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Photo Frobisher Bay lavage 1955

Noatak River to the Mackenzie Delta

Abraham Okpik
After Alaska was bought from the Russians, whalers from around here were surveying. They did find whales after they got through, and that’s when they opened up the whaling stations, around 1882. The boats were arriving when my great-grandparents were old. My grandparents were young and my parents were soon to be born… The Inuit predicted, by using their supernatural powers, that the ships would come. … When the whaling ships came, they traded their furs through Charlie Brower…

In the old camps there were a hundred and twenty people who died from measles or chicken pox. It was a terrible shock to them. My great-grandfather decided that we better leave this land. We couldn’t live in this cursed land. They called it the Big Death. They had never experienced anything like this before. So they decided to trek to Canada… They left their country because they didn’t know what was happening. As they travelled, they died. They got older, moved on, and decided to come to this holy land.
Abe’s ancestors came to Canada from Alaska, which was still a Russian territory at the time. They lived in log houses covered in sod, and survived on caribou, sheep and fish.

Before the turn of the century, whaling boats came through the Bering Strait, and brought with them such illnesses as chicken pox, measles, flu and pneumonia. The native Northern populations had no way to combat such disease and entire families were completely wiped out.

Abe recalls some of the stories that he heard as a child, stories of the spirits of the air, the eagle and the loon; spirits of the land, the weasel, the wolf and the ptarmigan; the spirits of the sea, the whales, the seals and Sedna.

The elders believed that they could communicate with this supernatural world, and that by chanting or playing musical instruments they could speak to and understand the animals.

Abe remembers stories about the inugarulliit, small, but incredibly strong people; and the story of a shaman who changed himself into a caribou, to lead the caribou to a region where animals were scarce.

Games such as the blanket toss, where children are bounced on a tightly stretched blanket, had their origins in necessity: in the absence of tools such as binoculars, a member of the community (with very good eyesight!) was bounced as high as possible to see very far.

Even the name “Tuktoyaktuk” has its origin in legend. Abe’s mother had a knowledge of nature and its cycles that did not come from books or schooling.