As part of the 'Diving Deeper' project funded by Designated Development Fund, Arts Council England, Hull Maritime has partnered with Toronto Inuit Association in Canada. Our Curator of Social and Maritime History, Robin Diaper had the opportunity to visit and join the team in Pangnirtung in Nunavut to gather research, memories and local knowledge of some of Hull Maritime Museum's Inuit collection.
Here's Robin's third and final blog about his trip to Pangnirtung.
I never thought I would find myself shaking the hand of a man who’d hunted a bowhead whale.
Charlie Qumuatuq is a softly spoken, sensitive and strong looking man who exudes competence in the same way many ex-trawler skippers do in Hull.
Two windows of his living room overlook the nearby fjord and a radio installed on the wall broadcasts the conversations between local boats. It was 10pm in the evening and Iacking the professional stamina of Nyla and Manar I slumped on the sofa and enviously watched a puppy sleep in a corner. Once we were set up and Charlie started speaking, I woke up.
We were here to talk about bowhead hunting which had resumed in a very tightly controlled way for food in the late 1990s. The Baffin Island area were allowed to take just one whale a year and each community had to apply to be the ones who got to hunt. In 1998 Pang had its first bowhead hunt in a generation. It was Pang’s turn again in 2013 and Charlie was nominated as Co-Captain.
As Charlie launched upon his tale his immense pride in having been Co-Captain became evident, almost moving him to tears. He spoke of how the whale was carefully chosen. One huge bowhead that moved through the water ‘like a submarine’ was avoided.
Another that splashed its fins as they approached was felt not to be ready to be taken. One bowhead seemed to offer itself up and Charlie was asked by the Captain of the hunt to make the kill. Charlie said he looked the whale in the eye, thanked it in his heart for the sacrifice and explained he now had to harvest it for his community. It seemed to me that this was a world away from the wholesale slaughter that Europeans and Americans undertook in this area.
When they finally managed to get the whale back to Pang there was huge coming together of community and singing of traditional songs. The young men of the town worked for three days solid, refusing to take breaks to butcher the carcass.
To those of us who don’t live there, eat that diet, endure Arctic winters and have not suffered the immensely painful efforts to have your culture removed forever, it might be hard to understand the rejoicing at the killing of a whale.
As a lover of the natural world myself (in the European sense) I have mentally been through many arguments for and against this. However, I’ve concluded that it’s not for me to judge either way, and who would care if I did? In my short time there, what I did get a small understanding of was the context of the situation; an inkling of why Charlie had such pride; of why his sister Madeleine had volunteered to be the cook on the trip so as to have the opportunity of reconnecting with her elders; of why the young men would be so keen to work hard and have a purpose.
In 1853 a Scottish whaler called William Penny began to set up a whaling station on Kekerten Island near to where Pang is today. His thought was to deliberately over-winter in the area to more effectively hunt whales. At the same time Hull whalers were hunting in the usual way but as the Hull trade died out, Kekerten continued with many Inuit being recruited to work for it and gradually being left to keep it going over winter.
For their hard work they were paid in ship’s biscuits and their name for Saturday today is still Sivataaqvik, meaning biscuit day. (You can still buy ship’s biscuits there but you need strong teeth to eat them!). We had planned to visit the ruins at Kekerten as part our trip but the ice of the Cumberland Sound prevented us from getting there.
The Scottish influence continues today in Pang, with some people skilled in accordion playing and bannock being a popular food.
As bowhead stocks crashed, beluga whales became the focus and in Pang the Hudson Bay Company Old Blubber Station sheds can still be visited, along with wrecked whaleboats outside almost identical to those Hull whalers would have used.
Commercial whaling and the nomadic life of the Inuit people in Pang is over but is still just about in living memory for some. I met people who had been born in tents and igloos and heard fascinating stories about grandparents who had lived through the transition.
Madeleine spoke of her grandmother Aasivak who sound like an extraordinary woman. Aasivak visibly had Scottish blood and was the matriarch for her community who charitably made clothes for widower hunters who had no one to support them. She was said to have visions at times and speak in her own language. When they had to settle in the 1960s Aasivak adopted Western clothes and had made a full set of traditional clothes, casting them into the sea as a way of letting go of the old ways.
When Europeans first interacted with the Inuit they brought with them diseases that were to decimate the local populations.
Having survived this and increased interaction with Europeans more changes were to come. In the 1960s many of the dogs on Baffin Island died of distemper and without their means of transport people were airlifted and shipped by the government in 1962 into concentrated areas and told to settle. Pang was not a traditional settlement but the Hudson Bay Company had had a trading station there since the 1920s (the name Pangnirtung means ‘the place of many bull caribou’).
If this transition were not bad enough it wasn’t the worse thing. Our visit to Pang coincided with Pope Francis’ visit to Canada to apologise for the horrors committed in the Catholic Residential School system to Inuit and First Nation children across Canada.
This is a hugely sensitive area and it was on the television of many of the houses we went into, including during actual filming of interviews. Children and toddlers were forcibly taken from parents and put into residential schools, being forced to let go of their traditional languages and cultures.
Whole generations suffered terrible abuse of all kinds and the people alive today who went through the system are called Residential School Survivors. It is estimated a minimum of 6,000 children died in these schools, possibly many more.
In 2021 hundreds of unmarked graves were found at the sites of two schools. The impact of this, along with other challenges have left a deep intergenerational trauma still being worked through. Drink and drug problems persist. It is said that if Nunavut were an independent country it would have the highest suicide rate in the world.
This is not the kind of thing you normally come across in museum work, or as a museum visitor. However, in understanding life in the Baffin Island area today and how important heritage and culture can be to people I think it’s vital to try to get to grips with the context of how things are interconnected. It illustrated to me how important our collections are in helping to preserve that heritage and culture.
This experience also highlighted how fortunate we were to have Nyla and Sarabeth leading on this project, how essential it was that people trusted them enough to open up to us with their knowledge about our collections, their memories and pride.
The resulting content for our galleries and educational session will celebrate Inuit culture, past and present, and show Pang as the vibrant and friendly place it is. It is a place where adults and children will come straight up to you and start talking, a place where people walk past you in the street, smile and say ‘Welcome to Pang’, and a place of dogs with very short legs.
Our gallery content will share the knowledge we learnt about our collections but will also show that the Inuit do not live in a museum themselves. They are not the people of our childhood imaginations living permanently in igloos. They are a real people living and working in the 21st century like the rest of us, and with a future ahead of them.
I will never forget Pang and the people I met. I am eternally grateful to everyone who made this trip possible and for the content that will become part of the Hull Maritime project.
Quiannamiik (Thank you).