Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Girls in "White" Dresses, Pretend Fathers: Interracial Sexuality and Intercultural Community in the Canadian Arctic

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Girls in "White" Dresses, Pretend Fathers: Interracial Sexuality and Intercultural Community in the Canadian Arctic

Article excerpt

On Christmas Eve, 1903, an eclectic group gathered on the D.G.S. Neptune, a Canadian ship deployed to the Arctic to conduct geological surveys, to "patrol the waters of Hudson bay [...] [and] to aid in the establishment [...] of permanent stations for the collection of customs, the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law" (Low 3). One reason the Neptune was sent north was to locate the Era, the lone American whaler wintering in the Bay that year, in order to ensure that it was complying with new customs regulations imposed by the Canadian government. The Neptune certainly succeeded: it was able to keep a close eye on the American whaler while the two ships spent the winter together near Fullerton Harbour, located approximately 650km northeast of Churchill, Manitoba. Over the winter of 1903-04, the men and officers of the two ships socialized extensively, and on Christmas Eve, the Era's whalemen and local Inuit joined the police constables, scientists, crew, and officers of the Neptune to celebrate the holiday. Whaling captain George Comer described the evening in his diary:

   Dancing was kept up till 2 AM--but our time in the cabin not
   till 4 AM where a very liberal supply of all good things was set
   forth. [...] A toast was drunk to the success of the schooner
   and my health. At the dance were a couple of the crew rigged
   up as Old Neptune and his wife and they acted their part
   exceedingly well. (84)

Lorris Elijah Borden, the Neptune's surgeon, adds to Comer's observations in his own diary, noting that the evening began with a "big feed for the natives" (57) and that dancing was for "sailors & natives," not commissioned officers and scientific staff {Lost 58). The evening was enjoyable for all members of the shipboard community; however, two distinct celebrations took place: the crew, police constables, (1) and Inuit were on the upper deck, enjoying a large meal and a dance, punctuated by the appearance of men dressed as Neptune and his wife, while the officers and scientists briefly appeared at the dance then retired to Low's quarters to celebrate privately. (2)

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From Comer and Borden's descriptions, it appears that this shipboard celebration was divided along lines of rank, with racial differences between Inuit and qallunaat (non-Inuit) being managed by grouping Inuit as part of the same social group as crew. A photograph taken to commemorate the festivities, likely taken by Major Moodie, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police Superintendent, not only provides an image of the celebrations but also hints, in a way that the diary entries do not, that the dance functioned as a site where racial differences were strategically manipulated and enacted through social performance.

The men dressed as Neptune and his wife draw the viewer's gaze to the centre of the photograph because of their position at the focal point, their height, and their prominent costuming; however, if one instead focuses on the women on either side of them, another form of costuming becomes apparent, suggesting That racial difference emerges as a site of contestation at the dance. (3) The women are wearing jackets and skirts made out of calico cloth in the style of "white" clothing, as opposed to the fur and skin clothing they often wore in photographs. (4)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The women's choice to wear "white" clothing to this and other dances held during the winter, along with their participation in shipboard square dances, demonstrates one way that Inuit and non-Inuit relied on costuming and social performance to facilitate intercultural sociability and, specifically, interracial sexual relationships. By providing clothing that made Inuit women appear more "white" and teaching them square dances, whalers could ostensibly contain the threat posed by "going native" through miscegenation; however, the clothing also highlighted the women's racial alterity and may have fetishized the women for the qallunaat men. …

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