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Pangnirtung *        [pop: about 1,300]

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 1870’s 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 70’s and 80’s 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 Pangnirtung’s 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.

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*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook