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In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the ancestors of today’s Inuit inhabitants began moving southward from the High Arctic, both along the west coast of Hudson Bay and possibly overland from the Arctic coast into the central barrenlands. The motives behind this were the usual for a nomadic hunting people: the incessant search for food resources and better living conditions. Eventually, some of these people reached the region of present-day Arviat. They were not the first people to occupy this region — archaeological evidence suggests man first arrived here in hunting parties as much as 7,000 years ago, and the area was then occupied by Paleo-Eskimo and Early Thaltheilei people approximately 3,000 years ago. But since about 1700, the area surrounding present-day Arviat has been continuously occupied by the people and their descendants who still live there today.

Ukkitaaq (Bite) as first seen by Oberholtzer in 1912. © Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation
Ukkitaaq (Bite) as first seen by Oberholtzer in 1912. © Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation

In 1717, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at what is now Churchill. It was a critical step in the Company’s efforts to extend the trade to the west and the northwest, to draw both the Chipewyan Dene and the Inuit of the Hudson Bay coast into the trade. At this time, these “southern” Inuit were living mainly along the coast of Hudson Bay, as far south at least as the present community of Arviat. For much of the 18th century, the HBC took advantage of open water in the summer to send a ship north along the coast to trade with the Inuit, one of its principal destinations being a prominent point of land where the ship could safely approach the coast, and was afforded some shelter at anchor in the adjacent bay. This peninsula the traders named Eskimo Point. their trading voyages continued until 1790.

After that, Inuit wishing to continue the trading way of life needed to travel down to Churchill, so from that year onward their occupation of that entire coast was extensive. An HBC census from 1838 documents that the Churchill post was visited by 663 Inuit that year, more than either Chipewyan or Cree. The traders encouraged Inuit to continue bringing furs or caribou meat and began to request whales as well. In return, the Inuit began to acquire rifles and fishnets, two major assets in their quest for survival. As the century turned, Inuit ranged farther afield and shifted inland on a more permanent basis, drawn chiefly by the security of the vast herds of caribou. By the mid-19th century, significant numbers of Inuit families had established their hunting grounds far enough inland to effectively cut off their own easy access to the sea.

The last half of the 19th century saw the development of a system whereby certain Inuit entrepreneurs began to serve as middlemen for the trade. Acting as go-between, these individuals collected from the region’s hunters and delivered furs to the HBC post at Churchill. One famous such individual was Ulibbaq (known then as William Ullebuk Jr.), a Paalirmiut man who lived in the Eskimo Point region during this time, who was born ca. 1831. His father, born in the mid- to late 1700s, also Ulibbaq (also called Ouligbuk or Maqqu), was famous for “travelling around the world three times,” a reference to his trips with explorers Samuel Hearne, John Franklin, George Back, Thomas Simpson, and John Rae. In the 1870s Ulibbaq Jr. acquired a schooner, which allowed him to deliver large quantities of fur down to Churchill, and a corresponding volume of trade goods back up to his base-camp near Eskimo Point. It is said that he spoke 10 languages, including Inuktitut, Cree, Dene, English and French.

Ulibbaq Sr. also had another son, named Donald, who in turn named his son Donald Ulibbaq, born in the last half of the 19th century, and deceased in the Arviat region in 1952. This latter Donald Ulibbaq is the grandfather of Donald Uluadluak (his real name is also Ulibbaq) who survived until recently in Arviat and recalled how he was taught Inuit ways by his grandfather. This is but one of the myriad connections people in Arviat still have today to the earliest days of Inuit occupation along this stretch of the Hudson Bay coast.

Kaqslui (right) and Ulaajuk (left) ca.1940. © Donald Marsh/ Library and Archives Canada/E004665465 ca. 1940
Kaqslui (right) and Ulaajuk (left) ca.1940. © Donald Marsh/ Library and Archives Canada/E004665465 ca. 1940

Nor was this phenomenon of the middleman trader restricted to the coast. At about the same time, some inland Inuit began making a long journey south into the trees, to the HBC post at Du Brochet on Reindeer Lake. They were first shown the way by a small group of Dene hunters accompanying the Oblate missionary, Fr. Alphonse Gasté, who in 1868 was the first white man to visit the shores of the upper Kazan. When J.B. Tyrrell descended the Kazan in 1894, on August 21 near Angikuni he wrote: “one man, Annleak [properly Angaliaq], came in this afternoon from a short distance up the river. He says that he goes every winter to Du Brochet Post [on Reindeer Lake] to trade and that all the Eskimos bring their furs to him. He is going as soon as the snow comes and I am sending a letter to my wife by him.” There are several records of Inuit visits to Du Brochet during the latter years of the 19th century.

In 1912, when American adventurer Ernest Oberholtzer arrived at the mouth of the Aglirnaqtuq [Thlewiaza River] on the coast of Husdon Bay, 70 kilometres south of Eskimo
Point, he was in desperate straights. He had paddled from central Manitoba, through Reindeer Lake, following the old Dene route from Du Brochet to the barrenlands, and on to this far northern limit of the white man’s charted knowledge in just under 80 days. It was mid-September; winter weather was nigh. Oberholtzer’s prospects looked dim. But by immense good fortune, at this inauspicious river mouth, he met an Inuit man in a qajaq, whom he called Bite, but whose real name was Uturuuq, better know as Ukkitaaq, meaning “sharp-shooter.”

