Chesterfield Inlet, the oldest settlement in the Canadian Arctic, has a fascinating history that live on today in the memories of its treasured Elders. by David F. Pelly


She has been called "grandmother of Chesterfield Inlet." Although her precise age is unknown, Leonie Sammurtok is either mother, grandmother, or great grandmother to more than half the people in this hamlet on the western coast of Hudson Bay. Chesterfield (Igluligaarjuk) is the oldest settlement in the Canadian Arctic, and Leonie Sammurtok has been here from the beginning.

"My parents were living at Cape Fullerton," she says, The early post of the Royal Northwest Mounted police which was located 125 km up the coast of Hudson Bay from Chesterfield Inlet. "My father worked for the police, remember him going out on patrols with the policeman we called Keekiaksik - I don't know his English name. I remember because I got tired of my father being gone for so long,"

In the spring of 1914, Leonie's father, Johnny Tamanguluk, set out by dogteam to get the mail from Churchill, 700 kilometres across Hudson Bay from Fullerton. "The ice melted, so he couldn't come back. He sent word to us, and told us to come down here from Fullerton. That was the first time I remember seeing this community. There were very few people here then. Just a few Inuit camped up on top of the hill. My father came back to Chesterfield on the Nascopie later that summer.

The only buildings Leonie remembers were the small grey mission house built by Father Turquetil, and the first Hudson's Bay Company buildings -"small ones, with slanted roofs." Both the Bay and the Roman Catholic ."Church had established their outposts on the west coast of Hudson Bay two years earlier.

Their representatives arrived together, on the same ship from Montreal, disembarking on September 3rd, 1912 to the sandy beach where Chesterfield Inlet stands today. Trading quickly became part of life for the Inuit of the region. Religion took a little longer, but in 1917 the first four Inuit families were baptized, Leonie's among them.

One of the families camped at Chesterfield Inlet when Leonie's family moved in was composed of Aguatik, his wife Nanaouk, and their adopted daughter Mary Nuvak, who was then six years old - just slightly older than Leonie. Leonie and Mary have been close friends ever since.

Aguatik worked for the first HBC trader. Solomon Ford. "We called him Isuumatatnak, the little boss. -and he could speak Inuktitut. "He was all right," recalls Mary Nuvak.

Mary, now 84, remembers the early work of the missionaries "They would show pictures of Jesus Christ and on Sundays they would have church services That's how they got people involved in the religion. That changed a part of our culture. There were a few who became Catholics right away, but it was a long time before they had a big parish."

Mary speaks of those transitional day's with a hint of lasting frustration. She is among the very few people in Chesterfield Inlet who did not join the Roman Catholic Church

"They were trying to change the Inuit. Back then we had shamans, who used to heal sick people The Church didn't want Inuit to practise shamanism. The missionaries said we were praying to the wrong faith. But Inuit didn't think shamanism was wrong.

"I remember when I was a child, there was a man who got sick and swollen. A shaman cured him and he lived to be an older person. Shamans were not terrible people. They did save lives But when the Church came we lost the shamans"

Both Mary and Leonie remember Father Turquetil's efforts to teach them how to read Inuktitut syllabics "But we were so young. we didn't understand what he was trying to teach us," Mary says "We didn't learn syllabics."

For Inuit still living nearby in semi-nomadic camps, the highlight of those early years in Chesterfield Inlet was the annual arrival of HBC's supply ship, the Nascopie. But the crew had few happy memories of the settlement

Recalled the chief engineer, J. Ledingham, "Chesterfield has absolutely no shelter, and it is exposed to all winds; bare, barren, weather beaten, rocks all-round; gales frequently."

The Nascopie brought supplies for the whole region. In the 1920s, the Fort Chesterfield, a smaller schooner (called Umiajuatnak by the Inuit), relayed goods to more remote posts at Baker Lake, Wager Inlet and Repulse Bay, establishing the transportation and communications network that bound together the people of the Keewatin.

When the ship came in, people were happy, Leonie recalls. Not only did its arrival mean replenished shelves at the trading post; the job of unloading also gave many families the chance to earn the credit they needed to stock up on flour, tea, tobacco and bullets before heading back out on the land for the fall caribou hunt.

Unloading was a labour-intensive process. "They would tie two whaler boats together to make a barge, and pile the supplies on top," Mary explains. "Those two boats would go back and forth between the ship and the beach. But they couldn't unload when the tide was out. While they waited for the tide, we ended up dancing and having fun. When the tide came in, they started unloading again. They never slept. But we never seemed to get tired back then. There were lots of people here around ship time. Right after the ship was unloaded and people were paid, they would go back out on the land until Christmas.

"Then, for that week, there were lots of igloos built along the shoreline right in front of the mission, and lots of people walking around, all wearing caribou clothing. There would be times out on the sea ice and at night we would gather at the mission to play games. We played all sorts - like the finger-pull, and where two people lock wrists and try to pull each other - games of strength. Somebody would play the accordion, and everyone would dance. We were happy. That would go on all week, right up to New Years'. Then they started to go back out to their camps."

The "somebody" playing the accordion was frequently Mary herself. According to local stories, her dexterity on the keyboard was unsurpassed. She dismisses such praise. "When people are happy, it is really easy to play."

When Leonie and Mary were teenagers, one of the most famous expeditions in Arctic history passed through Chesterfield Inlet. Knud Rasmussen's Fifth Thule Expedition traveled by dogsled down the coast of Hudson Bay in 1921. Both women still remember Rasmussen's visit, but say no one in the community really understood the expedition's purpose (In fact,.it produced a comprehensive ethnological description of the Caribou Inuit, among others.) Knud Rasmussen, a Dane, was born in Greenland, the son of an Inuit mother. Mention of his name in Inuktitut - Kuunuut - brings a smile to Mary's serene face. "I was just about 13 at the time. Kuunuut had a son back in Greenland, and he wanted to take me back there to marry his son." Her parents said no.

The Chesterfield Inlet Leonie and Mary knew in their childhood consisted of a few simple buildings, just enough to house the triumvirate that reigned here as it did across the North: the Bay, the Church, and the police. To each was attached a family of Inuit, who served as guides, labourers and interpreters The Inuit lived in igloos and tents alongside the Qallunaaq until a few privileged families were given small houses. The Sammurtok family's house was provided by the RCMP.

Mary moved into her own first house after she was married and her first child was born. In those days, her husband worked for the Ministry of Transport.

Another event stands out in Mary's memory. Shortly after her son Aupaluktuq was born, the first airplane arrived in Chesterfield. "It was yellow, and it had two sets of wings, one on top of the other. I remember it doing fly pasts, and flying under a wire that stretched from a pole down to the trader's house, flying very close to the hill. We were really surprised. All the older ladies, including my mother, were standing outside watching, but when the plane came toward them, they ran into the tent!"

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