Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Weird and Tragic Shores

Charles Francis Hall may well be the most singular explorer in the entire history of the western fascination with the Arctic regions. Unlike the vast majority of such men, he never served in the Navy or merchant marine of any nation, nor did he have any family or local connections with whaling, fishing, sail-making or any other nautical trade. Although he published a sort of newspaper in Cincinnati, it would be a bit of a stretch to call him a “journalist,” and while for a time he had a business making engraved seals for business use, he himself was not a particularly accomplished engraver. Never apparently much of a family man, he more or less abandoned his wife and children when he first set off for the Arctic, and they were almost never the subject of his letters and journals. Indeed, if it were not for the singular leap he made out of the ordinary life of commerce and middle-class life, he might very well have never made much of a mark in any of his endeavors. Hall’s destiny was to do one thing, to do it with faith and fury and a determination which bordered on the monomaniacal – and yet, in so doing, he revealed a deeply humane and conflicted character, at once absolutely unique and yet absolutely a man of his time.

One of the most notable aspects of Hall's career was his close reliance on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito. Throughout his career, they were Hall’s most faithful and trusted companions, accompanying him on numerous sledging expeditions, providing food and shelter, and translating and interpreting at hundreds of interviews with Inuit who had stories to tell about the Franklin expedition. No only were they tireless and constant in their support for Hall’s often very demanding Arctic plans, but, between expeditions, they accompanied him throughout the United States, as well as permitting Hall to arrange for their exhibition in New York and Boston to raise funds for further missions, as well as appearing alongside him on his east coast lecture tour (see here for details of his Providence engagement).

And yet, astonishingly, they remained constant despite the death of two of their children while working for Hall, even though in each case the deaths were at least partly due to Hall’s demands – in the first case, for exhibitions and lectures, and in the second, for a difficult sledge-journey to King William Island (their second child, indeed, was named “King William” by Hall). Hall could be an imperious master, especially when his ‘sacred cause’ of finding Franklin’s men was at stake; Ebierbing, in his only surviving letter, recalled that during the attempt to reach King William, “Mr. Hall tease me all time. Make me go their [sic].” Yet not once, during the entire time of their association, did “Hannah” or “Joe” waver in their service to this man who, without their assistance, would likely have never earned the sobriquet he so dearly coveted – “Charles Hall, Arctic Explorer.”

When Chauncey Loomis arrived at "Thank God Harbor" to exhume Hall and conduct tests for arsenic, he -- like Owen Beattie -- felt that establishing the cause of death would be sufficient service to science and history to justify disturbing his bones. As this photo shows, the body was in considerably poorer shape than those uncovered at Beechey Island, although traces of his beard can be seen. Loomis felt the evidence was less than conclusive, but for my part I am personally convinced that Hall was poisoned with arsenic, most likely by Bessels.

Hall's death had many reverberations. One of the documents I found among the Hall papers at the Smithsonian was a printed copy of a petition circulated in Congress by Hall's widow, Mercy Ann Hall. In tones that evoke those of Lady Franklin, Mrs. Hall allowed that her late husband, "in his devotion to duty, was unsparing of his family and himself," asked only for "tender consideration" and some small "pecuniary assistance" (i.e, money) -- the amount was not specified. She was eventually granted a pension of $40 a month (about $750 in today's currency).

"Joe" and "Hannah" returned to Groton where, as Joe wrote with some pride, their daughter Panik "go to school every day." Alas, there were not many more days remaining; her health had never been good, and she died at the age of nine. Hannah herself followed her adopted daughter to the grave on New Year's eve of 1876; Joe returned to the Arctic, and died some years later under uncertain circumstances. You can visit the graves of Hannah, little "Butterfly," and Panik at the Star Cemetery in Groton CT -- this article has a photo I took of the gravestone.

We'll have many judgments to make about Hall, but love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire his persistence. And, in a field of endeavor crowded with fateful, haunting endings, his may well have been strangest of all. Weird and Tragic shores, indeed.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ipellie's Dreams and Nightmares

The image at left is a drawing by Inuit artist and writer Alootook Ipellie (1951-2007), and is entitled "Self-Portrait: Inverse Ten Commandments." In the story accompanying the drawing, Ipellie dreams of himself as Satanasee (Inuktitut for Satan), and in his dreams each of his fingers becomes an "inverse commandment," coming to life with a face a a mouth filled with sharp little teeth that tear at his flesh. It's an apt if somewhat grotesque metaphor for the current spiritual condition of people of Ipellie's generation; they must live in two worlds -- the old shamanistic one with its built-in fear and fatalism, or the new Christian one that circumscribes and limits their spiritual development with rules and ideas that are foreign to traditional Inuit culture. Ipellie, who struggled with both the rejection of his work by supposed "connoisseurs" of Inuit art and the modern northern blight of alcoholism, only made it to the age of 56 before he died of a heart attack.

Isuma productions has dramatized the onset of Christianity, showing both its attractions and its coercive elements, in episode of its Nunavut series, Avaja. The priest offers his Inuit neighbors gifts of tobacco, attaching the promise that when they hear the bell, they must come to the church. He preaches a sermon about "Mosesesee" and the Burning Bush (a tough sell for people who have never seen a bush), and they seem to comply with his wishes, singing along loudly with every hymn. Nevertheless, it's clear that one reason they chose to attend was the anxiety of not being impolite, and (perhaps) the fear of offending the new God and his ministers. For Inuit who were there to witness this development, there has always been a sense of doubleness, of living between and yet within two worlds.

The division of modern Inuit between those who, like Ipellie, can recall the onset of western culture and forced settlements, and the generations after, is further complicated by religious divisions. Zacharaias Kunuk has spoken about the hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Iglooklik; one missionary from each faith converted half the town, and Kunuk compared the hostile border through the middle of the settlement to the Green Line in Beruit, which separated Muslims from Christians; he recalled children throwing stones at one another across this sectarian border. Evangelical denominations have had particular growth in the past few decades, and when Inuit politician Tagak Curley adpoted the campaign slogan "Jesus is Lord over Nunavut," he counted on evangelicals for their support (he lost, narrowly).

Unfortunately, Ipellie's most brilliant and lasting work, the collection, Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, is out of print and getting harder and harder to find. Fortunately, there's an article about him, Kimberly McMahon-Coleman's "Dreaming an Identity Across Two Cultures: The Works of Alootook Ipellie," which discusses his work at length, and includes many of the drawings -- you can read and download it here for free.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Polar Sovereignty

In July of 2007, a Russian crew headed to the bottom of the ocean in a pair of Mir-I submarines, the same kind seen and used in James Cameron's Titanic.  This time, though, the goal was not so much to find something as to leave something -- a little titanium Russian flag -- on the floor of the Arctic Ocean directly atop the North Geographic Pole.  They succeeded in doing so, and the act was hailed in Russia -- while in Canada, where nerves over Arctic sovereignty are thin and often frayed, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay criticized the action as meaningless, declaring that "this isn't the fifteenth century."  Maybe not, and it's not really likely that this flag-planting will have anything beyond a symbolic effect, but all the same it's no less strange an exercise than the Canadian government's touting of the finding of the Franklin-era search ship HMS Investigator, which they decided was important enough to fly the Environment Minister up to the site at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, just to film a few snippets for the news.  Military exercises in support of Canadian sovereignty have become an annual event, with the latest -- Operation Nunalivut -- just concluded.

There are many ways a claim of sovereignty can be made; prominent among them are discovery (I was here first), cession (you can have it, I don't want it), subjugation (I conquered it by force), and contiguity (it's in the midst of lands I already claim). One might think, given all the flag-plantings, that discovery was the strongest claim, but it practice is can be the weakest; land discovered but not occupied, or without the effective exercise of control, may be deemed "inchoate" -- undeveloped or temporary -- and thus liable to the claims of others who may, in fact, arrive much later.  All these issues, as one may imagine, become trickier in Canada's north, whose vast landmass is larger than India but has a population not much greater than West Warwick RI.

The Russian sub stunt has to do with the sub-category of sovereignty pertaining to coasts.  While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as extending only 12 nautical miles from shore, some countries regard all waters situated above the continental shelf supporting the country's landmass as theirs.  The Russians, of course, take the latter view, and since their shelf extends from the northern coastline to a few miles of the geographic pole, planting a flag on the seabed there is only a modest extension of what they already claim.  A good summary of the issues, and why a recent survey of the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean attracted such attention, is available here.

Russia, already busily selling oil leasing rights along its northern coast, is willing to bet there are more such resources under the polar sea -- and if the icecap were to melt in summer -- something once unthinkable but now only a decade or less away in some projections -- the logistical difficulties of extracting and transporting mineral resources would be greatly reduced.  It's a time of tremendous anxiety -- and, for some, opportunity -- and the only (nearly) sure thing is that native northern peoples are unlikely to get their fair share.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The High Arctic Exiles

The story of the High Arctic Exiles is one of the most awful and painful tales of the eastern Arctic Inuit, a parable of sorts about how a government used to treating its native inhabitants as mute collateral, and a native population with a culture of deference to abstract and distant authority, can lead to a destructive dislocation for which no apology, and no compensation, can atone.  To be uprooted from a home one's people have hunted and thrived in for ten thousand years, and relocated to a place utterly devoid of game, of life, of anything more than mere dependance, is not something that can be measured in dollars, in words, or in any known currency of the soul.  Canada has blood on its hands, and it always will.

And yet, like so many other roads to hell -- the forcible taking of Inuit south for TB treatment, or the establishment of permanent settlements and schools for native peoples -- it was richly paved with good intentions.  For the federal government of Canada, there was a great anxiety about the regions north of the Barrow straits -- the Queen Elizabeth Islands, and the northern stretch of Ellesmere Island.  You might be nervous too, if your powerful southern neighbor -- the United States -- had sent explorers into your lands, naming vast tracts after George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  And for the Inuit, who had shifted with skill from a subsistence hunting model to one which emphasized hunting animals for fur for trade, the prospect of co-operating with the Qalunaat had, at least until then, generally led to what seemed like good results.  After all, as Tiivi says in The Necessities of Life, "what if their stories are true?"

So, as often happened, the RCMP came together with the traders, asking the Inuit of Ungava if they would be willing to re-locate farther north.  It was a land of abundance, and the move was not permanent -- they could go back in two years if they didn't like their new home -- such were the lies the Inuit were told.  Well, why not? thought many -- we will see what this will bring, and if we don't like it, we will go back.  Yet no such possibility was in fact allowed for.

As quoted in a story in the Nunatsiaq News, Markoosie Patsauq vividly remembered the day his ship arrived and his exile began in 1955, when he was only 12 years old: “My impression of Resolute was that we had arrived in a dead land,” he said. “There was no sign of any life, not even the seagull.”  And so it was to be; there was little if any game to hunt, and the Inuit who arrived in Resolute and Grise Fjord found themselves to be abject dependents of the adjacent Canadian bases.  They were forced to rely on the leftovers of the Qalunaat, their garbage really -- proud men who had been used to grappling with the daily challenge of hunting and keeping their families alive were reduced to improvising food and shelter out of packing crates, tinned food, and military surplus.

And, in one of the harshest ironies of history, Josephie Flaherty -- the son of filmmaker Robert and the woman credited on camera as "Nyla, the smiling one" -- along with his wife Rynee and their children, were among the Inuit taken from Ungava to nowhere. Rynee still remembers:

She bundled up a few essential belongings, a canvas tent, pots and pans and some blankets, along with her three kids, Martha, 5, Mary, 3, and Peter, aged 6 months. Her family had to move without sled dogs, crucial to survival in the High Arctic, because theirs died before the voyage began. The government offered no help, not even boxes for their things, she says. During the journey, the ship's doctor diagnosed Rynee's daughter Mary with pulmonary tuberculosis. When they reached Churchill, Maniyoba, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, Mary was one of several children taken away for treatment. There wasn't anyone to translate the nurses' English into Inuktitut, so Rynee couldn't understand what they were doing with her daughter.

"I thought they would bring her back right away," she says. "They didn't tell me anything, except that she was leaving."

More than two years passed before she saw her child again. After six months in a sanitarium, Mary was moved to Montreal to wait for the next voyage of the C.D. Howe, which mistakenly dropped her off at Inukjuak. Even though Mary had a number, and an ID tag around her neck, the system somehow forgot her family had moved to Grise Fiord. After the sanitarium, she ended up in far-flung foster families for a few years. She was finally reunited with her family on one of the first flights to land in Grise Fiord. She had forgotten how to speak Inuktitut. The only words Rynee could understand of her daughter's English were "dirty," when she complained about her new home, and "water," when she was thirsty.

‏"She didn't want to be with us," her mother says, the wound still raw. "She didn't want to get off the plane. She wanted to be with qalunaaqs. She used to cry a lot because we were strangers to her."

‏After losing Mary, then Martha – who was sent to residential schools for several years – as well as his self-respect, all to a treacherous system, Josephie lost his mind. By the early 1970s, he was always pacing and whispering to himself. Going silent, and blank, when his wife tried to help.

‏"He got sick of being poor, struggling," Rynee says.

‏He died in 1984, before he could persuade the RCMP and the government to keep their promise and let him take his family back to Inukjuak, their home.

‏"We were guinea pigs," his widow says. "It didn't matter whether we died or not as long as there were Canadian bodies up there to prove the islands belonged to the Canadian government."

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Wedding of Palo

Although not well-known in the United States, the Danish film Palos Brudefærd (1934) has been highly regarded for years as a singular film of Arctic life. I'd never heard of it myself until about fifteen years ago, when I gave a paper at a conference on Arctic films at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. There, I heard an intriguing paper by the Greeenlandic scholar Erik Gant. His talk took aim at the curious bifurcation in filmed portrayals of Eskimo peoples, contrasting Palo with Nanook.  The title of his talk was "Good and Bad Eskimos" -- and as I listened I realized I'd only seen half, or rather less than half of the important films depicting Inuit life, since I'd never seen, or even heard of Palo. My ignorance was remedied, in part at least, later in the conference, when we watched almost all of a 16mm print of Palo that Dr. Gant had brought with him from Denmark (the conference organizers, unforgivably, shut down the film over time concerns before it had concluded). I had to wait until quite recently for the full film to be available on home video in the US.

Palo was originally planned as a source of funds for Rasmussen's expeditions -- he was among the most intrepid of Arctic explorers -- and he sought out director Friedrich Dalsheim for the project. Dalsheim had experience as an "ethnographic" filmmaker, having travelled to Togo and staged films in a manner similar to Flaherty's, which were shown in Germany in 1930 to considerable acclaim; never the less, because he was a Jew, Dalsheim felt he had little future in German cinema after Hitler's rise to power. It was, in that sense, ironic that as his director of photography, Dalsheim engaged Walter Traut, who had worked with Leni Reifenstahl, who was later to produce and direct several very effective propaganda films for the Nazis. Despite these issues, the team worked with remarkable effectiveness to establish the location and recruit the natives of the Angmagssalik district of East Greenland as actors. Rasmussen's high public esteem in Denmark was surely a factor in the success of securing access to this region, which was highly restricted at the time.

Alas, the fundraising plan was never to bear fruit -- not because the film was anything less than stellar, but because Rasmussen, apparently already ill with some kind of infection, was brought down by a meal of spoiled seal meat, and died in Copenhagen in December of 1933 at the relatively young age of 54. A tribute to his career was added to the beginning of the film, which was widely attended as a memorial to a man regarded by many as the greatest explorer of his day.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been hailed as the first and greatest documentary film, and although I would not necessarily agree with either claim (it's certainly not the first, in any case). But yes, Nanook rewrote the book for documentary film, and it did so by taking a number of pages out of the history of dramatic film.

Robert Flaherty had actually compiled two different sets of footage in the Arctic in the years before Nanook, and had at first intended to use this material to make his film. And yet, although this material clearly showed the "actual" Arctic, it did so piecemeal, and without any strong central narrative. When the working print caught fire and was destroyed (early nitrite film stock was highly flammable), Flaherty decided on a whole new plan. Instead of simply pointing his camera at things that were actually happening, he decided to "cast" specific Inuit as members of an imaginary family, and then deliberately create a narrative which not only included the "incidents" he'd earlier filmed, but extended the story through a complete dramatic arc, much as would a feature film. The idea was revolutionary, but still he needed backers to provide the resources.

He found a willing sponsor in Revillon Frères, a fur concern which operated a series of trading posts; the "friendly trader" in the early scenes is from one of these. The company simply asked that they be portrayed in a positive light, a seemingly small request, but one which nevertheless does affect the film's objectivity. Flaherty also wished to depict Inuit life from the era before the adoption of modern weapons such as rifles; thus, although one of the main reasons the Inuit traded with the white man was to obtain guns and ammunition, this was not shown, and "Nanook" hunts only with a spear. He even persuaded them to conduct a walrus hunt with traditional weapons, something the local Inuit had not done for more than a generation, and which they were reluctant at first to re-enact.

And of course Nanook himself, his wife Nyla "the smiling one," and the rest of the family depicted by Flaherty were in fact actors, Inuit playing an Inuit family. Nanook was portrayed by Allakariallak, whom Flaherty chose for his patience and rugged appearance; Nyla was played by a young Inuk woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk, who was, actually Flaherty's common-law wife at the time the film was made, and one of the babies shown may have been their child, Joseph (or Josephie; the Inuit added an -ie or -ee to many western names). Like many other explorers and travelers before him, including Peary and Henson, Flaherty left his child behind when he headed back south to take up a career as a filmmaker. Josephie Flaherty was, as fate would have it, one of the Ungava Inuit who was to be forcibly relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiord in the 1950's in a misguided attempt to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the North. This group, known as the "High Arctic Exiles," finally received a financial settlement offer from the federal Canadian government a few years ago, but no apology was made then, or has been made since.

And to be fair, Flaherty could not necessarily have anticipated the worldwide response to his film. Although Revillon Frères thought of it more or less as a promotional venture and did not even expect to recover their costs, Nanook was picked up for distribution by Pathé, given a New York premiere and went on to be one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty was given a contract by Paramount, and headed off for Samoa to make a film about the native people there; this second film took three years to make, and was not as successful as Nanook, although it was in reference to this film that the word "documentary" was coined (such films had previously been known as "actualities"). Flaherty was next paired with W.S. Van Dyke to make another south seas film, but they had a falling out (Van Dyke was later to make 1933's "Eskimo," the first big-budget, big-screen northern epic of the sound era). After parting ways with Van Dyke, Flaherty was sent to work with German visionary F.W. Murnau to work on a film called "Tabu," but they too soon parted ways. Flaherty then moved to Britain, and worked on some shorter films as well as "Man of Aran," which was set in the remote Aran islands. He then went to work for producer Alexander Korda on a film set in India, to be titled "Elephant Boy," and yet again was fired from the project. Back in the U.S., he worked on several more documentaries, but problems with financing and distribution meant that few of them were ever seen in his lifetime.

One of the stories that Flaherty liked to tell was how Allakariallak, less than two years after Nanook was filmed, had starved to death in the frozen wilderness that was his home. The press loved this story, and it's still frequently repeated today. But it's not true; according to testimony from his son and other family members, Allakariallak died from "white man's disease" -- probably tuberculosis -- at home with his family. He may well have been exposed to it during the time he worked with Flaherty on Nanook.

NB: If you're planning to watch part of all of Nanook online, the best link is this one.

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Savages" On Display

The display of humans to other humans has taken many forms over the ages, but surely there have been few as problematic, and often degrading, as the practice of displaying human beings in zoos. The postcard at left is from Carl Hagenbeck's Hamburg "Tierpark" (Animal Park), and shows a group of Labrador Inuit who appeared there in the fall of 1911. The group included Nancy Columbia, whom Arctic historian Kenn Harper has aptly described as the most famous Inuk of her day; she was born in an Eskimo display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and over the course of her career appeared at well over a dozen world's fairs and expositions from Seattle to St. Louis to Madrid and Paris. She also was featured in a number of early silent films, and wrote he scenario for one of them, "The Way of the Eskimo," which was the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast film ever made; unfortunately it is not known to survive. In the photo above, taken in connection with their appearance at a "Nordland" festival organized by Zoo proprietor Karl Hagenbeck, Nancy is second from the left, with her trademark Princess-Leia style hairdo; her mother, Esther Eneutseak, is third from the right, with a baby in her arms.

Nancy and her mother were the core of this well-known group of "Eskimos," and while they were the best-known and longest-lived such group, they were far from the only ones. Carl Hagenbeck had displayed several other groups of Inuit at his Zoo, starting with Abraham Ulrikab and his family in 1880. Like many such Inuit, Abraham became ill due with a European disease -- smallpox -- and he, his wife, his teenage daughter, nephew, and infant daughter all succumbed with a few weeks of one another. Remarkably, he left a diary, which was recently translated and published. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be quite literally displayed to death.

A full listing of Inuit, along with Inupiat, Yupik, Greenland, and Siberian Eskimos who were put on display in Europe and the U.S., would be a long one, and their life stories would fill many books. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. Nancy Columbia, surely the most famous of them all, retired from shows around 1920, and lived quietly with her mother in Santa Monica, California. She married a motion-picture projectionist, and they had a daughter named Sue who still lives in the area. Nancy Columbia died in 1959, forgotten by the world, but not by those of us who study Arctic history; you can read the essay Kenn Harper and I wrote on her career here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Kayak Full of Ghosts

Men whose intestines have been devoured float up to the moon. A fox trades wives with a worm. A man grows sick from eating too many heads. A woman carves a replica of her dead boyfriend out of blubber, and he comes to life. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, author Lawrence Millman collects a cross-section of the strange world of stories from the peoples of the north, primarily from Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. We've all read books of folklore and traditional tales before, but I'd hazard a guess that none of them were quite as macabre as this. In an interview with the author a few years ago, I asked him why he thought the Inuit of the north told stories so filled with flesh, with blood, and dismemberment; he replied that "in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming. Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there. In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories."

I realize that for some in the class, the content of some of these stories may be very strange, even disturbing. But I would remind everyone that there are quite a few scenes in the Western tradition which are nearly as awful: The evil queen in Snow White is invited to the wedding, but then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead; the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" is forced to dance day and night until a friendly woodchopper cuts off her legs -- and even then, she is met at the door by her still-dancing limbs. In order to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off parts of their heels. Of course, we don't usually think of the details of the original stories, as we are much more familiar with the Disney versions, which clean up all the blood and whistle a happy tune -- but nevertheless they are there.

None of the stories in Millman's book are ever likely to be made into Disney cartoons -- there would be too much that would have to be (if you'll pardon the pun) cut out. But they have secrets to tell us all the same, secrets about the inner life of a people who managed to extract a living in one of the harshest climates on earth, and who knew all too well that to sustain life, life must be taken.

So pick a story from this Kayak -- and describe your reaction to it, recalling that sometimes, that which is disturbing also is that which has the most vital truth to tell.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Inuit Meet the Explorers

For the explorers to meet the Inuit is one thing; for the Inuit to meet the "explorers" is quite another. What can it mean to be "discovered"? And how should one act in the presence of strangers whose clothes seem ragged and poor, but whose wealth -- reckoned up in the form of wood, metal, and manufactured items such as sewing needles and metal knives -- is so vast that it almost destroys the entire Inuit notion of economy? They come to you, starving, dying, frostbitten, gums blackened with scurvy -- and yet even their last few possessions make them rich beyond belief. It's little wonder that, eight or more generations later, these men appear more frequently as demons than as human creatures.

Dorothy Eber has worked collecting Inuit oral history for more than forty years; in 1971, she collaborated with the Inuit artist/writer Pitseolak Ashoona on Pictures Out of my Life, one of the very first published books by an Inuk. In 1996, she published When the Whalers Were Up North, an oral history of the contact and collaboration between Inuit and the crews of whaling vessels in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with all such histories, the vividness of memory, even at a distance of more than a century, is striking.

