Manitoba History: Book Review: Karen Routledge, Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away.

by Margaret Bertulli
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 89, Spring 2019

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Karen Routledge, Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018, 272 pages. ISBN 978-0-226-58013-5, $50.00 (hard cover)

“Do you see ice?” These were the yearning words uttered by the dying Inuk, Kudlago, aboard a whaling vessel returning to his Arctic homeland inc 1860. This book is a sensitive exploration of the worldviews of the Inuit of Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island and of ‘Qallunaat’ (non-Inuit visitors) engaged in the whaling industry from the 1850s to the 1920s. Ideas of home and homeland are interwoven with Elders’ stories, the written works of whalers and explorers, and the recorded experiences of Inuit who lived in the United States for extended periods. In encountering the others’ homeland, both Inuit and Americans often experienced it as a perilous and forbidding place.

The book comprises four chapters: American whalers in Cumberland Sound in the 1850s when vessels began overwintering; the experiences of Inuit Ipiirvik and Tookoolito in the United States with explorer Charles Francis Hall; American and Inuit perceptions as seen through the eyes of an enlisted man and a West Greenlander at the International Polar Year research base on northern Ellesmere Island; and the final chapter and epilogue, which return to Cumberland Sound to understand the changes in Inuit society in the early 1900s when the whaling industry had depleted bowhead stocks. Throughout the book is a well-articulated sense of how both Inuit and Qallunaat strove to feel at home in an unfamiliar place when in the other’s homeland. The author portrays a sense of the dichotomy between the Inuit’s profound attachment to homeland and the Qallunaat assertion that the Arctic was not suitable for human occupation.

In the first chapter, the author delineates whalers’ attempts to adjust to Arctic life through aspects of Inuit-Qallunaat interaction around the six seasons: aujaq (summer); ukiaksaaq (early fall); ukiak (late fall); ukiuq (winter); upingaksaaq (early spring); and upingaaq (spring). In summer, Inuit gathered berries and travelled inland from the coast to hunt caribou for skins indispensible to tailoring clothing while whalers pursued the final bowheads leaving Cumberland Sound. Early and late fall was the time when whalers often found themselves in disastrous circumstances, deserters were not uncommon and assistance from Inuit was required for survival. The over-wintering whalers felt isolated, and winter was endured by awaiting the sun’s return and dreading scurvy. Inuit of Cumberland Sound saw this time as an opening of the land and sea for travel and reconnection with one another as contrasted with late fall when they were restricted by unformed sea ice and uncertain hunting. In early spring, scurvy took its toll amongst the whalers. In late spring, whalers returned to the hunt, implacable in their pursuit of the sea mammal and aspiring to amass personal wealth.

The story of Tookoolito and Ipiirvik (nicknamed Hannah and Joe by whalers) enlightens the chapter on Inuit in the United States. By the mid-1800s, about two dozen Inuit had visited the United States, and amongst certain families in Cumberland Sound there was a ‘culture of overseas travel.’ In the 1860s and ‘70s, Hannah and Joe were widely travelled. The personal cost of their sojourn in the States, however, was high: the death of two children, serious illness, numerous disappointments, and longing for home. The expectation of dealing with Qallunaat priorities was onerous as the couple was stereotypically and exhaustingly exhibited in major public venues, judged by strangers, and subjected to the authority of Charles Hall who controlled the couple’s finances and movements, considering their needs inferior to his own. The death of their son Tarralikitaq, from which Hannah almost did not recover, was especially sorrowful as, not being amongst their families in Cumberland Sound, the couple could not bestow their child’s name on another to alleviate their grief. Illness and death often came to Inuit on these trips away from their homeland, as the maintenance of their health depended upon being in balance with their environment. Hannah died in Groton, Connecticut in 1876 at the age of 38 and Ipiirvik returned to the Arctic in 1878.

The third chapter counterpoints the previous one, as it deals with Americans in the High Arctic. This story occurs at Fort Conger, the site of the American expedition of the First International Polar Year, commanded by Adolphus Greely from 1881-84. Routledge explores the cultural perspectives of two of those who perished: Philadelphian Sergeant Hampden Gardiner and West Greenlander Jens Edvard Angutisiak. For the first two years, work progressed well, in relative comfort and without deprivation. When resupply ships failed to appear in two summers, Greely ordered that the expedition depart Fort Conger and move south to find cached supplies or encounter a resupply ship. Like many disastrous expeditions overshadowed by the Qallunaat consciousness of an inhospitable Arctic, it ended in questionable decision-making, starvation, cannibalism, murder and death. Ultimately, only six of the twenty-five men survived.

Noting that the expedition transpired in a place remote for both Inuit and Qallunaat, the author structures her adumbration of events around four meteorological marks: the disappearance of the sun below the horizon in October 1881; the winter solstice of 1881; the reappearance of the sun in February 1884; and the summer solstice of June 1884 when the survivors were rescued. Her synopsis focuses on Inuit and Qallunaat fears and the realization of those fears. With the disappearance of the sun in October 1881 descended an intense silence and isolation for both Qallunaat and Inuit. Gardiner recorded ‘the shock’ of this first winter. The High Arctic was ‘a void’ and he an ‘infinitely diminutive creature lost in space.’ The expedition’s existence around the winter solstice of 1881 was enlivened by Christmas celebrations including Mrs. Greely’s plum pudding. Angutisiak did not share in this festivity although he would have been familiar with Christmas from his life in Greenland. Angutisiak simply walked away from Fort Conger without supplies or adequate clothing with temperatures around minus 33 degrees centigrade. He was later found twenty miles north. The others regarded this as a reckless and irrational act. But from Angutisiak’s perspective, perhaps he was running away in desperation from paternalistic treatment, discrimination, racial stereotyping, and behaviours such as displays of anger that Inuit would have abhorred. Angutisiak may have walked away but not necessarily to die, as, in his ethos, the land contained more possibilities in other realms than it did for Americans. In 1883, the retreat south began. Marked, by the author, with the reappearance of the sun in February 1884, the men suffered privation beyond imagination and took refuge at Cape Sabine as, one by one, they began to die.

As alien and dissonant as Fort Conger had seemed, it was preferable to the straits in which they were now enmeshed. Inuit had routinely undertaken long-distance journeys and succeeded by applying their profound knowledge of the land; the Qallunaat of Fort Conger were not able to replicate these feats in their unknowing dismissal of Inuit traditional knowledge. In March 1884 the sun returned to Cape Sabine, and in April 1884 Angutisiak drowned while seal hunting ‘without uttering a single cry for assistance.’ On the summer solstice of June 1884, seven men were rescued, one day from death, by USS Bear. Gardiner died just days before the rescue and another shortly after. The consequent media coverage, with its descriptions of privation and hints of cannibalism, underscored the Qallunaat sense of the Arctic as a desperate place where such outcomes were necessarily attendant.

The final chapter explores how Inuit life continued in Cumberland Sound in the early 20th century at the end of the whaling era. Throughout the book, Routledge uses the words of Inuit Elders to elucidate her treatise; this is one of the book’s strong points. This chapter begins with the story of Etooangat whose father received gifts of a barrel of tobacco, matches and a clock from whalers. He discarded them all as items useless to him at the time, but later regretted their loss. Again, the author uses a seasonal approach to show that Inuit practiced a selective acceptance of Qallunaat possessions and ideas.

The whaling era was marked by increasing disruption in the Inuit seasonal round and customs; yet strong notions of the sense of being in balance and proper relationship with compatriots and the land remained. For example, the sea goddess Sedna was still acknowledged, and an attenuated form of shamanism was syncretized with Christian doctrine to create a flexible belief system in which Inuit ideals of consensus decision-making and the interactive nature of all beings with the land were maintained. Changes in the seasonal round reflected the employment of Inuit men in the whaling industry. For example, women conducted spring sealing while men worked at the stations. The traditional inland caribou hunt at Nettilling Lake was curtailed and, a few decades later (by the 1940s), government restrictions prohibited Inuit from hunting caribou, a measure which struck at the core of Inuit society by reducing socializing and preventing access to a crucial resource.

The epilogue discusses the resettlement of Inuit from Cumberland Sound to the community of Pangnirtung in the 1960s. Prompted by the Canadian government, this revolution caused larger societal changes than the whaling industry. Many Inuit felt that they had made irreversible sacrifices for promises not realized; that traditional lifeways and knowledge were falling by the wayside. Resettlement hindered access to their home on the land. Over the decades, Inuit have responded by becoming international leaders in Indigenous peoples’ rights and using art forms to share their messages.

Qallunaat may not understand how the Arctic is the Inuit homeland and that access to the homeland is the very definition of the people. Routledge’s book helps to elucidate these notions and would be of interest to scholars and others with an Arctic interest. I appreciated the way in which the author weaves her own method of story-telling with that of Inuit Elders in the connection of many variables of Inuit and Qallunaat interaction, by using the seasonal round and meteorological markers. The book leaves the reader with a better understanding of what home and Arctic lands mean to the people who live and know how to survive there.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021