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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 first blog.

There are no roads to Pangnirtung. Access to this small Inuit settlement on Baffin Island is by a one-hour flight from Iqaluit, the capital of the vast region of Nunavut in the North of Canada which is independently governed by the Inuit.

Apart from planes the only other access is by sea, if you’re lucky. A supply ship with an accompanying ice breaker comes only four times a year, plus two other ships refuelling the town of c.1500.

As I flew there over the patches of ice in the Cumberland Sound and listened to the plane announcement in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, I realised the Hull Maritime project had reached parts other museum projects don’t normally reach.

Arriving at Pang

Although immensely lucky and privileged to be visiting Pangnirtung (henceforth referred to as Pang as the locals do), I was here to work.

I was here to listen and learn; to advise and share images of our collections; to help where possible and hopefully not get in the way too much.

I should also add a disclaimer here that I am in no way an expert on this subject and can only give examples of what I learnt and my own personal impressions.

Back in 2019, our project education officer Charlie Trzeciak and I had started having virtual conversations with Sarabeth Holden, President of the Toronto Inuit Association.

As part of our plans for the Hull Maritime project, we were keen to learn more about our Inuit artefacts and to redisplay them. These are items Hull whalers are believed to have bartered for on their trips to this part of the world, but we wanted to hear the other side of the story. We wanted to understand what we held in our care, about the people who had made and used them and to let others tell their story.

With what I now know to be typical energy and enthusiasm Sarabeth seized on the idea having spent part of her childhood in Pang, a place with a long history of connections with whaling.

On top of the generous National Lottery Heritage Fund grant we had for the project, we were fortunate enough to gain further external support through the Designated Development Fund, through Arts Council England. The initial plan was to go over, speak to people about our collections and make a film for use in our galleries and educational sessions. Then COVID struck and all bets were off.

There are few things positive about the global pandemic but one silver lining for us was the chance to reflect and most importantly to keep talking to our partners over in Canada.

This element of the Hull Maritime project had been developed at the same time as the many other strands we are working on in Hull, and so time to give this element special consideration without distraction was very beneficial.

What gradually became apparent was the need to make the project less one-sided in our favour and for it to work for everyone. In order to do this, and to ensure a more honest, and frankly better, result we in Hull took a step back and commissioned the Toronto Inuit Association to facilitate and lead the project, taking the resulting content in whichever direction they felt best. The films and content produced would then be available for everyone to use as they saw fit.

Once we had reached this stage after years of discussions and funding bids things began moving quicker. National and regional borders also began opening up once again.

As producer and the person now charged with delivering the project outcomes, Sarabeth gained the invaluable input and co-direction of Nyla Innuksuk, an established Canadian and Inuk film-maker and director with experience of making documentaries.

Meet the Team - left Sarabeth, Robin, Nylar and Manar
Manar filming

Nyla’s feature horror film Slash/Back released in 2022 had been filmed in Pang and the visible affection and trust the people have for her there, along with Sarabeth’s connections made the filming and level of engagement we had possible. (Watch the trailer for Slash/Back online if you dare!)

Nyla’s involvement will also take the level of quality of our final content way beyond anything we could ever have hoped for. Manar Samman, a freelance cameraman in Toronto was recruited and we were all set, apart from a few last-minute date and flight changes to fit everyone’s schedules. Sadly, our education officer Charlie had left us for pastures new but I set off alone armed with a folder of laminated pictures of our collections, a long list of questions and an open mind.

The plane landed on the gravel runway in the middle of Pang and we had arrived. After all the planning it had finally become a reality and we had just one week to deliver.

First impressions of Pangnirtung are of a friendly and warm place
Manar fares better than the lemming

First impressions of Pang are of a friendly and warm place, full of smiles, greetings and bustling quad bikes zooming around the dirt roads. Tourism is an afterthought reserved for a very small handful of adventurers passing quickly through on their way to Auyuittuq National Park where they can do some very serious hiking and climbing, if they can stay away from the polar bears. Meanwhile Pang is too busy getting on with life to worry about that sort of thing.

What became apparent very quickly is that, like Hull, this is a maritime community and the Inuit are a maritime people, having drawn their living and survival from sea for millennia. This put another angle on the historic meetings between Inuit and Hull whalers to me.

Having read all the historic accounts from a European perspective, my experiences in Pang made it clear that these historic encounters had been a meeting of equals, even if Hull whalers had not realised it. And once winter came in, there was no question who had the upper hand. If the whalers had met the same hospitality and friendliness I experienced there, then I think they must owe the Inuit more than the historic records reveal.

Arctic tundra and stream near Pang
Innuksuk on the tundra

A note on dogs: as you might expect, there are lots of dogs in Pang.

What you might not expect is they are not all huskies.

Some people do still have dog teams of course, but the skidoo seems to be the winter vehicle of choice for most people.

These were everywhere, parked up and waiting for the ice to come. Dogs are stationed outside many houses, watching you go past as you find your way, but I can honestly say I only met two or three I would be wary of.

There are also a few cats about, but these understandably keep a low profile. At the house Nyla and Manar had been generously allowed to house sit, there were two dogs, Nuka and Kuku. Both good examples of the dogs of Pang. Nuka is an impressive husky, with an immensely thick coat and placid nature, which is fortunate as he’s a hefty fellow. The other dog, Kuku (meaning chocolate) is what is known as a Pang Dog.

These are mongrels with husky in them but mixed with a variety of incomers, all with short legs. The legs don’t seem to be a handicap though as I saw Kuku easily keep up with Nuka running across the tundra. This was also where I saw some Arctic wildlife in the shape of half a lemming (the other half being in Nuka’s mouth).

Robin with his new friend, Nuka

It's easy to view places like Pang through rose-tinted glasses, especially when you are only there for such a short period of time. Being there with Sarabeth and Nyla gave me a more realistic insight into the history, people and contemporary issues I could never have gained otherwise.

Almost as soon as we’d arrived, they were both busy on their phones planning and drawing on relatives and contacts to arrange meetings and interviews.

It wouldn’t have just been difficult to try and get the level of engagement we did without this inside knowledge and trust; it would have been impossible.

As the week progressed the filming and discussions took their own direction, and I was on a learning curve steeper than the cliff faces of the nearby mountains.

Read more about the 'Diving Deeper' project.