In all these books, you also see something of the modern life of these Inuit elders and their families. In the late 1950's, most Inuit were forced into permanent settlements, although the older people sometimes returned to camp on the land from time to time. Since there were so many people with identical names, Inuit were first issued numbers printed on dog tags, and later obliged to take last names as part of "Project Surname." The children and grandchildren of these Inuit grew up without much sense of what life out on the land was like, and traditional foods -- seal, walrus, and caribou meat, whale blubber (muktuk) and birds' eggs gave way to more standard southern fare, including canned, frozen, and fried foods. In the 1990's, satellite televisions started to become common, and the Internet arrived in the North; at one point there were more computers per capita in Nunavut than anywhere else in Canada.

And amazingly, throughout all these changes, the Inuit oral tradition continued to thrive, although at times details were lost, or different stories condensed into one. The deaths of the last elders who came of age out on the land meant that the fullest versions of many of these stories were lost, and stories about stories took their place. Ms. Eber's work has preserved what are, alas, very likely the last few versions of stories from these traditions, where the visits of explorers such as Ross, Franklin, and Amundsen are recalled almost as if they had happened yesterday.

These stories challenge us to see our ancestors and ourselves as we were seen by others: strangers, ill-equipped for survival but wealthy with scarce commodities; lost, searching for others who were lost before them, and unable to communicate clearly. Again and again, the Inuit did what they could to help these strangers: they provided food, hunted, and traded with them. And yet it seemed these strange people did not know how to live! The Inuit sometimes made fun of these odd people who yelled at one another and were very concerned about who was the boss (the Isumutaq, 'one who speaks for others'). And, to be fair, they made fun of themselves as well; after chopping a hole in one of the white people's big umiaks in order to get at the things inside, they laughed ruefully when, once the ice thawed, the ship sank to the bottom, taking all the things with it.

These tales carry both hints of the distant past, and the imprint of Inuit culture in the twenty-first century, with all its challenges. What do we hear when we hear these stories today?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Arctic Passage

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but in the process he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2013. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” which aired in the UK, and in the US under the title “Arctic Passage.” I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go these days. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Gjoa Haven, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting off this plane and "heading" to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 10-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 15 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew used to the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes and cautions against conjectures.

One of the experts the producers wanted, the late Roy “Fritz” Koerner, was to meet us in Resolute a few days in. He was a true Arctic veteran, having worked on the ice almost continually since being a part of Sir Wally Herbert’s trek across the Arctic ice-cap on the British Trans-Arctic Expedition of 1968-69. A few years ago, he’d written a scholarly article that suggested ice-core evidence suggested that the years of Franklin’s expedition had been unusually cold. In the article, he cautioned that the type of cores he’d looked at had a +/- 5 year margin of error, and that it was therefore difficult to be precise about the connection with Franklin. The producers, for their part, wanted something definitive: would you say that the period 1845-50 was so cold that Franklin’s ships couldn’t possibly have gotten through? “Well, possibly,” he demurred, “but all we can say with certainty was that the average temperatures over the nearest ten-year period … “ “CUT” called the producer. “Let’s try that again.” Finally, frustrated that Fritz would not offer up the right soundbite to fit the script, the producer switched to more general questions about ships and ice, which she hoped she could edit into something useful later. At the end of the day, Fritz declined a ride back with the crew on our skidoos; instead, he walked the two miles from the location out on the frozen bay back to Resolute, wanting the time, I’m sure, to “cool off”!

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a hundred hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a great deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette of the UK version in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And yet were still further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies -- and vagaries -- of filmmaking. The film aired in England in 2005, and in the US in 2006, where it has since be shown several more times. When it aired in French in Québec, one of its viewers, Dominique Fortier, was so struck by the story that she was inspired to write a novel, On the Proper Use of Stars, which is now being made into a film by Jean-Marc Vallée, director of The Young Victoria. All of which goes to show you can never tell where a story may go next, once it's passed through your hands.

By the way, you can watch the UK version of the documentary for free here.