Thursday, November 16, 2017

The North Today

Kathleen Merritt and Nelson Tagoona on the mic in Rankin Inlet (2015)
What are the most important issues in Arctic Canada today? What would it be like to visit there? (each year, more "southerners" find that out for themselves). What's the future of traditional Inuit culture, language, and economic development?

These are all complex questions, much as they would be anywhere else on earth, but made more so by the unique gifts and difficulties of the Arctic. Goods and services are expensive -- goods have to be flown or shipped up, and getting services provided -- from water delivery to health care -- is also more costly, simply in terms of either A) Training and education so that more Inuit and other residents can do the jobs needed; or B) Flying trained people up there. On my way back from my last summer's voyages, I met a young man who was one of Nunavut's fire inspectors; his job was to inspect all public buildings and accommodations -- schools, health centers, and so forth -- for fire safety. He had to be flown into and out from dozens of small hamlets, accommodated (doubtless at an Inns North, where a room can r7un $200 a night, and a single meal costs $60) and fed throughout the year, just to perform a service that, down south, would require nothing more than a pickup truck, gas, and maybe a night or two at a Motel 6.

And there's much that needs doing. Every social and ecological issue we have down here is present, and often more severe. Secondhand smoke from cigarettes, to take one example, is many times worse in northern houses that are pre-fabricated to be practically airtight. Suicide has touched nearly every family. The general lack of jobs -- unemployment in many communities hovers around 30% or higher -- fuels drug and alcohol abuse among the young. The sheer cost of getting from one place to another makes even a simple family holiday a costly challenge. Within Inuit culture, which emphasises the value of community, these problems resonate in a singular manner -- one way I've put it is simply to say that, among the Inuit, there simply are no bystanders. To be proximate to pain, or loss, is to feel it deeply, fundamentally -- and that pain can drive people to many hard passes. And, if a young Inuk does find his or her way to university or a career, this often comes at the cost of having to live many miles from family and friends.

So how can we learn more -- and possibly do more -- about some of these problems? We can start by reading the Nunatsiaq News, as well as other sources (CBC North, the Alaska Dispatch News, Eye on the Arctic). We can also make virtual visits to many communities, to their schools and health centres, as well as gather information from the Government of Nunavut (GN) in Iqaluit. One of the issues we'll look at in class is the impact of the great expansion in Arctic expedition cruises -- there are good articles on the subject here and here and here, and AECO -- the Association of Arctic Cruise Operators -- offers guidelines and information on their site.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ipellie's Dreams and Nightmares

The image at left is a drawing by Inuit artist and writer Alootook Ipellie (1951-2007), and is entitled "Self-Portrait: Inverse Ten Commandments." In the story accompanying the drawing, Ipellie dreams of himself as Satanasee (Inuktitut for Satan), and in his dreams each of his fingers becomes an "inverse commandment," coming to life with a face a a mouth filled with sharp little teeth that tear at his flesh. It's an apt if somewhat grotesque metaphor for the current spiritual condition of people of Ipellie's generation; they must live in two worlds -- the old shamanistic one with its built-in fear and fatalism, or the new Christian one that circumscribes and limits their spiritual development with rules and ideas that are foreign to traditional Inuit culture. Ipellie, who struggled with both the rejection of his work by supposed "connoisseurs" of Inuit art and the modern northern blight of alcoholism, only made it to the age of 56 before he died of a heart attack.

Isuma productions has dramatized the onset of Christianity, showing both its attractions and its coercive elements, in episode of its Nunavut series, Avaja. The priest offers his Inuit neighbors gifts of tobacco, attaching the promise that when they hear the bell, they must come to the church. He preaches a sermon about "Mosesesee" and the Burning Bush (a tough sell for people who have never seen a bush), and they seem to comply with his wishes, singing along loudly with every hymn. Nevertheless, it's clear that one reason they chose to attend was the anxiety of not being impolite, and (perhaps) the fear of offending the new God and his ministers. For Inuit who were there to witness this development, there has always been a sense of doubleness, of living between and yet within two worlds.

