I’m aboard the Ocean Endeavour, east of Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle, approaching Lancaster Sound. We left Kangerlussuag, Greenland, ten days ago and we’re headed for the Northwest Passage.
Sailing through Arctic is tricky, so making it to our destination in Kugluktuk is not a certainty. The ship’s captain has been studying ice flow charts and with a bit of luck we’ll actually make it. Last year they didn’t. While the Ocean Endeavour is not an icebreaker, the bow is strengthened enough to plough through ice if it’s not too thick.
Along with the 168 passengers and 100 crew members, there are 33 scientists, artists, photographers and Inuit “culturists” aboard. The Inuit are from both Canada and Greenland.
We watched a 90 minute documentary by Canada’s National Film Board titled Vanishing Point. It featured one of the culturists aboard who also narrated it in Inuktitut. The film traces the trek of an Inuit band from Baffin Island to Greenland 160 years ago. It’s a compelling, yet tragic tale.
I spoke to the narrator of the film, Navarana Kavigak, an Inuit from Greenland, about the trek.
In1856, an Inuit leader named name Qillarsuaq left Baffin Island with a band of 50 followers. Qillarsuaq was a charismatic leader, a shaman (angakkuq), and he was on the run. He had killed a man and according to Inuit justice he could be killed anytime, without warning, by the victim’s family.
Qillarsuaq’s run from vengeance took him across the then ice covered Lancaster Sound to Devon Island. From there they travelled north-eastwards along the coast of Ellesmere Island by dog sleds. They struggled through rough and broken ice, waiting for the right conditions to cross deep bays. Qillarsuaq and his followers endured treacherous terrain, climbing and descending glaciers, all the while hunting to provide food and skins for clothing. The journey took several years.
I asked Navarana how Qillarsuaq knew where he was going. Obviously, he had no map of Greenland. There are two versions. Navarana told me one:
“He came into himself and his mind was travelling across the land. His vision directed him to Greenland.”
The Canadian Encyclopedia has a dryer version. Qillarsuaq met Captain Edward Inglefield and his Greenlandic interpreter. Inglefield was on Devon Island in search of the missing Arctic explorer John Franklin and he knew Greenland well. Through his interpreter, Inglefield told Qillarsuaq where to find some Greenland Inuit (Inughuit).
Some of the group began to doubt Qillarsuaq’s vision of a new world and turned back to Devon Island.
The remainder, about one-half the original number, ended up near Etah in northern Greenland near where Navarana was born.
Qillarsuaq found Navarana’s ancestors in desperate condition. Navarana told me that their numbers had been decimated by disease, possibly spread by European whalers. Her people were on the verge of extinction. They had lost the knowledge of how to make kayaks, fish spears, and bows and arrows.
Qillarsuaq re-introduced these tools and shared knowledge about hunting and surviving in the Arctic. He brought Navarana’s people back from the brink of starvation. Through the gift of technology and intermarriage, the two groups integrated. Qillarsuaq was highly respected by the Greenland Inuit. Navarana referred to him as “Great Quillaq (The Great One).”
Only seven years later, an aging Qillarsuaq decided to head back to Baffin Island. He died in the first year of the return,. The remaining followers faced starvation and only five survived the trip.
One of those survivors was Navarana’s great, great grandmother. Many families of northwestern Greenland trace their ancestry to the allarsuit -the Canadian migrants.