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In this remarkable story of courage, survival, and the power of language, Paul Sullivan brings the breathtakingly harsh Arctic landscape, and a breathtakingly determined girl, to life.
Stranded on an island during a mapping expedition in 1924, a seventeen-year-old Inuit girl writes about her life on the tundra and the changes brought about by the Europeans who settled Canada.
~ April 25, 1924 ~
The snow stopped last night. I went to the far end of the island where it climbs high above the bay. The wind has piled the snow over the place where we had the fire. There were only a few black timbers pushing up out of the snow, with the ice on them sparkling in the sun. But the wind had taken all the snow off Olson's grave, sweeping the rocks clean. I piled on more rocks to keep the bears away from him.
When we came to the island there were five of us. Olson died two days after the fire. Nicolson and Smith left for Seal Bay three months ago. When the day is clear I come and search from this high place with Morgan's field glasses. But there is never any sign of them returning, of a dog team or a human person. There is only the endless land. High and low ground covered with snow to the north and west, and to the east and south the frozen sea. Great ice ridges and floating cakes of thick ice. So thick and so tight, a person could walk easily over them. If I were returning from Seal Bay to this place with a dog team, I would come over the sea ice. I would have tried to reach there in the same way. But Nicolson and Smith went to the west, over the tundra, a very long way. They had an unspoken fear of the sea ice. But the sea ice is not shifting. Not moving. That will not happen for many weeks. So it could be traveled if a person knows to watch for open leads. But I believe there would not be many open leads.
My father would have known this and how to travel safely. Tiitaa, my brother, would know the same. But it is natural for the Inuit to know this in their own land.
I piled more stones on Olson's grave and spoke words in my mind from Morgan's Bible book. I think he is safe from the bears.
I took a long time returning to our little cabin because the sun was warm and good on my body. The sun warmed the surface of the snow, and I could hear the snow whisper to the sun. My people call the sun Hekenjuk. We believe she is the sister of the moon, Taktik. They share the same house but visit the sky at different times. There is always one coming when one is going away.
I lowered the hood of my parka and let my hair tumble over my shoulders. I think I would like to have a sunbonnet like the women in Quebec City. Only because it would be a nice thing for a girl to have. And when July comes and buttercups and purple saxifrage bloom on the tundra, I would cover my bonnet with little flowers. I could be a sassy thing and I could show off, though there is only Morgan.
Morgan was outside when I reached the cabin. I could see him sitting on the rocks as I came up from the bay. It is only the second time he has been outside since Nicolson and Smith left us. It is better for him to be outside. I have tried to tell him, but this he did on his own.
"You were gone a long time," he said.
"I went to the place where Olson is."
He said he was worried about me. That I must be careful of the bears. There are too many bears now. And there was a seal on the ice. "The bears are hunting," he said.
"I know. You shouldn't worry."
"Yes. Of course you know. This is your land." And he asked if I kept a cartridge in the rifle.
I hesitated, lowering the heavy rifle from my shoulder. "No," I told him.
"Always keep a cartridge in the rifle. Here, see this? That is the safety. You put in a cartridge and push up the safety." Then he told me to try it.
I pulled the bolt back as I had learned, slipped in one of the long cartridges, and pushed the bolt forward. Then I pushed up the safety.
"Well done," he said. His voice was stern but not angry. Still, it was not the voice of the old Morgan. Then he showed me how to drop the safety down with my thumb when I was ready to fire. And again he told me to always keep a cartridge in the rifle. "Will you promise me?"
"Yes," I said.
He complained that he should have taught me to shoot. He didn't know things would go the way they had gone. His voice was a little angry now, but angry with himself. I tried to ease his mind, telling him no one could know all that would happen on Tumak Island. And I would have to learn to use the rifle.
He listened quietly. Then he asked me to help him back inside. He looked sad, with his beard long and his hair uncut and his eyes tired. I was surprised at how much weight he had lost when I helped him move back into the cabin. I could feel his bones against my shoulder. His hands had healed much since the fire, but his fingers were cramped and bent and he used them like claws. I helped him back on the cot, and he lay under the caribou skins. He had a little fever, but his fever comes and goes away. Today he was strong, but yesterday he was weak. Tomorrow, I don't know.