The division of modern Inuit between those who, like Ipellie, can recall the onset of western culture and forced settlements, and the generations after, is further complicated by religious divisions. Zacharaias Kunuk has spoken about the hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Iglooklik; one missionary from each faith converted half the town, and Kunuk compared the hostile border through the middle of the settlement to the Green Line in Beruit, which separated Muslims from Christians; he recalled children throwing stones at one another across this sectarian border. Evangelical denominations have had particular growth in the past few decades, and when Inuit politician Tagak Curley adopted the campaign slogan "Jesus is Lord over Nunavut," he counted on evangelicals for their support (he lost, narrowly).

Unfortunately, Ipellie's most brilliant and lasting work, the collection, Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, is out of print and getting harder and harder to find. Fortunately, there's an article about him, Kimberly McMahon-Coleman's "Dreaming an Identity Across Two Cultures: The Works of Alootook Ipellie," which discusses his work at length, and includes many of the drawings -- you can read and download it here for free. I've also made one story, "When God Sings the Blues," available here via the blog.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The High Arctic Exiles

The story of the High Arctic Exiles is one of the most awful and painful tales of the eastern Arctic Inuit, a parable of sorts about how a government used to treating its native inhabitants as mute collateral, and a native population with a culture of deference to abstract and distant authority, can lead to a destructive dislocation for which no apology, and no compensation, can atone.  To be uprooted from a home one's people have hunted and thrived in for ten thousand years, and relocated to a place utterly devoid of game, of life, of anything more than mere dependance, is not something that can be measured in dollars, in words, or in any known currency of the soul. Canada has their anguish on its hands, and it always will.

And yet, like so many other roads to hell -- the forcible taking of Inuit south for TB treatment, or the establishment of permanent settlements and schools for native peoples -- it was richly paved with good intentions.  For the federal government of Canada, there was a great anxiety about the regions north of the Barrow straits -- the Queen Elizabeth Islands, and the northern stretch of Ellesmere Island.  You might be nervous too, if your powerful southern neighbor -- the United States -- had sent explorers into your lands, naming vast tracts after George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  And for the Inuit, who had shifted with skill from a subsistence hunting model to one which emphasized hunting animals for fur for trade, the prospect of co-operating with the Qalunaat had, at least until then, generally led to what seemed like good results.  After all, as Tiivi says in The Necessities of Life, "what if their stories are true?"

So, as often happened, the RCMP came together with the traders, asking the Inuit of Ungava if they would be willing to re-locate farther north.  It was a land of abundance, and the move was not permanent -- they could go back in two years if they didn't like their new home -- such were the lies the Inuit were told.  Well, why not? thought many -- we will see what this will bring, and if we don't like it, we will go back.  Yet no such possibility was in fact allowed for.

As quoted in a story in the Nunatsiaq News, Markoosie Patsauq vividly remembered the day his ship arrived and his exile began in 1955, when he was only 12 years old: “My impression of Resolute was that we had arrived in a dead land,” he said. “There was no sign of any life, not even the seagull.”  And so it was to be; there was little if any game to hunt, and the Inuit who arrived in Resolute and Grise Fjord found themselves to be abject dependents of the adjacent Canadian bases.  They were forced to rely on the leftovers of the Qalunaat, their garbage really -- proud men who had been used to grappling with the daily challenge of hunting and keeping their families alive were reduced to improvising food and shelter out of packing crates, tinned food, and military surplus.

