Elizabeth: An Elder Inuk Remembers Her Life

Article excerpt

The name of the informant has been changed. This story took place in Arvilinghaurmiut, which is in the Pelly Bay area of Kitikmeot, in the Canadian Arctic.

I first went to the Canadian Arctic in November 1972. It was my intention to remain there for about a year and then move on. I left over ten years later and I still miss the friendships, loyalties, and sheer excitement of living amidst the homeland of the Canadian Inuit. Through my work in the Arctic I enjoyed conversations with many Inuit, particularly the elderly. One such conversation took place on June 23, 1978.

I had heard of Old Elizabeth, an Elder Inuk,(1) but thought she had died several years previously. I was mistaken, though, and on June 23, 1978 while I was staying in a particular settlement, Elizabeth's grandson and his partner came to retrieve me. "Elizabeth wishes to speak with you." Needless to say, I was surprised. I thought I knew everyone in this settlement. I considered it a great honour that one so respected throughout Kitikmeot(2) would even consider having a conversation with me.

Her grandson took me to the home of his father. I was invited into a small bedroom, simple and full of light. Sitting up in the bed was Old Elizabeth. Elizabeth, one of the oldest Inuit alive, was about 89 years old. She welcomed me to her home and quietly dismissed her grandson, but asked his partner to stay and interpret because as she said in Inuktitut, "This is women's talk and men do not understand."(3)

She told me she had heard that I was a writer and not just a social worker. She knew many people trusted me and she wanted me to write her story. I promised Elizabeth that I would ensure that those who read her thoughts and words would be sensitive to the pains and struggles which women endure, regardless of age or race.

Old Elizabeth began her story by showing me the tattoos on her arms, explaining how the tattoos were a sign of beauty when she was a young girl. She had many beautiful tattoos.

Patiently, she told me stories of her youth. She told me of the first kablunaq,(4) they called him Kapitaq His brother was Nakoonauq, the cross-eyed one, she explained with a twinkle in her old eyes. These were the first non-Inuit persons she had ever met. She told me how her mother cared for the brothers, as they were without family and far from their homeland. The Inuit felt pity for these men who "must have been so shy that they did not know how to hunt or fish. They were so pitiful." She told me of the first Hudson's Bay man in Mattuq. "He was a tall man who once whaled the Hudson's Bay coast." Elizabeth also told me many things about these men and of Knut Rasmussen.(5) Elizabeth wanted to make sure white people understood that the Inuit were caring for these men because they were new to this land of the Inuit, and these tall, muscular men did not know how to live, much less survive. They were helpless against the extremes of the Arctic. It was with kindness that the Arvilinghaurmiut(6) helped "these poor unfortunate creatures."

This information is very important because history books have been inaccurate, particularly in regards to Knut Rasmussen who, it is noted in several accounts, was kidnapped by the Arvilinghaurmiut. The information which Elizabeth gave, and which was later submitted to the Archives in Ottawa, and to the government of the Northwest Territories, was that Knut Rasmussen was, in fact, not kidnapped. Rather, he was extremely ill and the Inuit looked after-him for a full winter season. They fed him, cared for him, provided him with shelter, so he could regain his strength and continue upon his journeys.

She spoke to me of her first husband, whom she loved with all the tenderness of youth. As was the custom, the young couple lived in the home of the husband's parents. Her husband's mother did not care for Elizabeth, and cast her out from their igloo. Her husband had gone hunting. He was gone for many months, and thus he had no idea that Elizabeth had been cast out. …