I made tea, but Morgan was sleeping when I brought the cup to him.
Later I melted snow to make water, and washed my hair and my body clean. I worked to finish my boots. And tonight I wrote in my journal.
My father was called Krakoluk. He was a great hunter and very much respected. He was not a big man, but small and powerful. He had a round face and dark happy eyes and thick black chin whiskers. I remember that his hands were big and strong and he could lift me, onto the kamotik or in play, with no effort. When he laughed it was like a roar, and others would fall into laughter with him. They caught his laughter because it was true and deep and endless.
Once, when I was small, I remember all the people followed my father to hunt caribou. We left our camp and traveled two days to a place of low hills and a narrow valley. In this place we waited several more days for the caribou herd to arrive. My father and the others appeared to know the deer would come this way. I remember the hunters gathering with bows and arrows and all of us, women and children, helping to build snares.
Then late one morning the herd arrived, flowing into the valley like a gray river on the white land. From the slopes of the hills, the hunters rained down arrows while at the end of the valley women and children drove the herd into the snares. There was great excitement and commotion, with the deer struggling frantically to break free. Everything was happening so fast, with the deer rushing by and loose snow kicked into the air and the shouts and cries of the people. I became frightened and confused, running with the deer and crying, like the deer trying to break free. But I could not free myself of the running herd and sea of antlers. Then I felt the strong hand of my father lift me from the ground and tuck me up under his arm.
He carried me to the place where my mother and other women were busy dressing out the deer, and there he dropped me. And then quickly, he had gone back into the hunt. And there I sat crying and ignored by the women. I was no longer frightened but felt anger at being ignored, and I cried louder and louder until Tiitaa came and took me by the hand. After that my crying stopped.
The women were at work butchering the kill, cutting up the meat and sharing it out, loading it on the kamotiks where it would freeze quickly. The caribou skin was carefully removed. Sinew was cut from the legs. And with stones, the bones were crushed and the marrow removed and placed in the stomach of the deer to be carried away.
Tiitaa found a large stone for me to use and showed me how to hammer and split the bones and pull out the long ropes of sweet marrow. Then Tiitaa went away to join my father in the hunt, and all that day I worked beside my mother. My mother worked silently and skillfully, with her eyes at times shifting to me. If I pushed aside a piece of bone not properly cleaned, she would place it before me again, split it open, and show me what I had missed. But my mother always did this with a smile. We worked long that day. Until snow shadows formed and our kamotiks were full and the teams could pull no more. Until the sun was going away and put a copper light on the soft brown face of my mother. And I remember her smile and the wind blowing through the fur of her parka. And her hair long and black like my hair. I remember that from my beginning.
There was a feast when we returned from the hunt that lasted deep into the night. There were games, and stories were told, and my father danced about the floor with the skin drum. My father shouted in a loud song voice when he was dancing to the drum, bringing his feet down heavy on the floor, rolling his body like a bear. Tiitaa took up a pair of caribou antlers and held them to his head. He took up the dance. When I started laughing he came at me and chased me about the room. I tried to escape but could find no place to hide until I found the arms of my mother, and there she held me safe from Tiitaa. And there I stayed until sleep came.
In that time all of the meat from the hunt was shared out to each family. And all worked evenly and for long hours into the winter darkness. And the men would go out again and again, if there were no storms, to hunt seal and caribou and catch fish through the ice. The men followed my father. And my mother, who was called Nua, appeared to be at the center of all the women in our small band. And life was good to us in this land others call harsh.
Today I practiced with the rifle again. I set an old biscuit tin up on the rocks for a target. And I lay on my belly in the snow, taking aim with the rifle. And I hit it! Smack! And the tin went up in the air. Way up in the air. And I got up dancing. I shot the tin two times using three cartridges. But the first shot was the best time. On the first shot I hit it. Smack!
When I came back to the cabin, Morgan was a little angry. He heard the rifle shots and it worried him. He thought maybe I had met a bear. I told him I shot a biscuit tin two times. He said nothing. But I know he was annoyed.