And, in one of the harshest ironies of history, Josephie Flaherty -- the son of filmmaker Robert and the woman credited on camera as "Nyla, the smiling one" -- along with his wife Rynee and their children, were among the Inuit taken from Ungava to nowhere. Rynee still remembers:

She bundled up a few essential belongings, a canvas tent, pots and pans and some blankets, along with her three kids, Martha, 5, Mary, 3, and Peter, aged 6 months. Her family had to move without sled dogs, crucial to survival in the High Arctic, because theirs died before the voyage began. The government offered no help, not even boxes for their things, she says. During the journey, the ship's doctor diagnosed Rynee's daughter Mary with pulmonary tuberculosis. When they reached Churchill, Maniyoba, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, Mary was one of several children taken away for treatment. There wasn't anyone to translate the nurses' English into Inuktitut, so Rynee couldn't understand what they were doing with her daughter.

"I thought they would bring her back right away," she says. "They didn't tell me anything, except that she was leaving."

More than two years passed before she saw her child again. After six months in a sanitarium, Mary was moved to Montreal to wait for the next voyage of the C.D. Howe, which mistakenly dropped her off at Inukjuak. Even though Mary had a number, and an ID tag around her neck, the system somehow forgot her family had moved to Grise Fiord. After the sanitarium, she ended up in far-flung foster families for a few years. She was finally reunited with her family on one of the first flights to land in Grise Fiord. She had forgotten how to speak Inuktitut. The only words Rynee could understand of her daughter's English were "dirty," when she complained about her new home, and "water," when she was thirsty.

‏"She didn't want to be with us," her mother says, the wound still raw. "She didn't want to get off the plane. She wanted to be with qalunaaqs. She used to cry a lot because we were strangers to her."

‏After losing Mary, then Martha – who was sent to residential schools for several years – as well as his self-respect, all to a treacherous system, Josephie lost his mind. By the early 1970s, he was always pacing and whispering to himself. Going silent, and blank, when his wife tried to help.

‏"He got sick of being poor, struggling," Rynee says.

‏He died in 1984, before he could persuade the RCMP and the government to keep their promise and let him take his family back to Inukjuak, their home.

‏"We were guinea pigs," his widow says. "It didn't matter whether we died or not as long as there were Canadian bodies up there to prove the islands belonged to the Canadian government."

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Polar Sovereignty

In July of 2007, a Russian crew headed to the bottom of the ocean in a pair of Mir-I submarines, the same kind seen and used in James Cameron's Titanic.  This time, though, the goal was not so much to find something as to leave something -- a little titanium Russian flag -- on the floor of the Arctic Ocean directly atop the North Geographic Pole.  They succeeded in doing so, and the act was hailed in Russia -- while in Canada, where nerves over Arctic sovereignty are thin and often frayed, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay criticized the action as meaningless, declaring that "this isn't the fifteenth century."  Maybe not, and it's not really likely that this flag-planting will have anything beyond a symbolic effect, but all the same it's no less strange an exercise than the Canadian government's touting of the finding of the Franklin-era search ship HMS Investigator, which they decided was important enough to fly the Environment Minister up to the site at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, just to film a few snippets for the news.  Military exercises in support of Canadian sovereignty have become an annual event, with the latest -- Operation Nunalivut -- just concluded.

There are many ways a claim of sovereignty can be made; prominent among them are discovery (I was here first), cession (you can have it, I don't want it), subjugation (I conquered it by force), and contiguity (it's in the midst of lands I already claim). One might think, given all the flag-plantings, that discovery was the strongest claim, but it practice is can be the weakest; land discovered but not occupied, or without the effective exercise of control, may be deemed "inchoate" -- undeveloped or temporary -- and thus liable to the claims of others who may, in fact, arrive much later.  All these issues, as one may imagine, become trickier in Canada's north, whose vast landmass is larger than India but has a population not much greater than West Warwick RI.

The Russian sub stunt has to do with the sub-category of sovereignty pertaining to coasts.  While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as extending only 12 nautical miles from shore, some countries regard all waters situated above the continental shelf supporting the country's landmass as theirs.  The Russians, of course, take the latter view, and since their shelf extends from the northern coastline to a few miles of the geographic pole, planting a flag on the seabed there is only a modest extension of what they already claim.  A good summary of the issues, and why a recent survey of the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean attracted such attention, is available here.

Russia, already busily selling oil leasing rights along its northern coast, is willing to bet there are more such resources under the polar sea -- and if the icecap were to melt in summer -- something once unthinkable but now only a decade or less away in some projections -- the logistical difficulties of extracting and transporting mineral resources would be greatly reduced.  It's a time of tremendous anxiety -- and, for some, opportunity -- and the only (nearly) sure thing is that native northern peoples are unlikely to get their fair share.

Russia has now submitted a new claim to vast swathes of the Arctic, up to and including the pole itself. See this article in the New York Times, and this in the National Post.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Necessities of Life

The story is a familiar one, certainly to Inuit who were living on the land in the 1950's: a diagnosis of tuberculosis, followed by transport to a southern hospital, treatment that sometimes lasted for years, and then -- if one survived -- an abrupt return home. The medical system of the time was utterly insensible to the cultural and emotional trauma of this treatment, which has come back to haunt many who underwent it.  Alootook Ipellie was one, as a child, and so was Natar Ungalaaq's grandfather, as he describes in this radio interview.  It's been depicted in film before, most memorably in Vincent Ward's brilliant Map of the Human Heart, whose main character, Avik, is sent south in the 1930's, an era in which antibiotics for TB were unknown, and the treatments were accordingly longer, more painful, and less successful.  The approach of director Benoît Pilon here is less melodramatic, as befits his own background as a documentary filmmaker; we see the story unfold through the eyes of Tivii (Ungalaaq) is straightforward order, without adornment; the tone is both bleak and beautiful.  Ungalaaq's expressive face and voice are the stars of this film, for which he won the Canadian Genie award for Best Actor in 2009.  We also see, though only for a short time, something of the life of the Inuit during the time just before the move to forced settlements, when a name was less important than a number (you can see the "Eskimo Tag" Tivii is wearing in the still above).  There's also testimony to the saving power of story, when lost in an environment where nothing seems familiar.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Atanarjuat

Atanarjuat is the first feature-length film to be written by, directed, and star Inuit people (1911's The Way of the Eskimo, which was written by and starred Inuit, is a lost film, but had a running time of only about ten minutes). It was literally years in the making, as director Zacharias Kunuk of Igloolik and co-writer Pauloosie Qulitalik sought to develop the idea. Backing was hard to find, as was a cast talented enough and experienced enough to make the film he'd dreamed of. Filming got underway at last in 1999, only to have the man cast in the lead role quit the film (apparently he didn't fancy running naked for miles over the ice, which is the film's most dramatic scene). Happily, Natar Ungalaaq, who replaced him, was both a more capable and a more handsome leading man, and the magnetism between his character and Atuat (a brilliant performance by Sylvia Ivalu) is palpable.

The story is based on an old legend from the Igloolik area (though similar tales are recorded in other Inuit groups), and has all the basic elements of romance and epic. Two brothers, whose father has never had much success in hunting, grow to adulthood and become great hunters. One of them is known as a fast runner; he can catch up with a dogsled going full tilt. This is Atanarjuat, and he loves Atuat, despite the fact that she's been pledged by her father, a powerful shaman, to his own son Oki. Atanarjuat and Oki engage in ritual combat, taunting each other with drum-dance songs and exchanging blows to the head. Atanarjuat triumphs, but Oki, not one to take defeat lightly, plans revenge. Peter-Henry Arnatsuaq, who plays Oki, has the perfect braggart's swagger, as well as a mouthful of villainous teeth; it's hard to take your eyes off him, even when you want to. The drama that unfolds would be compelling in any world, but in the treeless wilderness of snow and ice, where the dead as well as the living may be waiting for you at the end of your journey, it's especially stark and compelling.

