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by Kenn Harper
Pangnirtung - "the place of the bull
caribou" - is located on one of the narrow coastal plains against a spectacular
backdrop of high mountains and a winding river valley.
Legend says a hunter named Atagooyuk gave the place
its name well over a 100 years ago when caribou had not yet changed their pattern as a
result of the incursions of man.
Cumberland Sound, the large body of water
Pangnirtung Fiord opens into, has been a traditional home of Inuit for more than a 1,000
years. Here, they and their predecessors of the Thule and Dorset cultures lived in small
hunting camps along the shore. Their survival depended on the seals, walruses, and beluga
whales that populated the waters of Cumberland Sound, and on the magnificent bowhead whale
that also frequented these waters.
Englishman John Davis was the first non-Inuk known
to have entered Cumberland Sound, although it is probable that Norse from Greenland
occasionally visited the area as well. Davis, an explorer in search of a northwest passage
to the presumed riches of the Orient, navigated the sound in 1585 and again in 1587. The
sound was not re-entered by Europeans until 1840.
In 1839, a Scottish whaler named William Penny took
a young Inuk man, Eenoolooapik, to Scotland to spend the winter. The following spring
Eenoolooapik, guided Penny into the mouth of Cumberland Sound. What ensued was 80 years of
exploitation by whalers and free traders. The effect of bowhead whaling on the Inuit was
cataclysmic. Traditional settlement changed as many abandoned their camps to congregate at
two main whaling stations; Blacklead Island off the south coast of the sound and Kekerten
off its north coast. Although whaling brought access to guns, ammunition and wooden boats,
many Inuit succumbed to diseases to which they had no immunity.
In 1894, in the declining years of the whaling
industry, an event of paramount importance to the people of Baffin Island occurred; The
Church Missionary Society of London, England, established a mission station at Blacklead
Island under the leadership of Reverend Edmund James Peck, a veteran of almost two decades
of missionary work in northern Quebec. Peck brought with him the gift of a written
language, for he promoted the use of the syllabic writing system - adapted from the Cree
system - for the Inuit language. Inuit learned the syllabic system quickly and passed
knowledge of it up the coast to camps that had never seen a missionary. Peck produced
biblical material in syllabics; this material also spread quickly throughout the region.
After the last missionary left Blacklead Island in the early 1900s, Inuit catechists kept
both religion and literacy alive.
When whaling declined, Inuit returned to life in
camps scattered throughout Cumberland Sound. The establishment of a trading post by the
Hudson's bay Co. in 1921 was followed two years later by a detachment of the RCMP. In
1929, St. Luke's Mission Hospital was established under Dr. Lesley Livingstone. Until the
1960s, most Inuit continued to live in traditional camps, although a few opted for for
Pangnirtung and employment. Jim Kilabuk, who worked for the Hudson's Bay Co. for 45 years,
was a competent traveler and guide - the mentor of many young traders who came and
went during his tenure. Nookiguak was the special constable who assisted the RCMP by
guiding their patrols of the sound and the east Baffin coast; after his dath in
1949, he was replaced by Joanasie Dialla, who held the positin for more than 20 yesrs.
Etuangat, who dies in his mid 90s in late 1995, was the last of the inuit whalemen. He
also spent many years guiding doctors stationed in Pangnitung to camps throughout the
region. These are the unsung heroes of the three establishments - the Hudson's bay Co.,
the RCMP, and the mission hospital - that formed the foundation for the modern town of
Pangnirtung [pronounced in Inuktitut as "pangniqtuuq"].
The history of
Pangnirtung would not be complete without mention of William Duval, after whom the
mountain to the east of the community, and the river that flows between it and the town,
are named. Sivutiksaq, as he was known to Inuit,
was a German born American whaler who came to Cumberland Sound as a young man in the 1870s
and spent his life in the Arctic. He is the grandfather or great-grandfather of any
Pangnirtung resident with the surname Apalialik. He died at Usualak camp in
Cumberland Sound in 1931.
In 1956 the federal government sent its first teacher to
Pangnirtung and in 1962 established an administrative office. That same year a disastrous
distemper epidemic killed most of the dogs in Cumberland Sound, threatening Inuit
livelihood. A number of families moved into the community of Pannirtung from the land, the
resulting change of lifestyle was abrupt.
The last few decades, although filled with promise, have also
been fraught with difficulties for the local people. This was a seal hunting community and
when the seal prices declined precipitously in the 70s and 80s it became
uneconomical to hunt. During this same period life expectancy increased because of
improved health care. These two factors combined with a high birth rate, made for rapidly
increasing unemployment and the social problems that accompany such a situation soon
followed. With substantial government assistance the community currently operates a turbot
fishery and the have received encouragement to develop arts and crafts, including
Pangnirtungs unique weaving industry.
Pangnirtung: Land & Wildlife
The beauty of Pangnirtung is largely borne of its backdrop, the
lofty mountains of Cumberland Peninsula, where some peaks reach 2,200 metres. The
peninsula is bisected by both Akshayuk and Kingnait passes, providing an overland route to
Davis Strait. The central part of the peninsula is dominated by the massive Penny Ice Cap,
from which many glaciers flow to the sea.Most of the better known peaks in the area were
named during a 1953 expedition of the Arctic Institute of North America.
Marine life has been important in the history of the sound.
Large numbers of beluga whales may be seen at their calving grounds in Millet Bay and
sometimes in Pangnirtung Fiord. Walruses are also found here as are bowhead whales. Polar
bears, which frequent the sea ice near the mouth of the sound, are rarely spotted close to
the community although ringed seals are found in the sound and fiord. Caribou are
typically found a considerable distance from Pangnirtung in the hills past the head of
Clearwater Fiord or inland from the south coast of Cumberland Sound, toward Nettling Lake.
This area is well known for its arctic char fishing and a camp operates at Kingnait Fiord.
The season is short and it is a hard business so many camps do not survive. It is best to
check with the Angmarlik Interpretive Centre,
the local visitor centre, before booking a fishing trip.
ALSO SEE About Printmaking
*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook