|The Ulrikab family of Hebron, Labrador, |
photo taken in1880 (Wikipedia), when
they did not have long to live.
France used to be a reluctant IT consultant, unhappy in her job, in a state of mild depression until, about 10 years ago, she treated herself to a short holiday at a lodge in the far north, on Cunningham Inlet, Somerset Island. It is nothing like Somerset in the UK, up there, the lodge only open for half the year, the surroundings bare and wild. Beluga whales play in the inlet, rubbing off their old skins in the summer, and you can observe them from a watchtower rising from the shallow water.
France was so cheered up by her arctic experience that she went back again the following year, by which point, having been inspired by like-minded people from Europe whom she met at the lodge and on an icebreaker trip, she had decided to quit her job and dedicate herself to the creation of a polar centre within Canada. Back in Ottawa she organised a photography exhibition, the first initiative of Polar Horizons. A film festival followed and the creation of a bookstore dealing in Arctic themed books. France kept taking herself to Northern Canada. In 2009 she went on a cruise up the north Labrador coast, meeting a German photographer who told her about the tragedy concerning Abraham Ulrikab and his family, nineteenth century Inuit from the "Hebron" community, a Moravian mission in Labrador.
Abraham (who didn't actually have a surname: Ulrikab is an amalgam of his and his wife's given names) was a converted Christian who worked as an interpreter for visitors such as the Norwegian explorer Jacobsen, whose plan was to bring native people to Europe, to exhibit them there. At the end of the summer of 1880, he took eight Inuit with him on a ship across the Atlantic: Abraham, who was 36, his younger wife and their three children, plus another family of three. They arrived in Hamburg in September and by the end of the following January all of them were dead. Their story is shocking and remembered in some detail, because Abraham, who was literate, kept a diary, written in Inuktitut, which has since been retrieved and translated into several languages. Incidentally he was also an accomplished violinist. He had agreed to go abroad because he was promised enough money to pay off his father's debts to the Hebron mission. "Our way is destined by the Lord!" he wrote, poor man. His pastor was not keen for him to go.
When they reached Germany, instead of being given the opportunity to meet other Moravians, as Abraham had expected, and to visit the sites of Europe, they were moved into an enclosure in a zoo, into purpose built huts, beside the animals. Every day at the zoo they had to give demonstrations of their traditional culture: seal hunting (with real seals if they could be obtained; if not, their son had to dress in a seal skin and act the part of the seal) or showing off their dogs, who had been shipped over too, or their kayaks. By October Abraham had already realised that he had made a terrible mistake in agreeing to leave Labrador; then in December, at Christmas in Darmstadt, his fifteen year old son fell sick and died. The families were transferred to another zoo, in Krefeld, where Abraham's wife Ulrike also became ill, and then her three year old daughter was taken to hospital where they diagnosed smallpox. By law, Jacobsen should have had them all inoculated before leaving their homeland, but he hadn't bothered. The little girl died on New Year's Eve when her parents were already far away, in Paris, on show at the Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. They didn't last long. On January 9th, 1881, all the others were admitted to hospital with the smallpox, not one of them surviving, the mother Ulrike the longest; she died on January 16th.
They were buried in St. Ouen cemetery, but it wasn't long before their bodies were exhumed for "research" purposes. By 1886 the remains of five of the Inuit were being stored in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where skulls and skeletons of other "primitive" peoples were also on display, from Australia, Africa, etc. The skeletons were hung upright and plaster casts were made of their brains, even though the Inuit believe that a corpse has to lie horizontal so that its soul can be at rest.
When France Rivet learned of this tragic story she decided to make it her mission to bring the still archived remains of the Inuits back to their homeland. She couldn't do the job unaided. A living relative of the Inuit family had to make the request via the Canadian Embassy so this entailed a lot of research and administration. France crowd-funded $17,000 to help with this work. In the end both government officials and native Elders collaborated with her, including Zippie Nochasak, a lady Inuit Parks Canada guide who may have been a relative of the other Inuit family taken to the zoos. The Elders of various tribes quickly reached a consensus that the remains must be brought home. France also met the great-grandson of one of the zoo owners as well as descendants of Jacobsen. They all co-operated; her presentation included photos of these present day people. Apparently, at one point in the meetings, a butterfly suddenly appeared, flying around in a library. The researchers were in awe at its appearance, butterflies being representative of human spirits in Inuit culture.
Roch Brunette made a documentary film about all this, that was shown on TV about a year ago.
France Rivet's life is no longer "meaningless and unrewarding," she told us. She is no longer depressed. She quoted a French ethnologist Paul-Émile Victor who wrote: "Adventure is a state of mind. It lives in a man's heart."
Our evening of "Northern Footsteps" continued by a musical performance by an aboriginal folk group, Twin Flames, their origins Algonquin / Cree / Métis / Mohawk / Inuk.