Sunday, August 19, 2018

A tale of two settlements ...

Moravian Mission House, Hopedale Labrador
Two of the most remarkable places I've visited in the north are bound together both with parallel and broken lines: founded as settlements by Moravian missionaries, one still has and active congregation and community, while the other is connected mainly by memory, a memory of exile and loss.

We first visited the community of Hopedale, the place from which 16-year-old Esther Eneutseak departed in 1893 on her way to the World’s Columbian Exposition’s “Esquimaux Village,” where her daughter Nancy would be born. Her story is still remembered here; David Igluiorte, the keeper of the town’s museum tells me they always call her “Columbia,” not Nancy, which was true even in her own family. The museum also showcases the cultural history of this heterogeneous community, one of the few where Inuit were taught to play brass instruments; a community band’s recordings are on offer in the gift shop. Within the enormous mission house, more traces of history distant and recent: the roof of the house, erected by the first Moravian missionaries in 1782, is patched in places with shipping containers bearing the names of companies such as Frigidaire and Zenith. The local lay  minister still holds weekly services in the original church, and the replica schoolroom, — now used as the town’s Sunday School — sports children’s colored drawings of the twelve Apostles, and a large rainbow beneath which a cartoon Noah proclaims, “God keeps his promises.”

Partly restored chapel at Hebron
How different the building — structurally almost identical — at the former Moravian settlement of Hebron, a day’s journey by ship further north. Although recently repaired and given a fresh coat of white paint by the Parks Canada staff who are here seasonally, its inhabitants are long gone — forcibly removed and relocated by the provincial government in 1959. Hebron had always been hard to maintain — the mission house required enormous amounts of wood to heat, and the nearest trees were 60 kilometers to the south — and from the point of view of the government, it was expensive to maintain. But the people of Hebron, the “Hebronimiut” as they called themselves, were happy and prosperous; the runs of Arctic char, along with the hunting of sea and land mammals, offered more than enough food for everyone. And yet it was then, at Easter service, that the announcement was made: the people must go, the mission would be closed, the community’s lone nurse removed. That fall, a ship arrived, too small for the task, so that the families had to camp out in the cargo hold; government officials shot their dogs, save for a few who were towed behind in a skiff. The people were moved into outlying parts of more southerly settlements — “Hebron ghettos” — with poor living conditions and no access to traditional hunting areas. The provincial government apologized in 2005, and a few elderly exiles embraced one another — but no apology could undo the sorrow they’d endured.

Levi Nochasak
Our tour guide at Hebron was Levi Nochasak, who was among the Hebron exiles of 1959, when he was only two years old. His family was moved to Nain, where his father still lives, but Levi has come back every year for twelve years to work as a carpenter, carefully restoring the old church and mission building, and living in a temporary modular house parked next door to the ruined foundation of the house where he was born. He told his story proudly, giving us a full tour of the buildings, as well as both the cemeteries. The first was apparently reserved for the Moravian brethren and their families, but the second was where most Inuit were buried. More than 100 died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, their graves marked only with small wooden boards; among them was Zacharias Zad, who had appeared at numerous fairs and in half-a-dozen films alongside Nancy Columbia; he had returned home just a few years earlier.

Levi points out his name on the plaque
Today, this whole area of Labrador is embarking on a transition into a more independent, Inuit-run government, known as the Nunatsiavut region; in Hopedale, we visited their beautiful new assembly building, shaped like half an igloo; the legislator’s chairs are made of sealskin. After the betrayal and exile of the people of Hebron, and the economic and social isolation of the region, tt’s a hopeful beginning to a new era -- one in which Inuit will enjoy increased self-determination, and the ability to set their own policy in the land of their ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. There's an equally sad tale of Spence Bay (Taloyoak) and Gjoa Haven. I was told by my guide of 30 yrs ago, Kuvalaq Totaliq. A reply to my note in the local paper via Russ' Facebook Group placed him still there at the local school.

    A big difference is that it was a voluntary resettlement not abandonment, w neither church nor guv involvement. Alcohol is "the curse of the North", wracking Spence Bay as it was called 40 yrs ago, so much so that apparently half of the inhabitants left across King William Sound to Gjoa Haven and founded a dry community.

    I think Spence Bay reacquired its native name, and not Gjoa Haven as it had none perhaps? Note that I have neither been in either location, having done field work with Kuvalaq on Grinnell and Boothia Peninsulas of Devon Island and the mainland repectively, nor have i been in touch since then. Geological mapping in the Arctic was fickle for Geological Survey / Polar Continental Shelf Program contractors and I never returned.