P.S.: For those having difficulty keeping track of the characters, families, and relationships depicted in the film, I've scanned a chart; there's also a collection of stills with character and actor names, online.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Kayak Full of Ghosts

Men whose intestines have been devoured float up to the moon. A fox trades wives with a worm. A man grows sick from eating too many heads. A woman carves a replica of her dead boyfriend out of blubber, and he comes to life. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, author Lawrence Millman collects a cross-section of the strange world of stories from the peoples of the north, primarily from Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. We've all read books of folklore and traditional tales before, but I'd hazard a guess that none of them were quite as macabre as this. In an interview with the author a few years ago, I asked him why he thought the Inuit of the north told stories so filled with flesh, with blood, and dismemberment; he replied that "in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming. Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there. In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories."

I realize that for some in the class, the content of some of these stories may be very strange, even disturbing. But I would remind everyone that there are quite a few scenes in the Western tradition which are nearly as awful: The evil queen in Snow White is invited to the wedding, but then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead; the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" is forced to dance day and night until a friendly woodchopper cuts off her legs -- and even then, she is met at the door by her still-dancing limbs. In order to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off parts of their heels. Of course, we don't usually think of the details of the original stories, as we are much more familiar with the Disney versions, which clean up all the blood and whistle a happy tune -- but nevertheless they are there.

None of the stories in Millman's book are ever likely to be made into Disney cartoons -- there would be too much that would have to be (if you'll pardon the pun) cut out. But they have secrets to tell us all the same, secrets about the inner life of a people who managed to extract a living in one of the harshest climates on earth, and who knew all too well that to sustain life, life must be taken.

So pick a story from this Kayak -- and describe your reaction to it, recalling that sometimes, that which is disturbing also is that which has the most vital truth to tell.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been hailed as the first and greatest documentary film, and although I would not necessarily agree with either claim (it's certainly not the first, in any case). But yes, Nanook rewrote the book for documentary film, and it did so by taking a number of pages out of the history of dramatic film.

Robert Flaherty had actually compiled two different sets of footage in the Arctic in the years before Nanook, and had at first intended to use this material to make his film. And yet, although this material clearly showed the "actual" Arctic, it did so piecemeal, and without any strong central narrative. When the working print caught fire and was destroyed (early nitrite film stock was highly flammable), Flaherty decided on a whole new plan. Instead of simply pointing his camera at things that were actually happening, he decided to "cast" specific Inuit as members of an imaginary family, and then deliberately create a narrative which not only included the "incidents" he'd earlier filmed, but extended the story through a complete dramatic arc, much as would a feature film. The idea was revolutionary, but still he needed backers to provide the resources.

He found a willing sponsor in Revillon Frères, a fur concern which operated a series of trading posts; the "friendly trader" in the early scenes is from one of these. The company simply asked that they be portrayed in a positive light, a seemingly small request, but one which nevertheless does affect the film's objectivity. Flaherty also wished to depict Inuit life from the era before the adoption of modern weapons such as rifles; thus, although one of the main reasons the Inuit traded with the white man was to obtain guns and ammunition, this was not shown, and "Nanook" hunts only with a spear. He
even persuaded them to conduct a walrus hunt with traditional weapons, something the local Inuit had not done for more than a generation, and which they were reluctant at first to re-enact. As Inuit writer Alootook Ipellie pointed out, it would be as though someone came to modern Toronto to ask the locals to show how everyone lived in the 1800's!

And of course Nanook himself, his wife Nyla "the smiling one," and the rest of the family depicted by Flaherty were in fact actors, Inuit playing an Inuit family. Nanook was portrayed by Allakariallak, whom Flaherty chose for his patience and rugged appearance; Nyla was played by a young Inuk woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk, who was, actually Flaherty's common-law wife at the time the film was made, and one of the babies shown may have been their child, Joseph (or Josephie; the Inuit added an -ie or -ee to many western names). Like many other explorers and travelers before him, including Peary and Henson, Flaherty left his child behind when he headed back south to take up a career as a filmmaker. Josephie Flaherty was, as fate would have it, one of the Ungava Inuit who was to be forcibly relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiord in the 1950's in a misguided attempt to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the North. This group, known as the "High Arctic Exiles," finally received a financial settlement offer from the federal Canadian government a few years ago, but no apology was made then, or has been made since.

