavut had faded (like learning many of those women’s skills that girls required to get tattooed), other memories grew stronger.

Arnaquq-Baril is half-Scottish and can’t think of any ancestors that had traditional tattoos, but still, she was haunted by the “rows of dots and graceful curves” she’d seen on the arms, legs, fingers and faces of unnamed women in so many historical Northern photos. It was only after she returned from the south that she mustered the courage to ask about them.

Back in Iqaluit for good in 2006, she started work on a film about her experience tracking down the fading story of Inuit tattoos. Aside from a Carleton University masters thesis from 1985, scattered explorers’ observations, visitors’ photographs and Krutak’s work (which focuses mainly on Alaska anyway), there’d been almost no primary research done on traditional tattooing in the Canadian Arctic, ever.

Arnaquq-Baril visited nine communities in the Baffin and Netsilik regions, and interviewed 56 elders about the meanings of the tattoos, how they were applied, and when and how they eventually died out. Along the way she collected an ally—Greenland Inuk and Inuit cultural rights activist Aaju Peter learned about Arnaquq-Baril’s quest at a filmmaking workshop in 2008 and tagged along, helping with translation and moral support. They lost an invaluable source of information when the last Nunavut Inuk to receive traditional, skin-stitched tattoos, Mary Tallu, died just weeks before Arnaquq-Baril arrived in Taloyoak to interview her. Their search, and the film, gained urgency and momentum.

To Peter and Arnaquq-Baril’s surprise, the elders they met in Igloolik, Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak were unafraid to talk about the old traditions. In fact, Peter says, they seemed relieved. “They were so pleased that we were asking them about the tattoos, which had been a taboo. For those who have since passed away, I think they felt better passing on, knowing that some of their traditions were being passed on too.”

In Taloyoak, an elder conducted a ritual left over from shamanic days—a qilanik—where he wrapped Arnaquq-Baril’s head in cloth and rope and asked the spirits for advice. If they thought she should get tattooed, her head would become extremely heavy; too heavy to lift.

It worked. Austin tattooed Peter and Arnaquq-Baril with a modern-style tattoo gun, but had it custom made to look like an ulu—a traditional women’s knife—to add their own symbolic twist.

For the younger generation, Peter is convinced the film and the discussion around it sparked a revival. “There are quite a few Inuit women now and some men also with tattoos,” she says. Some of the designs, like Ellen Ittunga’s, are exact replicas of their ancestors, but just as many aren’t.

Austin points to Arnaquq-Baril, as well as musicians Celina Kalluk and Lucie Idlout, who traced lines around their collarbones to symbolize the amauti, a parka for carrying children. Yellowknife singer Angela Hovak Johnston has broken line cheek stripes and a “V” on her forehead. In Iqaluit, dancer and poet Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and musician Nancy Mike both have stylized bands around their upper thighs, in the style of Ittunga’s grandma. Inuit games athlete Johnny Issaluk recently had his forearms decorated with women’s tattoos, in honour of his grandmother and namesake.

Nunavut’s new tattooed aren’t your everyday community folk; they constitute the North’s most visible social set, and role models. And what’s more, says Austin, “they’re taking the old tattoos and they’re starting to do different stuff with them, They’re not necessarily traditional designs, but they have a traditional feel.” It’s a good thing, he says. “It’s the spirit of Inuit, they’re always adapting things to their environment, their current situation. Nothing’s static.”


But what happens when the pain and ritual are taken out of such a spiritual practice—does it detract from the original’s raw, dangerous beauty?

One woman remains in the Arctic with hand-stitched tattoos on her face. In the early ’80s, Adeline Peter Raboff, an Alaskan Gwich’in author, developed an allergy to makeup. Since she was a seamstress, she decided to hand-stitch three lines into her chin with a steel sewing needle, some sinew, soot and some regular Wesson oil. The process took close to a year, in half-hour intervals and waiting up to a month for each section to heal. She always made a ritual of it, dimming the lights, working at the kitchen table with a mirror, while her family stood by.

The process itself, says Raboff, “was deliberate. I wouldn’t describe it as spiritual. I was just reenacting something that was done over a century before.” But living with her tattoos over time, she says, “that’s the spiritual practice. Every day I wash my face, I look at my chin, and I think of right attitudes; I think of the Creator and it reminds me of my attitude towards life.”

