Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reader's Diary #1005- McKay Jenkins: Bloody Falls of the Coppermine

In 1913, two Catholic priests by the names of Jean-Baptiste Rouvière and Guillaume Le Roux, had set out to convert a group of Inuit in the high Arctic, near Coppermine, known again today by its traditional name Kugluktuk. The Bloody Falls usually refer to a waterfall where explorer Samuel Hearne witnessed a massacre of 20 Inuit men, women and children at the hands of Dene men. While Jenkins references that event, his title Bloody Falls of the Coppermine is more of a double entendre; besides recalling the massacre near the waterfalls, Jenkins also uses falls as in falls from grace. Father Rouvière and Le Roux were murdered by a couple of Inuit men named Uluksuk and Sinnisiak.

While I expected the topic to be fascinating, my skepticism was triggered very early on. Near the beginning of the book and in several cases throughout, he refers to the language of the aboriginals in the area as Inuit. It's been my understanding that the people were Inuit, their language was either Inuktitut or Innuiqatun*. But while I lived in Nunavut for 6 years (and to the best of my knowledge Jenkins has never), I certainly don't claim to be an expert. Maybe it's acceptable in some circles, I reasoned, to refer to the Inuit languages simply as Inuit. Still, it started me doubting other facts in the book. It certainly wouldn't be the first time an author misrepresented the north.

Fortunately I came upon a review of Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, written by someone who's knowledge on these matters I do trust: Kenn Harper. Harper is a writer and historian who also speaks Inuktitut and has lived in Nunavut for 30 years. While Harper does point out some inaccuracies in the book (most of which I missed), he still, thankfully, says that the "essential details" are accurate.

I say thankfully, because I quite enjoyed the book. The story details alone are compelling enough, with equal doses of wilderness adventure and courtroom drama, but I especially enjoyed the underlying themes of psychology versus sociology. So often people then as now like to generalize based on the actions of a few. It was apparently easy for people to use the actions of Uluksuk and Sinnisiak to prove some point or other about the Inuit culture. Likewise, people judged (favourably and unfavourably) the actions and mission of the priests, based solely on Rouvière and Le Roux. Yet as Jenkins shows, even these 4 men had remarkably different personalities. If Uluksuk was so different than Sinnisiak, if Rouvière was so different than Le Roux, it would be certainly hard, not to mention potentially wildly inaccurate, to claim that all Inuit were the same or that all priests were the same.

Bloody Falls of the Coppermine is a fascinating, albeit tragic, tale from our history.

(*There are other Inuit languages and dialects than these.)

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