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Photo Inuit graphic artist and sculptor Kenojuak Ashevak

First Contacts with Christianity

The first Anglican missionary, when my mother and her cousins were teenagers, was Isaac Stringer. …That was in the early part of the century…. There was no law! They didn’t have any books or anything else to go by, only hearsay.

When they were converted they tried to follow the religion solemnly, I am assuming, like everybody else did. But there were so many rules to follow that they couldn’t understand. It was different from their old religion. About that time, there were some shamans who still practised their old supernatural communication. Some of them were still practising until late, even up to my time when I was born. …But the younger generation started to take over, and they wanted to forget shamanism because it was the work of the devil.
It was Abe’s parents’ generation who were first introduced to Christianity through their contact with missionaries in the North, at the turn of the century. Abe’s father came from a family of sheep hunters, who sold the sheep in turn for such necessities as molasses. All 3 of the children in Abe’s family were confirmed in the Anglican Church. They tried hard to follow the “new rules,” to practice the new tradition with nobility and respect.

Some shamans continued their traditional way, however, and the missionaries worked hard to convince them that their traditions and beliefs were wrong. The difference between the practices is no more apparent than in their approaches to rites surrounding death: in the Christian rite, “when you bury someone you have to put them in a box and bury them [in the ground].” Traditionally, the Inuit would be “taken to the highest place on the land and put on a knoll or a mound. They put them up there as an honour,” and covered with a skin and some logs, and perhaps some rocks. In fact, there is too much permafrost in some regions in the North to make burials possible.