And to be fair, Flaherty could not necessarily have anticipated the worldwide response to his film. Although Revillon Frères thought of it more or less as a promotional venture and did not even expect to recover their costs, Nanook was picked up for distribution by Pathé, given a New York premiere and went on to be one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty was given a contract by Paramount, and headed off for Samoa to make a film about the native people there; this second film took three years to make, and was not as successful as Nanook, although it was in reference to this film that the word "documentary" was coined (such films had previously been known as "actualities"). Flaherty was next paired with W.S. Van Dyke to make another south seas film, but they had a falling out (Van Dyke was later to make 1933's "Eskimo," the first big-budget, big-screen northern epic of the sound era). After parting ways with Van Dyke, Flaherty was sent to work with German visionary F.W. Murnau to work on a film called "Tabu," but they too soon had a falling out. Flaherty next moved to Britain, and worked on some shorter films as well as "Man of Aran," which was set in the remote Aran islands. He then went to work for producer Alexander Korda on a film set in India, to be titled "Elephant Boy," and yet again was fired from the project. Back in the U.S., he worked on several more documentaries, but problems with financing and distribution meant that few of them were ever seen in his lifetime.

One of the stories that Flaherty liked to tell was how Allakariallak, less than two years after Nanook was filmed, had starved to death in the frozen wilderness that was his home. The press loved this story, and it's still frequently repeated today. But it's not true; according to testimony from his son and other family members, Allakariallak died from "white man's disease" -- probably tuberculosis -- at home with his family. He may well have been exposed to it during the time he worked with Flaherty on Nanook.

NB: If you're planning to watch part of all of Nanook online, the best link is this one. You may also be interested to see "Flaherty and Film," a brief feature which includes a lengthy interview with Flaherty's widow.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Minik

The story of Minik Wallace (shown here second from the right, next to his father Qisuk) is a stranger and sadder one than that of any other Inuk person brought from his home to the "civilized" world. That he was brought in the name of "science," and repeatedly lied to and deceived by men who claimed its mantle, makes his story all the more horrific. And, unlike London's Egyptian Hall or Barnum's American Musuem, the American Museum of Natural History still stands in New York City, and the bones of some of Minik's people are even today still stored somewhere among its basements and warehouses.

My friend Kenn Harper was the one to uncover Minik's story, and eventually tell it to the world. Kenn was a schoolteacher in the Canadian Arctic, who learned Inuktitut and later married an Inuk woman who was a distant relative of Minik. He heard stories among his relatives in Greenland that got him thinking; they had all heard about Minik, the boy who had been taken south by Peary, come back as a young man, and then left again. What had happened to him? Kenn's researches led him to the American Museum of Natural History, but archivists there said that they were sorry, no records relating to Minik or his adoptive father, Mr. Wallace -- who had been forced to resign his post at the museum due to charges of embezzlement -- survived. On the chance that something might be found in Mr. Wallace's personnel file, Kenn requested it, and was amazed to find that it was here that the directors and scholars at the museum -- including Maurice Jessup, Franz Boaz, and Theodore Kroeber -- had buried all the documents of Minik's life. These documents enabled Kenn to write the book that became Minik: The New York Eskimo.

These documents tell a sad tale of scientific exploitation, full of the kinds of trickery and lies we hate to associate with such esteemed anthropologists as Boas (who would later direct the research of Zora Neale Hurston) and Kroeber (who later had his own Minik-like issues with a California Indian named "Ishi," and whose daughter is Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, the distinguished science fiction writer). Yet quite beside the deception, which -- in his stepfather's words -- led Minik to "lose faith in the people he had come among," there is the issue of whether, even in a kinder and gentler world, it is any more fitting for a human being to become a "specimen" than it is to be a circus sideshow. In the end, we're not talking about individual motivation, but the entire scientific worldview of the early 1900's, and its legacies today.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Savages" On Display

The display of humans to other humans has taken many forms over the ages, but surely there have been few as problematic, and often degrading, as the practice of displaying human beings in zoos. The postcard at left is from Carl Hagenbeck's Hamburg "Tierpark" (Animal Park), and shows a group of Labrador Inuit who appeared there in the fall of 1911. The group included Nancy Columbia, whom Arctic historian Kenn Harper has aptly described as the most famous Inuk of her day; she was born in an Eskimo display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and over the course of her career appeared at well over a dozen world's fairs and expositions from Seattle to St. Louis to Madrid and Paris. She also was featured in a number of early silent films, and wrote he scenario for one of them, "The Way of the Eskimo," which was the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast film ever made; unfortunately it is not known to survive. In the photo above, taken in connection with their appearance at a "Nordland" festival organized by Zoo proprietor Karl Hagenbeck, Nancy is second from the left, with her trademark Princess-Leia style hairdo; her mother, Esther Eneutseak, is third from the right, with a baby in her arms.

Nancy and her mother were the core of this well-known group of "Eskimos," and while they were the best-known and longest-lived such group, they were far from the only ones. Carl Hagenbeck had displayed several other groups of Inuit at his Zoo, starting with Abraham Ulrikab and his family in 1880. Like many such Inuit, Abraham became ill due with a European disease -- smallpox -- and he, his wife, his teenage daughter, nephew, and infant daughter all succumbed with a few weeks of one another. Remarkably, he left a diary, which was recently translated and published. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be quite literally displayed to death.

A full listing of Inuit, along with Inupiat, Yupik, Greenland, and Siberian Eskimos who were put on display in Europe and the U.S., would be a long one, and their life stories would fill many books. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. Nancy Columbia, surely the most famous of them all, retired from shows around 1920, and lived quietly with her mother in Santa Monica, California. She married a motion-picture projectionist, and they had a daughter named Sue who still lives in the area. Nancy Columbia died in 1959, forgotten by the world, but not by those of us who study Arctic history; you can read the essay Kenn Harper and I wrote on her career here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Searching for Franklin

It might be said of Sir John Franklin, as of the unlucky Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, that "nothing became his life like the leaving of it." Had Franklin succeeded in finding a navigable Northwest Passage, he would have gone down in history as a notable dullard; instead, by vanishing, he has ascended to the firmament of Arctic mythology, as much a fixture of that sky as the Aurora Borealis. His death, and the mystery surrounding it, has inspired dozens of poems and novels, attracting writers from Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to Joseph Conrad and Margaret Atwood; any number of poignant ballads (among them Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage,' which has become almost a second Canadian national anthem), and (to date) four plays, six documentary films, and an Australian musical. A feature film, based on the Canadian novelist Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, is in the works from the director of The Young Victoria.

The search to rescue, and then to discern the fate of, Sir John Franklin and his men was the very first mass-media disaster. For more than a decade, it dominated the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic; writers such as Dickens, Collins, Swinburne, Thoreau, Eliot, Verne, and Conrad were enthralled by its dark mysteries; clairvoyants from Scotland to India had visions of Franklin's ships, and more than thirty vessels were dispatched, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in today's money, to seek him out. Stage plays, moving panoramas, and lantern shows depicted the wild loneliness of the "Frozen Zone"; lecturers equipped with maps, charts, and Esquimaux artifacts opined on his likely location, and his wife/widow Lady Jane Franklin became a dominating figure of the day, lauded by The Times of London as "Our English Penelope." Alas, for her, there would be no returning Odysseus! But loss and death draw down to deeper springs of human feeling, perhaps, than happy returns and loving embraces. And when, finally, the specter of the "last dread alternative" -- cannibalism -- was cast over the affair, it drove its tincture of admiration and revulsion deep down into the British psyche.