This man, together with his older brother Ahmak, delivered Oberholtzer safely to Churchill, whence he eventually returned home to Minnesota. Of significance to Arviat is the fact that Oberholtzer took photographs, which now provide the earliest visual record of the community’s ancestors. Ahmak and Ukkitaaq both have descendants living in Arviat today; in fact their names are still in use, in accordance with the Inuit custom of passing names down through the generations. The great great grandson of Ullebuk (aka Ouligbuk or Makkoaq), Donald Uluadluak, as an elder, remembered Ukkitaaq well, and recalled his death during an epidemic that swept through the area in 1941. Connections to the early days of occupation in the region are woven through the community’s consciousness still today in Arviat.

By the middle of the 19th century, different groups of Inuit were living in distinct pockets surrounding Eskimo Point, though still maintaining a high degree of mobility. They had come to identify themselves in these discrete groupings based largely on kinship. The Paalirmiut, probably the largest of the territorial groups, lived relatively close to the coast using the lakes and rivers that flow directly into Hudson Bay, facilitating the development of a seasonal cycle which saw them move out to the coast in time for the spring seal-hunt, and return inland in time for the fall migration of caribou. The Ahiarmiut lived inland, beyond the Paalirmiut, and the sub-group of Ahiarmiurjuit were well inland around the upper Kazan River, principally Ennadai Lake and downstream (north) to Angikuni Lake, and south toward Nueltin Lake at the headwaters of Aglirnaqtuq [Thlewiaza River]. The Kivahikturmiut occupied areas to the south of presentday Arviat, all the way into northern Manitoba, and used two main river systems, Aglirnaqtuq and Kuu’juaq (Thlewiaza and Tha-anne Rivers) to reach their traditional winter areas as far inland as Edehon Lake. The Tarriurmiut were devoted coastal dwellers north of present-day Arviat, as were the Hauniqtuurmiut even farther to the north. And, finally, the Aivilingmiut, from farther north, who had migrated south from Repulse Bay while working with American whalers in the late 1800s.

All of these groups are represented in the population of present-day Arviat, which began its development as a more permanent settlement in 1921, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established its first post north of Churchill. In 1924 the Roman Catholic Church arrived, and two years later the Anglican Church followed. All three of these institutions initially built at Nuvuk, the very tip of the peninsula long known by the traders as Eskimo Point.
When the Reverend Donald Marsh, newly frocked Anglican missionary, arrived off the shore of Eskimo Point in an HBC schooner, in August 1926, he wrote: “When the anchor dropped, against a background of conical skin tents, I saw old men with long, flowing hair, smiling, wrinkled and seamed faces, clad in caribou skins so stained that many of them looked the colour of the earth. ey stooped slightly forward as they walked, as if to help themselves along, yet with the dignity and ease of men sure of themselves.” In the following months, Marsh built the first Anglican mission at Eskimo Point, and in subsequent years he travelled widely by dog-team to visit the Inuit camps scattered across the interior stretching toward Nueltin Lake, Ennadai Lake,
and the Kazan River. By his own account, his parish covered an area greater than 120,000 square kilometres.

In 1928-29, the HBC and the two missions all moved a few kilometres to the west, to the contemporary town-site, to take advantage of easier access to fresh water and a better landing for small boats. In 1936, the RCMP established a detachment there to serve the surrounding area, which by then sustained a population of something close to 1,000 Inuit.

About the time that Donald Marsh left the coast of Hudson Bay, in 1944, the dreadful epidemics of newly introduced diseases and the ravages of starvation both began to sweep across the surrounding tundra. By the time Marsh became the second Bishop of the Arctic, in 1950, the shift into settlement life was either underway or clearly on the horizon for most of the people struggling to survive in the scattered camps. Real-life scenes such as Marsh had recorded in his photographs, of healthy fulfilled lives unfolding entirely out on the land, would never be witnessed again.

The 1950s brought a wave of change over the region. Hints of what happened are recorded in another photographic collection. In March of 1950 a photographer from southern Canada, Richard Harrington, was travelling by dog-team with his guide Kunuk (whom he called Kumok) in the region inland from Eskimo Point. On March 10, he wrote in his journal:

Hour after hour we travel… There, in the far distance, in this apparently uninhabited country, a man walks. The dogs break into a wild gallop. Even Kumok can’t conceal his happiness. It turns out to be a man from Negak’s camp. In 2-3 hours, we’re there. In fact, Kumok would have struck it by going on.

Nigiq’s (whom Harrington called Negak) camp was 60 kilometres northwest of Padlei, a satellite post for the HBC trader in Eskimo Point. There was an old woman in the camp who caught Harrington’s eye. He took some remarkable photographs of Tahiuq. She looks proud though strained in his images. She was among those who survived those difficult years, and some of her descendants live today in Arviat. Others who appear in the Harrington photos did not survive and many of their descendants also live in Arviat now.

Tahiuq, near Padlei, NWT, March 1950. Photo by Richard Harrington. © PA-114675. NATIONAL LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES
Tahiuq, near Padlei, NWT, March 1950. Photo by Richard Harrington. © PA-114675. NATIONAL LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES

In some of the camps he visited, Harrington witnessed terrible scenes of starvation. The early 1950s were difficult years when the caribou did not come as usual, and even the fish were hard to catch. Many people perished. Others, like Tahiuq’s family, struggled to reach the post at Eskimo Point, where help was assured. This was the beginning of an irreversible shift in lifestyle, as people began to congregate around the settlement.

In 1959, a two-room federal day school was built at Eskimo Point, followed shortly thereafter by a nursing station. By 1963, the population of Eskimo Point was 329, and then through the 1960s more and more families moved permanently into the growing settlement where services were more accessible. In 1988, the residents voted to change the community’s name to the more traditional designation, Arviat, derived from arviq meaning “Bowhead Whale” and that name became official the next year. Today the population of Arviat is approaching 3,000, one of the largest towns in Nunavut.

David F. Pelly