At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic

by Lawrence Millman

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Overview

At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic by Lawrence Millman

At the End of the World is the remarkable story of a series of murders that occurred in an extremely remote corner of the Arctic in 1941. Those murders show that senseless violence in the name of religion is not only a contemporary phenomenon, and that a people as seemingly peaceful as the Inuit can become unpeaceful at the drop of a hat or, in this instance, a meteor shower.

At the same time, the book is a warning cry against the destruction of what’s left of our culture’s humanity, along the destruction of the natural world. Has technology deprived us of our eyes? the author asks. Has it deprived the world of birds, beasts, and flowers?

Lawrence Millman's At the End of the World is a brilliant and original book by one of the boldest writers of our era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250111401
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/17/2017
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 801,823
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

LAWRENCE MILLMAN is the author of is the author of more than a dozen books, including such titles as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, Hero Jesse, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Northern Latitudes, Hiking to Siberia, and Fascinating Fungi of New England. His articles have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly, and Sports Illustrated. When not hanging out in some northern place or looking for mushrooms, he lives in Cambridge, MA.

Read an Excerpt

At The End of the World

A True Story of Murder in the Arctic


By Lawrence Millman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Lawrence Millman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-11141-8


CHAPTER 1

In 2001, I wanted to investigate the murderous aftermath of a meteor shower, so I flew from Boston to Montreal, then to Kuujuarapik in northern Quebec, and then to the Belcher Islands, a helter-skelter of fifteen hundred rocks in the turbulent waters of eastern Hudson Bay.

"I was afraid, I was so afraid," the old Inuit woman kept saying to me. Her hands were tightly clasped, and her eyes seemed to reach out and grab mine, as if she wanted me to see exactly what she had seen.

"You had to say, 'Ee, ee, the world is coming to an end,' or they would kill you," another Inuit elder in the Belchers told me.

The world — in fact, more than one world — was indeed coming to an end.

CHAPTER 2

From my notebook: I've pitched my tent at a place, Kingualuk, that consists of glacial rubble and till, boulders, and a sea of granitic pebbles. There's hardly a shred of pastoral softness here, only the earth's exposed bones.

And not just the earth's bones: the de-articulated bones of a Thule Period (AD 1100–1700) Inuk reside in a burial cairn on the hummock above my tent.

I once peered into a similar burial cairn in Hudson Strait and saw a wholly botanized skeleton, its every bone decorated with algae, lichen, and moss, whereupon I thought: Green — what a splendid color to accompany one's journey to oblivion....

Near my tent, a seal skull and a walrus skull were resting so close together they seemed to be kissing. A reminder that all organisms both living or dead are connected.

Better a tattered notebook than a digital device for documenting this now rocky, now bone-ridden world. For a digital device would square and pixilate it, thus depriving it of its primordial delight.

I will nail my colors to the proverbial mast and say that I believe such devices are depriving us of far more than just primordial delights....

We are a species that, in the words of poet Robinson Jeffers, likes to "break its legs / On its own cleverness," a fact that will occasionally oblige me to rant in these notes.

Example of a rant: Seated at a computer, you may think you're reflecting your own thoughts, but you're only reflecting your device's algorithms.

There were no algorithms at Kingualuk. Only the perpetual rhythms of the incoming and outgoing tides on rock.

A local Inuk named Simeonie told me this story: There was once a woman so ugly that no man would marry her. Rocks had no objection to her looks, so one of the rocks at Kingualuk took her for its wife, and they had a very happy life together.

I studied the rocks in the vicinity of my tent, but it was impossible for me to identify the wedded couple. Maybe all of them were wedded.

"Man is not above nature, but in nature," wrote nineteenth-century German biologist Ernest Haeckel.

Simeonie also told me about a mermaid with a typically Arctic morphology — part seal and part woman — who came ashore in the 1950s a mile or so from where I was camped. "I heard a visiting minister shot her," he said.

Another Inuk told me that it was a Hudson's Bay Company trader, not a visiting minister, who shot the mermaid.

Concerning the Hudson's Bay Company: it transformed the people of the Canadian North, formerly hunter-gatherers, into trappers, providing them with sugar, guns, ammunition, and the occasional mirror in return for furs.

"'Furs, furs, furs' is the white man's cry," wrote Arctic anthropologist Diamond Jenness in People of the Twilight.

Any reasonably intelligent mermaid who came ashore in the Belcher Islands during the winter of 1941 would have turned around and quickly swam back out to sea.

CHAPTER 3

"Hudson Bay is a vast frozen sea that plunges like an icy wedge into the heart of North America," wrote Arctic historian Robert McGhee.

Lying in the southeastern part of Hudson Bay, the Belcher Islands were named after an eighteenth-century English sea captain who never set foot on them.

A series of pancakes, nibs, blunt teeth, and gable ends spread out over three thousand square miles, the islands may occupy a subarctic latitude (56° 20' N, 30° W), but their tundra habitat proclaims them resolutely Arctic.

The low-lying nature of the islands made early explorers and mariners give them a wide berth. Those few ships that didn't give them this sort of berth were invariably wrecked, like the Kitty, an English charter freighter that fetched up on the Precambrian rock outcroppings of the Belchers in 1859....

