Nanook of the North, widely considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time, was produced in 1922 by an adventurous if surprisingly amateurish filmmaker, Robert Flaherty. Though Flaherty went on to create other similar dramatic films involving native peoples,
Nanook was his triumph. It cast the Inuit people of the Arctic in a romantic light, inspiring a generation of explorers, missionaries, and rogues to believe that they uniquely understood the icebound region.
Flaherty's film had another spin-off – while involved in the filming on location, he shamelessly consorted with its female star, Maggie Nujarluktuk, known to filmgoers as Nyla. Maggie, perhaps unable to say no to the dynamic (and married)
qalunaat (white foreigner) or simply offering hospitality in the traditional manner, was five months pregnant when Flaherty left her and her people and went home to put together his cinematic view of her simple life in the
Her son, Josephie (Flaherty's middle name was Joseph), becomes the central character in Melanie McGrath's prose portrait of the exploitation and destruction of the Inuit that followed by degrees during Josephie's lifespan. Being a half-breed, the young man was "awarded" a humble post as handyman, errand boy, and general servant at the radio outpost of the locally stationed Canadian Mounties. Josephie was the stepson of a noted craftsman, Paddy Aqiatusuk, whose soapstone carvings of animals were known worldwide. Paddy often visited Josephie and his family in the hut that the Mounties provided for them.
This rather placid existence was terminated when a decision was made to transplant some of the Inuit to Ellesmere Island. It was a strategic colonization that had nothing to do with the needs or desires of the native people. Many of the white men who were responsible for this decision believed themselves to be friends of the Inuit, but they were blind to the hardships they were placing the people under. Assuming that, like the documentary's "stars" Nanook and Nyla, all Inuit could survive in harsh wilderness, they consigned them to one of the least habitable places on earth. As time went by Inuit culture began to fracture. Paddy Aqiatusuk died of exhaustion and homesickness. One of Josephie's daughters was taken away as a toddler with no explanation because she had TB, and somehow was returned to him - permanently traumatized. His daughter Martha, who became an outspoken advocate for Inuit rights, remembers that at a very early age, she realized her parents were powerless – not just powerless to object to what the white overlords were doing to them, but powerless to feed and clothe the family in the pitiless environment where they had been cast. Gradually, the Inuit who survived the privations of life on Ellesmere became the degraded playthings of the white civil servants and soldiers who ruled their territory.
Everyone who encountered the Inuit before the events detailed in this book described them as a happy, generous, well-organized, cohesive and dignified group. Those who encountered the residents of Ellesmere Island some sixty years later found a ragged collection of alcoholic, prostituted, depressed and deprived individuals. This saga, told in vivid, evocative language by award-winning author and journalist McGrath (Hotel Nirvana), deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the preservation of indigenous cultures.
As soon as I finished the last page, I ordered a copy of Nanook of the North from Netflix, so that I could re-experience a sense, which The Long Exile had stirred in me, of what life would once have been like for innocent native peoples in the Arctic.