Nancy Columbia: Inuit star of stage, screen and camera


    By Kenn Harper

    In the summer of 1911, Selig Polyscope Company, a pioneering Chicago venture in the new industry of silent film making, released a movie called The Way of the Eskimo. It played to large audiences and was widely reviewed as far afield as New Zealand and Australia. Early silent films were short and shot on relatively low budgets. This one was no exception. Filmed on the shores of Lake Michigan, which doubled for the Labrador coast, The Way of the Eskimo used only six actors. Four of them were Inuit. The star was 18-year-old Nancy Columbia, billed in this film as Columbia Enutseak. She also wrote the treatment from which the film was shot. This was the first Inuit-written and Inuit-cast film ever made, ninety years before Zacharias Kunuk’s highly acclaimed Atanarjuat, the previous claimant to this honour. Eleven years before Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking work in Nanook of the North brought Inuit to mainstream audiences, Nancy Columbia appeared on screen in a film that she had written. At that time, she was the most famous Inuk in the world. Now largely forgotten, this is her amazing story.

    In the fall of 1892 a small schooner, the Evelena, arrived in Boston from Labrador, carrying a cargo unlike any that had arrived in that port before. It attracted the attention of the Boston Globe, who reported “queer-looking natives” crowding the ship’s rail “with their eyes protruding from their flat, flabby faces…”

    NancyColumbia-400pxThe Evelena carried a cargo of 60 Inuit. Ralph Taber, 28-year-old promoter and showman, had travelled the Labrador coast to recruit Inuit — Eskimos — to take to Chicago for a human ethnic exhibit to entertain and educate visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the ChicagoWorld’s Fair, which would open the following spring.

    The life of a hunter on the Labrador coast was hard. Taber promised the Inuit they would be paid for their attendance and performances at the fair. They would be expected to demonstrate kayaking, dogsledding, native music, and hunting and fishing methods. The promoters would return them to their homes at the end of two years and pay them each 2000 Newfoundland shillings, about $100 in today’s money, plus a Winchester rifle and 200 cartridges for each man, thirty yards of calico and four woollen blankets for each woman, and a quantity of food and fish hooks for each family.

    Among the Inuit was a family of three from the small Moravian mission station of Zoar. The breadwinner was Abile, a man in his late 40s who had been born at Nain. He was a hunter and fisherman who traded at the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post of Davis Inlet. One report said he had “received something of an education at the missionary post in his native village, and is an exhorter of the Christian creed to his wild-mannered tribesmen…” He had married his wife, Helena Jeremias, five years his junior, when she was only sixteen.

    They were accompanied by their only child, a fifteen-year-old daughter, Esther. When she boarded the Evelena at Davis Inlet in late August, she was unmarried and four months pregnant.

    On January 16, 1893, over three months before the exposition would officially open, Esther gave birth to a daughter, a girl born for the camera. The first pictures of this American-born child of Labrador show her facing the camera directly, sometimes even smiling for the photographer. She would go on to become the most famous and most-photographed Inuk of her time. She was given the unwieldy name of Nancy Helena Columbia Palmer. Nancy was the name of her paternal grandmother, an Inuk herself, the mother of the young man in Labrador whose dalliance with Esther had resulted in her pregnancy.Helena was for Esther’s mother. Columbia was for Christopher Columbus, in whose honour theWorld’s Columbian Exposition was held. And Palmer? Mrs. Bertha Honoré Palmer was President of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers. She took an interest in the child and became her godmother. The girl was usually known as Nancy Columbia.

    The world into which Nancy was born was a world of hype and humbug, of ethnic stereotypes, of gawking visitors in search of the exotic and the unusual. Her first home was a wooden hut in winter, a sealskin tent in summer, both constructed incongruously on the edge of a lagoon in a burgeoning metropolis in America’s heartland. Surviving photographs of the infant Nancy show her in clothing which bears the distinctive trimmings of a Labrador Inuit costume. Perhaps Esther had already determined that returning to a life in Labrador was not in her own future, that the world of hucksters and flim-flam artists, the circus, the carnival and the midway, held more excitement and more promise. The Chicago World’s Fair, Nancy Columbia’s birthplace, was also her introduction to show business. It would become her life.