... or the Fort Churchill, the main supply boat for the Hudson's Bay Company, which was wrecked off the islands' ubiquitous rocks in 1914.

Along with certain parts of New Guinea, Siberia, Antarctica, and the Amazon, the Belcher Islands were among the world's last remaining ends at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Question: Of what value is a map that doesn't have a blank spot on it?

In 1914, American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, then a mining prospector, asked a Canadian government official in Ottawa for permission to do some exploratory digging for iron ore in the Belchers. "There are no such islands," the official informed him.

The official may not have been altogether ignorant. After all, nonexistent islands are rather common in the North. Usually, they're large icebergs or mirages that occur when air layers of different densities sit on top of each other.

A year later, Flaherty found himself standing on the shore of Hudson Bay with an Inuk from Great Whale River (now Kuujuarapik) named Nero. "Big land over there," Nero said, gesturing west in the direction of the Belchers.

Nero was not Nero's real name. Visiting qallunaat (white people, lit. "those who pamper their eyebrows") gave Inuit names that seemed to fit their personalities. Having learned to play the fiddle from a Hudson's Bay Company trader named Harold Udgarten, the Inuk in question was named Nero.

Big land over there. These words gave the lie to the Canadian government official's earlier statement. So, too, did the words of an Inuk from Charlton Island named Wetalltuk, who told Flaherty: "I will draw you a map of those islands."

Wetalltuk had not been to the Belchers in twenty years, but his map of the islands is far more accurate than a map that Flaherty later drew to accompany an article he wrote for the Geographical Review.

So it was that Flaherty and his crew headed west from Great Whale River in a seventy-five foot topsail schooner called Laddie.

Just as the Laddie reached the Belchers, several kayaks came alongside it. Upon seeing the kayaks' eider duck skin–clad occupants, one of the crew, a man named Salty Bill, said to Flaherty: "Well, sir, some queer fish comes in with the tide."

Not surprisingly, the Laddie — like the Fort Churchill and the Kitty — smashed into the islands' rocks, and Flaherty and his crew were obliged to spend the winter of 1915–1916 in the Belchers. The Laddie itself provided him with most of his fuel.

Flaherty made two discoveries during his overwintering: that the islands' iron ore was of poor quality, and that the women were very compliant.

A local Inuk showed me an old telescope. "From my granddad's boat," he told me.

Apart from a flying visit by a Hudson's Bay Company employee named Thomas Weigand in the mid-nineteenth century, Flaherty was the first documented outsider to set foot in the Belchers. The main island is named after him.

Although I'm Gutenberg rather than Google, I recently googled "Flaherty Island," and one of my first hits was "Get Driving Directions to Flaherty Island."

Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen called the Inuit "the happiest, healthiest, most honourable and most contented people" he'd ever met and said that he hoped "civilization may never find them."

Civilization did find the Belcher Inuit ... and in a not necessarily pleasant way.

CHAPTER 4

During his overwintering in the Belchers, Flaherty shot thirty thousand feet of film footage with a Bell & Howell hand-cranked motion picture camera, but he accidentally dropped a lit cigarette on the flammable nitrate-based film. The film ignited and was lost.

A few years later, Flaherty made the celebrated documentary Nanook of the North near the mainland village of Port Harrison. The film depicts a barely contacted group of Inuit very similar to the Belcher Inuit. Indeed, Flaherty's lost Belcher footage might be regarded as a tryout for Nanook.

The word Qiqiqtarmiut, as the Belcher Inuit call themselves, means "People of the Islands." A slight mispronunciation, and you'll get qiqittaq, which means "frozen feet" in Inuktitut, the polysynthetic Inuit language.

Nanook's real name was Allakarialluk. Flaherty didn't think cinema audiences would like such a hard-to-pronounce name, so he changed Allakarialluk's name to Nanook, which means "polar bear" in Inuktitut.

In the film, Nanook is a proverbial Noble Savage, a perpetually smiling primitive who knows nothing about white man's world, but in real life Allakarialluk was Port Harrison's postman, a man fully aware of that world.

Postman of the North is probably not a title that would have appealed to cinema audiences in either Flaherty's time or our own.

Nanook struggles to survive in a constantly harsh world, but Flaherty may have been more harsh to him than this world. In the journal he kept while making the film, Flaherty wrote: "Nanook's laziness reached a climax today.... Busted him, his pipe, and his tobacco in the snow."

So popular was Nanook of the North that its hero's likeness appeared on Eskimo Pie wrappers around the world all through the 1920s.

One of the film's most popular images shows Nanook listening to a record player with a mixture of bafflement and hilarity, as if he thought some sort of talking spirit inhabited this qallunaat box. A response many Inuit had when they first heard voices emerging from a record player.

Allakarialluk died shortly after the film was released. Flaherty announced that his hero had died of starvation, a condition much appreciated by the media.

In 2005, I visited Johnny Inukpuk, Allakarialluk's ninety-three-year-old cousin, who lived in the village of Inukjuak (formerly Port Harrison). During my visit, I mentioned that his cousin had starved to death. Johnny, who was flensing a seal at the time, nearly flensed himself.