Morgan is right about the bears. I saw two bears this morning going to my traps. There are a lot of bears now. Maybe they favor this island as a seal-hunting place.
There didn't appear to be so many bears when we first arrived here. There was little of anything on the island then. It was July of last year when the supply ship dropped us here. When the bay was free of ice. We spent the first day unloading our supplies from the small boats that brought them to shore. Carrying the stuff far up on the rocky beach. The island was bare of snow and ice then. And cotton grass, Arctic poppies, and heather covered the slopes. Hundreds of noisy gulls nested in the rocks, and on the far side of the island was a colony of snow geese.
Morgan and Olson and I went off to explore the island on the second day, walking the full length of it along the shore and then back over the high ground. Morgan selected the place for the cabin and made careful notes and drawings in his book. I went off into the rocks, searching for gulls' eggs. When I brought the eggs back and offered them to Olson, he just tightened up his face and turned away. "No, thanks," he said. "I'll have to be close to starvation before I'll start on raw birds' eggs."
So I ate them myself, punching a small hole in each and holding it to my lips to suck it dry.
"The girl is still half wild," Olson told Morgan. "That school in Quebec did nothing for her."
Morgan just laughed and rested his hand on Olson's big shoulder. "Yes. And it's the wild half we'll need here," he told him.
Olson was Morgan's good friend and had been with him for many years. The first time Morgan came to our settlement, Olson was with him. Olson frightened me badly, for I was only a small girl and he seemed a giant. He appeared very high above me, and his arms hung long down his sides. His head was big and his neck thick around. He was bigger than Morgan, who was bigger than my father. And when he pulled back the hood of his parka, he had no hair. His head was completely smooth. A polished round top, red from the sun and wind off the tundra. And he had a long red mustache that curved far down each side of his mouth, so when he smiled it framed his big white teeth.
At that time he frightened me, and I stayed close to Tiitaa. But Olson, I would learn, was a soft-spoken, gentle man. And one who would even scold me years later for stealing eggs from the gulls nesting in the rocks. He was uneasy at seeing the nest invaded by an Inuit girl who had no real hunger. But I was fond of gulls' eggs and went back again and again.
It makes me sad now to write about Olson because I grew to love him as a friend. And to the man who frightened me so as a child, I would owe much. It always happened that he was my protector when Tiitaa wasn't around.
I can cook and I can sew. This is part of the reason why Morgan brought me on the expedition. And because I read and write English very well Morgan also encouraged me to keep a journal. Olson agreed that I might be an asset. That I might brighten the dark months of the northern winter. But Smith and Nicolson were against my coming. I had to prove myself to both, though Smith was the more difficult from the beginning.
Smith saw no need for some Eskimo girl to come along, and he openly complained to Morgan about it. But Morgan cut Smith short, telling him they had come to work.
"Our time will be given to mapping the island and the coast," Morgan said. "Maata can take some of the chores from us."
They would have only a few months of daylight before the winter darkness, he told Smith. And a short time after, before the supply ship came in July. July was the only time the bay would be free of ice.
So Smith fell quiet about my coming along. But in his moody way he continued to show his disapproval.
Nicolson said nothing. He just ignored me most of the time. He wasn't dark and gloomy like Smith. He didn't have Smith's sullen nature. He kept quietly to himself, working on his charts in the light of the lamp or out running the team for days at a time. Nicolson was good with the dogs. Morgan respected him for that and let the team fall to his care. But he had a real fear of the sea ice. He would cross the narrow channel when it was frozen over, but he would not venture out onto the frozen sea. I think he had heard too many stories of the ice breaking up and people being stranded on a floe. There are a lot of stories like that. And many of them true. Many men have drifted away on the black water and never returned.