    The promoters who had brought the Inuit to Chicago left most of them stranded in the United States.Most straggled back to Labrador over the next few years. But Abile and his family of four remained voluntarily in America, putting on their own small “Eskimo” show at country fairs, dime museums, and even at the Ethnological Congress at Barnumand Bailey’s Circus. Abile demonstrated his skill with the whip,whileHelena and Esther prepared skin clothing. Young Nancy was an attraction in her own right, the famous World’s Fair Baby. In 1894 the family even visited the White House.

    In 1896 Abile and Helena finally returned to Labrador, taking their granddaughter with them. Esther had married and stayed in New York. In Labrador Nancy was part of a community filled with aunts, uncles and cousins. Had she remained there, her life would have turned out quite differently. She would probably have attended the Moravian mission school at Hopedale. Eventually she would have married, probably to a hunter or fisherman. Her descendants would live in Nain or Hopedale today.

    But fate, in the person of Ralph Taber, intervened. The Chicago promoter sought out Esther in New York and promised to make her a star. In 1899, she and Taber sailed for Labrador where they recruited 30 Inuit, including Esther’s parents and Nancy and a number of other relatives, for a European tour. Some would not return to Labrador for two years. A few would die far from home.

    For Esther the unknown always held promise. Nancy inherited this trait from her mother. She was seven years old and had spent half her life in Labrador. But she would never see that rugged coast again.

    Their first engagement was in London,where they wintered. At the great exhibition hall, Olympia, they were part of a show called Briton, Boer and Black in Savage South Africa. The program advertised The Eskimo Encampment, bizarrely placed among the African attractions.

    Visitors flocked to see the Inuit. A reporter contrasted them with the Africans a few days after the event opened:
    “Very different are the little Eskimos. They stand about with a delightfully roguish air and a merry twinkle in their soft Mongolian eyes.” Published material from Olympia refers to Nancy’s “regular features and rosy complexion.”A newspaper described her as “one sweetly pretty little maid of about six” who was already “a finished coquette.”

    The troupe of Inuit entertainers moved on to Spain in the spring, and set up an EskimoVillage in a park inMadrid. During their two months there, at least one baby was born, another died, and one marriage took place. They put on the usual displays of Inuit life. At a kayak “regatta,” the winner won a number of packages of tobacco. From Madrid, they continued their strange odyssey, travelling to Barcelona, Paris, North Africa, and Naples.

    Ethnographic shows were at the height of their popularity. Unlike the equally popular freak shows, these displays explicitly acknowledged the humanity of the Inuit —or Indians, or Japanese Ainu, or Arabs, or Filipinos, or others—and displayed them with an intent to entertain, but also to educate. Villages were built to be as realistic as possible. Promoters sometimes even employed scientists from the new discipline of anthropology, to ensure authenticity and bestow a seal of approval. The popular press had already brought an exotic world of people from far-off lands to the attention of readers in Europe and America. But ethnographic displays made that world a three dimensional reality, complete with sounds, smells, and actions.

    The Inuit established daily routines, performing tasks they might have carried out back home.Of course the men couldn’t hunt, but they demonstrated their prowess with the whip, cared for the dogs and made works of art. The women prepared skins and sewed, and cooked and cared for the children. It was important that they wore traditional clothing—in Chicago in 1893 the public had expressed strong disapproval when Inuit appeared in jeans instead of sealskins in the summer heat.

    Nancy was part of this world. The European shows set the stage for the next 20 years of her life. She had been an ethnographic specimen, an exhibit, for half her life. Strangers had stared at her, pointed at her, and perhaps occasionally laughed at her. But through all this, she had persevered. Her photographs from these years show an apparently well-adjusted girl. Scholars have commented that ethnographic exhibitees seldom smiled for the camera, instead averting their gaze and often looking sullen and dejected. Not Nancy. More often than not, she gazed directly into the camera, smiling. She had done this since infancy, usually radiating self-confidence. On occasion her stare even appears defiant.

    The Inuit left Naples in 1901 aboard the Trojan Prince, bound for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. This was the least pleasant of all their experiences at ethnographic exhibitions anywhere in the world. Their quarters weren’t ready when they arrived and they were put up in a cattle pen at the stockyards. Soon three were in the hospital. Esther explained, “They all have colds. They are not well any of the time and they will never be well till they get back in the cold country.”

    The Buffalo show marked the first appearance of Inuit in film. The new medium was in its infancy and features were unbelievably short. Thomas Edison’s company shot three films of the Labrador Inuit there. The first, Esquimaux Village, lasted 51 seconds. The shortest, Esquimaux Game of Snap-the-Whip, was only 24 seconds. The final film was a demonstration called Esquimaux Leap-Frog. All three films total just over two minutes – 128 seconds. Yet they are important for they are the first films ever made of Inuit, and, miraculously, they have survived. They would also presage a later phase in the lives of Esther and Nancy.

    Ralph Taber left the show in Buffalo and turned his interests over to a man named John Smith,who soon married Esther. Brief shows followed in Charleston and Atlanta, then Smith relocated his family and the few other Inuit who remained with them to work at Coney Island, the most famous amusement park in America. In September of 1903 the population of the EskimoVillage increased by one when Esther gave birth to a son, Norman. Two years later, Abile died, and sometime thereafter his widow Helena returned to Labrador. The rest of the group remained at Coney Island until 1906 except for their appearance at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. At Coney Island they were part of an attraction called Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, a simulation of a submarine ride to the North Pole, and a later attraction,NewYork to the North Pole. It was here also that Esther adopted the name Esther Eneutseak; the surname means “good person.”

    In 1909 Esther’s family, which included two relatives, Zacharias Zad and Simon Aputik, who had been with them since Buffalo, appeared at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, more commonly known as the Seattle World’s Fair. There Nancy, aged sixteen,won the beauty contest and was crowned “Queen of the Pay Streak,” that fair’s fanciful name for the midway. The ever-fawning press called her “Columbia, Gem of the Arctic,” and added, “Columbia isn’t anything if she isn’t attractive and she knows she is as she flashed her sunny smile at you… She is wholly feminine and her Eskimo trappings but add novelty to her other charms.” Photographs from Seattle show her in her usual fur costume, holding a long whip with an ivory handle.

    The Seattle World’s Fair marked the last hurrah for the ethnographic shows that had proved popular for so many years.They would continue for some time, but they dwindled in popularity because of new competition. The motion picture industry had evolved from its modest beginnings. Film was becoming all the rage. By 1910, 15 to 20 new films were released in America each week.

    In the fall of 1910 Nancy and her extended family were entertaining at the Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville, Tennessee, where they met a then-unknown cowboy performer called Tom Mix. He hired them and took them to Jacksonville, Florida,where they would perform in at least three films for the Selig Polyscope Company. Their roles were small, bit parts really. Ironically, a stereotype had already developed as to what an “Indian” should look like in the movies, and the Plains Indian was seen as the ideal. The Seminoles in Florida didn’t look enough like “picture Indians,” so white men in painted faces and Inuit from Labrador portrayed them.

    The first of these films, The Seminole’s Sacrifice, like so many movies from this era, is a “lost”movie, a film of which no print survives. The Witch of the Everglades, however, survives intact, and Nancy plays a brief role in it. Only a snippet of Life on the Border exists, but Nancy can be seen dressed in Plains Indian costume.

    The Inuit left Florida for Chicago with William V.Mong, a Selig director. In Escanaba in northern Michigan in early 1911, they made two films in which Nancy Columbia played a starring role. The first, written by Mong, was called Lost in the Arctic. It was followed by TheWay of the Eskimo, written by Nancy herself.


    Reviews for both movies were generally favourable. The Way of the Eskimo was described as “a romance enacted on the snowfields of Labrador.”One review noted that “the leading part has been taken by a young Esquimo girl of American birth, and that all the other characters—with the exception of two American trappers…—have been sustained by Eskimos.”Nancy was described as “a bright intelligent young lady” and “a clever actress.”

    Mysteriously, the Inuit starred in no more movies after the 1911 success of these two Selig films. Instead, the family travelled to Germany where they performed at an ethnic show at Hagenbeck’s Zoo in Hamburg. They appeared briefly at an ice-skating rink called “La Pole Nord” in Brussels, then returned to Seattle,where John Smith took a job at the Hudson Bay Fur Company.

    In 1915 Smith opened an Eskimo Village at the Ocean Park pier in Santa Monica, California, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Predictably, Nancy was the star of the show. But the attraction was short-lived; it was destroyed by fire in late December, and Smith did not rebuild. Nonetheless, Santa Monica provided Nancy and her siblings — two more brothers and a sister had been born since Coney Island – with something they had never really had before — a home. They never left the city, settling into an attractive home on Marine Drive.

    Hollywood, next door to Santa Monica, was by then the undisputed centre of the film industry in America.Westerns were a popular genre, but there was a similar type called “the Northern” or “the snow picture,” also popular during this period. Nancy and Esther returned to acting, and played roles in a number of westerns and “snow pictures.”Both women played Inuit and Indian roles, usually working for Thomas Ince and his Inceville studio, located in the Santa Monica hills. Esther also played Japanese roles, despite the existence of a burgeoning Japanese community in the Los Angeles area. Family lore has it that she played in one movie with the most famous Japanese actor of the time, Sessue Hayakawa, and that she appeared in a movie directed by the young Cecil B. deMille. Nancy appeared in a number of movies, most of them lost films, and once again played a Plains Indian role in the 1920 release of The Last of the Mohicans, a film that has survived.

    In 1920, the involvement of this remarkable Inuit family in movies abruptly ended. Two years later Nancy married Ray Melling, a film projectionist at a local theatre. They had one child, Esther Sue, who herself worked in the costume department of MGM Studios as a wigmaker. Nancy and Ray eventually divorced.

    Nancy never returned to show business. She found work as the manager of La Playa Apartment Building, near the beach in her beloved SantaMonica. She, her siblings and their mother Esther remained close. Esther and John Smith separated in the 1930s and remained apart until his death in 1940. Nancy suffered a stroke in 1948 and walked with a limp for the rest of her life. She died in 1959 and is buried in the peaceful Woodlawn Cemetery in the city that had become her home. Esther outlived her by two years and is buried next to her.

    Nancy Columbia was a professional child entertainer, an accomplished young woman who had spoken Inuktut in her childhood, and was fluent in English, French and German. An accomplished musician, she played the violin, piano and mandolin. She knew Buffalo Bill and Geronimo and her formative years were peopled with an assortment of sword-swallowers, jugglers, contortionists, fat men, bearded ladies and clowns. She and her family saw more of the world than any Inuit of her generation. She visited the White House as a baby, and was present in Buffalo on the fateful day in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated.

    She began her journey into the hearts of Americans as a baby in Chicago. Her three years of childhood in Labrador helped to equip her for the roles that would follow, as a star of ethnographic attractions and film. She, her mother Esther, and the Inuit associated with their various shows appeared in at least 19 films over two decades. Nancy smiled for the camera, posed in her Labrador costume, and was instrumental in creating for many Americans their first impression of Inuit life. This attractive Inuit woman, the first Inuk to be an actress and screen-writer, made her mark on show business in the first half of her life, before fading into the anonymity that one suspects she craved, out of the limelight, at home in Santa Monica.


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