Day 7: Inuit Culture at Pond Inlet, Baffin Island – (Sept 03)

Today we arrived at the hamlet of Pond Inlet, our first community stop since we started our journey in Cambridge Bay. European and American whalers hunting bowhead frequented these waters throughout the 19th century. The first whaling station was built here in 1903, but the industry soon collapsed. In 1929, Anglican and Catholic missions were erected. A federal government school was built here in the 1960s that included residences for Inuit children whose families still lived out on the land. Most local Inuit people abandoned their nomadic subsistence-hunting lifestyles and moved into public housing in Pond Inlet, although some families would not. Today there are still some intrepid Inuit people living traditionally on the land in special places known as 'outpost camps.

The St. Roch made stops at Pond Inlet on both of its historic voyages through the Northwest Passage (1940-42, 1944). On the 1944 journey back through the Passage skipper Henry Larsen hired an Inuit guide named Joe Panipakuttuk, who was from Pond Inlet.

The VMM had made an excellent connection with Pond Inlet Librarian and Archivist, Philippa Ootoowak, on last year’s One Ocean voyage and so we wanted to make another appearance with Philippa this year. As part of a grant from the Canadian Heritage department, the VMM created a pop-up exhibit of the secret mission which resulted in the St. Roch making its historic Northwest Passage. We delivered the banners to the archives this morning, which had French and English text, and an accompanying booklet, which has been translated into Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Once the rest of the group from the Iöffe had arrived at the Library/Visi tor centre we were welcomed by community members who were going to make a presentation of Inuit culture. Our group had arrived at the same time as a 200 passenger French ship La Boreal. Naturally, this led to a great deal of chaos and confusion at the small visitor centre.

When we were seated, the performance began with the Canadian national anthem in Inuktitut and was followed by a demonstration of events in the Arctic Games. Events include feats of strength where men wrestle with one another (the muskox push for instance), but perhaps the most impressive events are the high-kick events. There are several variations (using one foot or two) where the men attempt to jump and kick a target suspended above the ground. The performers also gave demonstrations of drum dancing through which we learned that the drum dancer’s job is to mimic the movements of Arctic animals such as the Polar Bear, the Raven, and the Caribou.

The Inuit love to smile and laugh together and we were told that smiling is a sign of respect. Even some of their competitions are based around trying to make your opponent laugh. Throat singing is a competition in which there is a leader and a follower using 4 different types of tones with their voices and the intent is to either make your opponent laugh or lose their breath. What appears as an intense competition always breaks down into hilarity.

Following the cultural presentation, we were taken on a tour of Pond inlet where we saw the elementary school and high school, the grocery stores and various administrative buildings. When we arrived at Pond Inlet it was a relatively calm day and the hamlet was covered in a fresh dusting of snow. By the time we were on our tour, however, the wind had come up and there was snow blowing in all directions. This sudden change in weather made for a bumpy and invigorating zodiac ride back to the ship.

Ken Burton gave the afternoon talk today and spoke about the historic voyage of the St. Roch as well as his voyage in 2000 aboard the St. Roch II. As everyone who is familiar with the VMM and Arctic history is aware, the St. Roch was the first vessel to complete the Northwest Passage from west to east as well as being the first to complete the more northern deep water route of the Northwest Passage and to circumnavigate North America both ways.

Tomorrow we continue down the east coast of Baffin Island as we begin a few days of fjord-hopping.

Words by Duncan MacLeod – Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum. Photographs by Ken Burton – Executive Director, Vancouver Maritime Museum and Duncan MacLeod.