Smith and Nicolson were not alike, though both were small in build, not as tall as Morgan and nothing near the height of Olson. Nicolson had a thick crop of dark hair and a round, powerful body. In his parka, if his skin were not so light, he could have passed for Inuit. He had that short, strong build of my people. Smith was the same height but not as strong in build. And Smith's hair was thin and brown in color. He wore glasses most of the time and had a habit of cleaning them when he was talking, usually complaining about one thing or another. He was always worried and so always seemed to have a long list of things to complain about. I think Morgan wished he had never brought Smith along. And I learned that Nicolson had been with Smith on a previous expedition and disliked him openly.
The first thing we did after scouting the island was to build our cabin. Nicolson used the dog team to haul the wood and supplies up to the place Morgan had selected. They started the walls with stone, almost shoulder high, and finished the walls and roof with the lumber we had brought with us. I showed them how my father used moss between the stones and how he would cover the roof with moss and sand. And I showed them how my father would build a small front room that was lower than the main room as a place to enter. This would help keep the cold out, for cold air is heavy and does not rise easily. And there we would keep our winter gear and I would do the cooking.
Morgan liked the idea and the cabin was built in that way, and I knew that when the first snow covered it we would be warm and comfortable. Morgan was careful to try to build the cabin as solidly as possible. It had to serve as our only shelter until the ship returned the following year. And the place was to serve from then on as a station for other teams sent up to map and explore this part of the Arctic. The land was not new to my people, the Inuit, but much of it was unknown land to the government in Ottawa.
While the men worked on the cabin, Morgan gave me the task of collecting all the driftwood I could find around the island. We were just above the tree line, and little vegetation grew to any height in the thin topsoil of the tundra. While in the short weeks of summer the island comes alive with color from plants like the Arctic willow and rhododendron, which hold close to the earth, their roots cannot break through the permafrost. They grow as dwarfed plants huddling on the rocks. But on an island such as ours, there is always driftwood to be found. And I spent many days, after cooking for the men, going out to bring back all the driftwood I could gather. By the time the cabin was ready, I had brought in a good supply. Morgan was impressed with the pile I had built up. Olson complimented me. Even Nicolson said, "Good job..." the only compliment he ever offered me.
Smith simply looked at the pile of driftwood briefly, adjusted the glasses on his nose, and walked away.
The men started to work as soon as the cabin was finished. They would be gone for days at a time. Morgan and Olson made up a team exploring the coast to the south. Smith and Nicolson made up the second team exploring to the north. They had the full use of the sun, for Hekenjuk never fell below the horizon. But after September Hekenjuk would slowly slip away. And by December we would be locked in a winter darkness that would last many weeks.
Morgan wanted much work finished before the darkness came. So for me the island often became a lonely place. In Inuktitut, the language of my people, the word for such a loneliness is tumak. When I told this to Morgan he named the island on his maps Tumak Island. And Olson named the channel after his wife back in Montreal, Jac-queline's Channel. And so it went with their work through those weeks of the long days. Until the first slushy ice started to appear on the surface of the sea. Until the first hours of darkness broke Hekenjuk's endless drifting. Then the first hard snows fell, and with the dog team, the men were gone an even greater time than before.
All of this happened when things were going well. Before the fierce winter storms and before the fire. And with this, Morgan was pleased. But none of us knew of the time to come.
This evening I trimmed Morgan's beard and his hair and washed him. Washing him, I saw a faint yellow color to his skin. He knew I saw it but said nothing. And there was a slight swelling in his feet and ankles. I think these are the first signs of scurvy, and he knows this. He has had nothing to eat but meat for many months now. And though it is warm in the cabin, it is always damp. All bad things for him. And it will be many weeks before the ship returns.
Tonight there is a hard wind across Tumak Island. And once again I write in my journal.
The corners of my journal are singed from the fire. If my journal hadn't been with Morgan's maps and papers Olson would not have saved it. Now, each time I open it, I remember.
Copyright © 2003 by Paul Sullivan
Posted February 27, 2005
Maata is a Inuit girl, but being a Inuit isn't easy. Maata has to move to a different place, where the goverment made them move to. Maata goes with her friends to this island for a year. On this island they have a lot of problems dealing with the death of one of her friends, another friend getting sick, and their cabin buring down. Maata talks about her life when she moved and when her parents died where she had to go to Quebec. When I was reading this I got lost.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.