"He died of tuberculosis," Johnny sputtered.

CHAPTER 5

"To kill a culture," wrote Konrad Lorenz in On Aggression, "it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the latter is higher or at least regarded ... as higher."

Flaherty's visit meant contact with the outside world for the Belcher Inuit. A few of the islands' elders still describe events in the islands' history as being "before Mr. Flaherty" or "after Mr. Flaherty."

One consequence of first contact: popcorn. Flaherty introduced the local Inuit to it, "the most surprising thing by way of food they had ever seen," he wrote in his diary. At the time of my 2001 visit, they were still passionate about popcorn, which they called "gun food."

In the summer of 1919, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police made a visit, their first, to the Belcher Islands. The sergeant remarked of the Qiqiqtarmiut: "They are the most destitute people I have ever seen."

Possible translation of this statement: They were the most traditional people he had ever seen.

To these "destitute" people, everything had an atiq (soul). Birds, animals, plants, clouds, drift logs, rocks — all had souls. "In my grandfather's time, they even thought anaq (shit) had a soul," a local Inuk named Markassie told me.

A soul belonging to someone else — or something else — could enter a person and transform him or her, although that person would usually retain his human morphology. Thus your next-door neighbor could be a typical Inuk on the outside, but a bearded seal or an Arctic fox on the inside.

The notion that some sort of animal is hanging out inside you may seem primitive, but because it assumes you are just another organism, and that all organisms are related to each other, it's actually quite ecological.

"I believe in seals more than I believe in God," Markassie said.

Could what occurred during the winter of 1941 have made him somewhat suspicious of God?

CHAPTER 6

By 2001, all 525 people in the Belchers were living in a village on Flaherty Island called Sanikiluaq, which was named after a local fast runner — a man who could outrun any animal he was hunting.

Immobility was, to Sanikiluaq, a terrible thing. He used to tell his children not to stand too long in one place, or something might come up from the ground and impale them.

Several of my informants were the grandchildren of Sanikiluaq, whom they affectionately called "Sani."

As I was writing up these notes, I googled "Sanikiluaq," and one of my first hits was "Cheap Flights from Sanikiluaq to Ho Chi Minh City."

Personal admission: Wherever I'm traveling, I refuse to carry a googling device with me. For I'd prefer to look at the world around me rather than stare at a screen.

At the time of my visit, there were some houses in Sanikiluaq that had televisions, but not indoor plumbing.

Flashback to Nain, Labrador, 1989: My Inuit guide exclaimed, "You're from Boston? Ayee!! Cheers is my favorite TV show." When I told him that I'd never watched Cheers or visited the Cheers bar, he gave me a look of complete bewilderment.

In the Belchers, even the old woman whom I said was so afraid owned a television, but mostly to inspire her grandchildren to visit her.

"When I was young, all we had was unikkaaptuaq [stories]," the old woman smiled. From this smile, I saw that a lifetime of chewing sealskins had worn down her teeth to a thin yellow ring resting against her gums.

Part of our survival as a species may have come from listening to stories, which entered our neural pathways and provided us with passed-on lore as well as passed-on entertainment ... both uninterrupted by commercials.

Stories also gave us wisdom. In one Inuit tale, two men get into an argument over whether a seal pelt or a caribou pelt has more hairs, so they sit down and begin counting the hairs in their respective pelts, hour after hour, day after day. In the end, both men starve to death.

In 1828, Danish explorer Wilhelm August Graah read from a book of stories to a group of East Greenlanders, who bent down to listen to the book because, Graah wrote, "they thought that every word I read aloud to them ... was communicated to me [from the book] in a whisper."

Just as plants, rocks, and animals had souls, they can talk, too. If you listen hard enough, you can hear them. Or so the Inuit used to think ... ... just as they used to think that talking spirits inhabited record players.

I bent down to listen to the Umbilicaria lichens (otherwise known as tripe-de-roche or rock tripe) that decorated a boulder near my tent.

Was it my imagination or did I hear the lichens whisper, Mercifully, there isn't any pollution in these parts?

The more urbanized the place, the fewer the lichens. For they cannot tolerate the soluble particles from industrial pollution and automotive emissions that end up trapped in their thalli (vegetative tissue).

A few lichens seem to have triumphed over urban life. Recently, in Boston, I was studying a bright yellow Candelaria species on a tree when a little girl walked over and asked me what I was doing. Before I could tell her, her mother yanked her away, and then continued talking on her cell phone.

In 1941, there weren't any telephones in the Belchers, only a single highly erratic radio telegraph.

"Until ten years ago, I didn't own a telephone," a local Inuk named Taliriktuk told me, "so when I wanted to talk with someone, I would walk over to his house and talk with him."

Inuit names can be highly descriptive. For instance, Taliriktuk means "Strong Arm." The Qiqiqtarmiut called Robert Flaherty Soumik, which means "Tall, Left-Handed One."

My name was Allaut (pencil) because I was always writing in my notebook with a pencil.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from At The End of the World by Lawrence Millman. Copyright © 2016 Lawrence Millman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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