After five years with her tattoos, Peter has a similar thought: “I’ve done many things without realizing how important they would be later on.” It wasn’t the momentary pain or the ritual that connected her with her tattoos and her tattoos with her belief system—it was the daily routine of living with them. “When I got the tattoos, I was told, ‘Now the spirits can see you. As I explain to people what my tattoos mean, almost every day, tracing over their lines reminds me of whom I respect and why.“

This story was originally published in the September issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with photography by Angela Gzowski, here.

Tapper’s Last Stand

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

For two weeks during springtime, every night around seven, Frederick Beaulieu’s white Windstar winds its way through the back alley dumpsters of Hay River’s Boardroom restaurant, crosses a small creek and careens into a stand of birch trees on the other side. Beaulieu’s got 40 trees tapped in this tiny wedge
Beaulieu might not have fallen so deeply in love with the burnt-molasses taste of birch syrup if he hadn’t, he says, “been born without skin.” Growing up in a one-room cabin near Fort Resolution, his childhood eczema was so bad—he demonstrates how he could pull the sheaths of his fingertips off like thimbles every morning—his parents kept him essentially bedridden; the risk of infection was simply too high. So while his brothers and sisters learned moose hunting and beaver trapping and, later on, left for residential school in Fort Simpson, Beaulieu stayed close to the cabin. As one of his chores, he delivered firewood to the families nearby, and in payment, the ladies of the bush would feed him a plate of warm bannock drizzled with birch syrup. In the spring, it would come ladled out from a cast iron cauldron swinging over a fire, still smoking and frothing with whipped golden foam.

Beaulieu empties about six brimming half-gallon pails into two mayonnaise vats pulled from the back of the van, then strains out the early-season flies, decanting that into a five-gallon water jug. The sap’s just barely thawed it’s so early in the season. It starts to snow. With each batch of pails unloaded from the trees, Beaulieu drives the van deeper into the birch, the raspberry bushes and underbrush scraping shriller against the doors and windshield as he goes.

He skips ahead in his story, past the part where he dreamt that he killed his eczema and it mysteriously cleared; how he learned to read, write and speak English in his late teens and got his steam engineer’s certificate. He says, “I was working for the government and I was drinking too much. Getting hired and fired and hired and fired. So my cousin said, ‘Let’s go out in the bush for the spring hunt. Go out on ski-doos and come back in a boat.’”

Of course, Beaulieu didn’t know how to hunt, so he spent most of his days back at the cabin. “Reminded me of that birch syrup,” he says. “I heard so much about how it was made—you just boil it—but no one around made it anymore, so I tried it myself. I made one cup and man it was nice. Perfect. Next day I made another cup and it was good. Third day I put a cup on the fire and when I came back all I could smell was toe jam. It was coming from the pot!” He cooled it off and tasted it—“Now I know what toe jam tastes like.” He carried it back to town with him and brought it to the elders. Laughing, they said he’d harvested too late—when the buds come out, the syrup rots. “But boy, oh boy, were they happy to see that syrup,” he says, even if it was rotten.

Thirty-four springs later, Beaulieu’s harvested birch syrup near Fort Smith, Fort Resolution and Hay River, where he lives now. At his most productive, he tapped about 400 trees, travelling 160 km, round trip every day, to a large stand close to the Alberta border. He’s registered as the Thumper Creek Birch Syrup Company, but he does his accounting by his losses for each bottle, not profits. “Can’t really sell it anyways,” he shrugs. “It doesn’t work that way. You gotta give it away.”

Beaulieu lowers his pageboy cap and scans his diminutive birch stand. At 75, even with volunteers who cleared a path through Thumper Creek every year, he had to downsize. Last year, he asked the Hay River town council to let him tap in town. He boils the whole batch over four fires in a backyard littered with white vans.

“People don’t [tap] much anymore ‘cause it’s time-consuming,” he says. The light snow has become a full-fledged blizzard. It obscures the Boardroom and the highway. It’s just trees and the pails swinging on the taps. Beaulieu takes a deep breath, as if he’s a hundred miles away. “I just love it,” he says. “I’m out in the bush.”

This story was originally published in the July/August issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with an illustration by Jonathan Wright, here.