In October 1880, when Abraham Ulrikab, an Inuk from Hebron, Labrador, told Moravian missionary Auguste Ferdinand Elsner, “If we can go back to Labrador, we understand that this will be a big story,” he had no way of knowing that three months later, he, his family, and companions would have left this world. Nor could he know that their return home would be orchestrated 134 years later, following the discovery of their remains in France and Germany.
Abraham and the other seven Inuit, who were touring Europe as “exhibits” in an ethnographical show, have not yet returned to their homeland, but the repatriation process has been triggered, and is following its due course. In parallel, their story, and the events leading to their return, are the subject of a documentary, Trapped in a Human Zoo. Abraham was therefore right! What he thought would be a big story will not only be talked about throughout Labrador, but also across Canada, and far beyond.
As Guilhem Rondot, the film director, notes, despite the story holding its share of tragic events, all stages of the filming occurred under an aura of peace and respect: from meeting with the Inuit elders committee in Nain to obtain their advice on the repatriation; to Johannes Lampe, Nain’s chief elder, who while retracing Abraham’s footsteps in Europe was confronted with the white man’s past ways and customs; to the filming of re-enactment scenes with members of the Ottawa Inuit community portraying the 1880 group of Labrador Inuit.
While in Europe, Johannes stated many times how honoured and privileged he felt to be representing his community in this quest to understand the past events, and to establish an initial contact in preparation for the return of the remains.
“I have come here to be a representative of the Labrador Inuit of today, to see the Labrador Inuit of yesterday. I have seen with my own eyes, and I have felt what it is that Labrador Inuit feel. It is very sad, and at the same time, I am happy that I know that Labrador Inuit will now know that the remains of Abraham and his family are in Paris, and that we have something to work on,” says Johannes in his last discussion with Guilhem before his return flight to Canada.
Guilhem attributes the good energy that surrounded them in Hamburg, Berlin, and Paris to Johannes’ serene attitude, and to the uttermost respect and attentive ear he offered to all of his interlocutors, from museum curators to descendants of those who recruited and exhibited his countrymen.
Those involved with the filming of the re-enactment scenes describing some of the 1880 events felt a sense of accomplishment when the filming was complete. Charles Keelan’s eyes were glowing with pride for his personal accomplishment in portraying Abraham; for having realized a long-time dream of doing real acting; and for having the opportunity to honour the memory of ancestors of his mother’s community of origin, Hebron. Julie Ivalu and Michael Singoori, who portrayed Paingu and the shaman Tigianniak, were also proud to tell Abraham’s story.
“There are so many unresolved stories of Inuit who have vanished, disappeared or were taken away. It is most important for the Inuit to finally know the truth about this family, for the young people to know the history,” says Julie. “It is essential that people understand Abraham’s motives for going to Europe. It makes me very proud that something good is coming out of this documentary,” adds Michael.
Abraham’s diary and letters let us discover an intelligent, resilient, religious, and peaceful man. For the past year, it is as if Abraham’s wisdom has been overlooking the various stages of the filming, proving that, even in highly sensitive situations, people from two different worlds can put the past behind them to respectfully talk to each other, learn from one another, and work hand-in-hand towards a common goal. The wrongs of the past will soon be rectified and Abraham’s legacy will live on.
France Rivet has been researching Abraham Ulrikab’s story since 2010. She published her findings in the book In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab. For more information, visit www.abrahamulrikab.com