Even after the recovery of the "Victory Point Record" by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859, there was continued interest in discovering anything further about his final fate. The American eccentric and erstwhile newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall led two search expeditions in the 1860's; in the 1870's, the U.S. Army dispatched Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on a new seach for paper records or artifacts that might help clarify the last days of the Franklin exedition. Individual searchers returned to the area periodically from the 1880's through to the 1980's, among them the great explorer Knud Rasmussen, who in the 1902's heard stories of Franklin's ships from the grandsons of the men who had seen them perish, stories almost exactly the same as those collected by Hall more than half a century earlier. Forensic expeditions -- Owen Beattie in the mid-1980's, and Anne Keenleyside in the early 1990's -- collected the bones, and analyzed the bodies, of known Franklin remains, finding evidence of lead poisoning, scurvy, and tuberculosis. Most significantly, historians such as David C. Woodman and Dorothy Harlan Eber have collected and gathered Inuit testimony, comparing numerous accounts with the hope that a common narrative thread could be found. Woodman has traveled to the Arctic numerous times, searching for the ships in the places the Inuit described.

In the summer of 2010, Parks Canada archaeologists re-located HMS Investigator, the ship commanded by Captain Robert McClure during the early years of the Franklin search. McClure and his men had steered their vessel into a sheltered cove, "Mercy Bay," which came very close to being their tomb. It was only after a second, terrible winter, when his men were dying of scurvy and McClure was preparing to leave his ship on a blind search for help which would surely have ended in disaster, when one Lieutenant Pim, of the ship HMS "Resolute," found him and led his men to rescue. The Resolute herself was later frozen in and ordered abandoned, although the ship miraculously freed herself from the ice a season later, and drifted down the Davis Straits to where she was spotted by an American whaler. Restored to pristine condition at public expense, she was sailed back to England and presented to Queen Victoria. Years later, when it was slated to be broken up at a shipyard, Queen Victoria returned the favor, ordering a large panel desk -- the 'Resolute Desk' -- and three smaller ones to be made from its timbers. The first desk she gave to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes; it sits today in the Oval Office of the White House. The second she gave to the widow of Henry Grinnell, patron of several Franklin searches; it's now on display at the New Bedford Whaling museum.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a granite plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashing on couches, and working -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, was a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Welcome to Arctic Encounters

Welcome to the course blog for our Fall 2017 course, English 261: Arctic Encounters. This  page will serve as the central stepping-off point for our virtual excursions into the Frozen North -- there are links here to all our class readings, viewings, and listenings, along with other academic resources.  But the most important part of this site, though, is the blog itself. Each week, I'll post an item about the readings or viewings for the class, and everyone will have an opportunity to respond and post their own views. I encourage an informal style here -- no need to niggle over grammar, spelling, or formalities -- this should be the place for wide-ranging discussions, open exchange of ideas, and questions of all kinds. It's fine to respond to other students' postings as well -- I encourage you to think of these postings as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than isolated islands of thought.

There are few places left on earth where simply going there seems extraordinary – but but a trip north of the Arctic Circle still seems to signify the experience of something astonishing. This course takes up the history of human exploration and interaction in the Arctic, from the early days of the nineteenth century to the present, with a focus on contact between European and American explorers and the Eskimo, or Inuit as they are more properly known today. We'll read first-hand accounts and view documentaries that recount these histories, both from the Western and the Inuit side of the story. It's a region of the world that's growing in significance, as global warming heats up more than ice; in recent years, Canada, Russia, and Denmark have all staked out new claims to the frozen zone. The future of climate change, human cultural change, and increasingly scarce natural resources may lie, not in the West or the East -- but in the North.

PLEASE NOTE: This fall, I'll be away in the Arctic on a lecture and research trip, and won't be on campus until the second week of classes (I will have limited e-mail contact) There will still be readings, and you'll be able to get the updated syllabus and everything you need here on our class blog. I look forward to seeing all of you in September!