Pond Inlet Inuit rejuvenate Polar Inuit society

November/December 2011 by Gerard Kenney

Most of us have heard of family feuds. The most famous raged between the Hatfields and the McCoys in the latter part of the 1800s in the West Virginia-Kentucky backcountry. Shots were fired. People died.

Inuit also had their family differences in the same timeframe, but they often used a more sure-fire way of settling them before things got nasty and completely out of hand: one of the two parties involved moved far away from the other — far enough away, in fact, that there was no longer any interaction between the two parties. The famous Inuit migration from Pond Inlet to Greenland in the mid-to-latter 1800s was such a case.

In about the mid-1800s (the date is not certain) two groups of Inuit set out from Pond Inlet and headed north. Two men, one named Qitdlarssuaq (aka Qillaq) and the other, Oqe, each led a group of their followers toward a new homeland to the northeast.

The Inuit had many obstacles to overcome on their epic migration. The very first obstacle, shortly after leaving Pond Inlet, was Lancaster Sound. The Sound was extremely dangerous because it often did not freeze over solidly, even in the coldest years. It was almost always an unstable, shifting, moving, icy surface to travel and camp on. Despite this situation, Qillaq and Oqe successfully led their followers across Lancaster Sound and headed for the southeast coast of Devon Island where they set up camp and spent a peaceful and bountiful five years. There was lots of game and hunting was good.

During those first years, very few people from the outside world crossed paths with the migrants on Devon Island. The first to do so, in 1854, was Royal Naval Officer Augustus Inglefield in Phoenix in his attempt to find John Franklin. The second, and last it seems, was Royal Naval Officer Francis McClintock in Fox, in 1858, also searching for Franklin. It is believed that Qillaq first learned of the existence of Polar Inuit in Greenland from Inglefield.

Although the American, Elisha Kent Kane, was exploring in the land of the Polar Inuit in the late 1850s, he does not seem to have met Qillaq and his followers. At least, he doesn’t appear to have reported on them if he did.

Qillaq was an angakok, or shaman, as they were also called, who were said to have special powers that made it possible for them to spiritually fly to foreign lands, and even to the moon. Although he and his followers had found peace and plentiful supplies of meat while on Devon Island, Qillaq, being forever a restless soul, convinced most of his followers, as well as some of Oqe’s, to follow him to the northern land of the Polar Inuit that he had visited in his spiritual shamanistic flights.

The trip north was not an easy one as the travellers had to carry all their worldly possessions with them. This was definitely not just a simple, easy hunting trip. The Inuit took with them their qajait (kayaks) and even, according to some, a much larger umiak, as well. However, not everyone shared Qillaq’s enthusiasm for the drudgery of the trip to new lands. A number of the migrants began pining for their old homeland. Oqe was one of them and he decided to turn south back to his Baffin Island home along with most of his followers, and some of Qillaq’s to boot. However, some fourteen of the original migrants kept their faith in old Qillaq – he was indeed old by then, with a head that was quite bald – and carried on north toward the land of the Polar Inuit of which Inglefield had spoken.

After crossing Pim Island off Cape Sabine on Ellesmere Island, Qillaq and his followers crossed Smith Sound on the narrow neck of floes that separates Canada from Greenland at that latitude. To the delight of Qillaq and his people, they found habitations built of stone on the Greenland side. Although there were definite signs of life, the residents themselves were not there at that time of the year.

By then, it was time for Qillaq and his followers to prepare for the long darkness of the polar winter with its howling, deadly winds blasting across the deeply frozen landscape. The migrants set up their winter camp near Etah. Hunters set out to hunt the surrounding tundra and were successful in bringing back many hundreds of birds’ eggs for their larder, along with many of the plentiful caribou and sea animals such as beluga and narwhal. Well provisioned, Qillaq and his followers hunkered down in igloos as well as in some of the already existing stone habitations to survive the coldest months of the Arctic year.

After several months of deep cold and darkness, the sun finally began to peep shyly over the horizon – it was time for the hunters of the group to start refilling their larder which was nearly empty by then. Game was scarce at first, but finally the men arrived back from the long hunt with sled-loads of caribou. As Qillaq and the other hunters with him approached their encampment, they could see that their women were waiting for them along with some strange unknown Inuit. In fact, those who had stayed at the winter camp while the hunters were gone had finally made contact with the Polar Inuit that angakok Qillaq had foreseen in his spiritual flights!

Polar Inuit were quite friendly, but communication was difficult, especially at first, because of differences in their two dialects. Over time, and by using sign language, the two groups did succeed in communicating quite well with each other.

When the Pond Inlet Inuit first met them, the Polar Inuit were a declining society of less than 150 souls. Long ago, this northern most band of Inuit had lost contact with their neighbours to the south because of bad relations between them. And to the north lay the frozen pole. Over the years, the result of this isolation was that the small band of Inuit withered in number as the elders died and took with them to their graves many of the skills essential for survival in their harsh homeland. Despite the initial language barriers, the Pond Inlet Inuit reintroduced many of these lost skills and tools to the Polar Inuit, which proved to be a rejuvenating, lifesaving breath of fresh air for the latter.

The Canadian Inuit showed the Greenlanders how to make qajait to allow them to travel to nearby islands where many kinds of birds nested and could be captured for food, as well as how to build igloos for warmth and comfort in the deep cold of winter, how to make bows and arrows to kill the plentiful caribou, and how to make hooks and spears to catch fish. The new blood from Canada completely transformed the Polar Inuit and gave them the energy to rejuvenate their society. The two groups of Inuit got along very well together and intermarriages began to take place.

Qillaq had not been a young man when he had first set out on his migration to the north. After spending a number of happy years in the land of the Polar Inuit, he finally sensed the approach of the end of his mortal life, and he began feeling the urge to return to his homeland on Baffin Island before it was too late to go back. Despite his advanced age, Qillaq was still a leader and he succeeded in convincing almost all of his followers, some 20 in all, to join him in a trip back to Baffin Island. Unfortunately, the years caught up with Qillaq on the return trip, and neither he nor any of his followers ever reached their homeland.

A Catholic priest, Father Guy Mary-Rousseliere, spent 36 years in Pond Inlet and during this time he became closely involved with the descendents of Qillaq who lived in Canada as well as those living in Greenland. He arranged a number of meetings between Qillaq’s descendents from Pond Inlet as well as those from Greenland for them to celebrate their kinship together. The meetings took place either in Canada or Greenland. Unfortunately, Father Mary, as most people called him, died tragically in a fire that destroyed his church and home in 1994 and these meetings no longer take place.

Father Mary had become quite knowledgeable about Qillaq’s migration over the years and wrote a book on it titled Qitdlarssuaq — The Story of a Polar Migration. As a result of that migration in the late 1800s, there are now descendents of the Baffin Island migrants living today in Greenland as well as in Pond Inlet.