The tragic case of the man who played Jesus

Three Eskimos had already been murdered when word filtered out of the north. Then the Mounties began to unravel the macabre and bloody story of a would-be Messiah and his chain of human sacrifices

ALAN PHILLIPS December 8 1956

The tragic case of the man who played Jesus

Three Eskimos had already been murdered when word filtered out of the north. Then the Mounties began to unravel the macabre and bloody story of a would-be Messiah and his chain of human sacrifices

ALAN PHILLIPS December 8 1956

The tragic case of the man who played Jesus

Three Eskimos had already been murdered when word filtered out of the north. Then the Mounties began to unravel the macabre and bloody story of a would-be Messiah and his chain of human sacrifices


Off the east coast of Hudson Bay a group of islands hump from the sea ice. low, snowcovered, starkly bare. These are the Belchers, scene of the most bizarre and perhaps the most tragic murders ever committed in the north.

Here, in 1941, a strange drama unfolded. In a time of desperation the Eskimos ot the islands turned for help to an alien faith they did not understand, and out of their striving for sense and hope produced a false Messiah, nine victims and, perhaps, a Christian martyr.

The first news of this tragedy to reach the outside world was a wireless message from the only white man on the islands, Hudson's Bay Company factor Ernest Riddell. It came into the company’s Winnipeg head office on March 13: “THREE MURDERS HAVE BEEN COMMITTED ON BELCHER ISLANDS. ADVISE IMMEDIATE POLICE INVESTIGATION.*’

The message was relayed at once to Ottawa, to the deputy commissioner of the Northwest Territories, who passed it on to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But this was wartime and no planes could be hired. Before the force could act a second wire had arrived: “THERE HAVE BEEN MORE MURDERS. COME IMMEDIATELY.”

On April 1 1 a hastily overhauled Norseman landed Inspector D. J. Martin and Corporal W. G. Kerr on the Belchers. Both men had spent years in the north but they had never seen land so bleak. The caribou had left fifty years before. As late as August pack ice surrounded these islands. In all their length and breadth, ninetyone by fifty-one miles, there was not a solitary stunted tree. Even moss and cranberry bushes grew in only a few secluded areas. Soil blew away as fast as it formed. There were only the seals, the fish, and the ducks and geese that bred in the shallow lakes in multitudes to feed and clothe some forty Eskimo families.

These facts, the investigators found, were relevant to the case. These islands, the icebound reefs, the long dark winter, the scarceness of game, the influence of the white man on the wav the Eskimo thinks—in this complex situation the motivations were rooted.

By April 15 the two Mounties had most of the

killers in custody and arrangements had been made to bring in the others. Then, caught by the spring breakup, they abandoned their plane and returned to the capital by dog team, canoe, railway handcar and train. Here they reported the fantastic details.

It had begun with Charlie Ouyerack, a small man with the sullen face of a disappointed child. In January 1941. Ouyerack convinced his neighbors that he was Jesus.

He was an unusual Eskimo. When he was a boy his father had been murdered. He had never outgrown his sense of helplessness, loss and resentment. Now, at twenty-seven, he had not the self-sufficiency so characteristic of his

people who. finding nature outside themselves uncontrollable, have evolved toward control of their inner nature. He had some of the traits of the white man. rare in an Eskimo: he sometimes struck his children, envied other men's skills, coveted their women and spoke less than the whole truth. Confronted by the cruelty or indifference of the elements, he gave way at times to panic or anger. And since he could not respect himself, he practiced self-deceit and craved the respect of others.

Charlie Ouyerack was clever and imaginative. He claimed mastery of the trance by which medicine men project their souls through the ether to locate caribou,

“Listen!” Ouyerack cried. “Jesus is coming. His spirit is in me”

He studied the New Testament, a translation in Eskimo syllabics given out two decades before by a visiting missionary; and he envied the powers of Jesus, medicine man of Kabloona, the white man, who could walk on water and raise the dead. It was written in the Book that Jesus would visit the earth again. Sometimes Charlie imagined that he was Jesus, filled with a power that would raise him above all evil, above all men.

The winter of 1940-1941 had been bad in the islands. Seals were scarce and what skins the Eskimos took brought only a few cents. Some families did not earn enough to replace their ammunition. They could not afford their only luxury, tea and tobacco. They sat through the sunless days in their gloomy round snowhuts, too discouraged to hunt, hungry, uncertain. At night Keytowieack, the catechist, went from igloo to igloo, bringing hope by his reading of the Book.

Keytowieack was forty-seven, already old and bent, dignified and a little stupid. Ouyerack found it unbearable that people should listen to him. One night in an open-topped snowhouse as the catechist read to a gathering, Ouyerack’s patience snapped. “What do you know of Jesus, old man!” he shouted.

Keytowieack stopped reading. Ouyerack stood up. He was conscious that the flow of time had ceased, that destiny was waiting on this moment. He raised his hands toward the sky. “Listen to me,” he cried. “I have seen Jesus—brighter than the sun.”

Across the great dark dome of the sky streamed the blood-red polar lights. In the silence he could hear them, a vast faraway rustling, like the banners of an unseen heavenly host. Ouyerack felt certainty gathering in him. “Listen to me,” he cried again. "Jesus is coming. His spirit has entered into me. I am Jesus, telling you of the One who is to come.”

At that moment a meteor trailed fire across the sky. A cry went up from the people in the snowhut. One of them, Kugveet, leaped to his feet. “It is a sign!” he shouted. “Jesus has spoken!”

Next morning Peter Sala returned from a two-day hunt on the sea ice. Among the eight families camped on Flaherty Island, Sala was the natural leader, intelligent, tall, handsome, the surest hunter, the man with the fastest dog team. As he drove into camp he could hear people shouting, “Jesus is coming tonight!” and they clustered around him, shaking his hand, everyone talking at once. One in the group, an islander named Markusie, took Sala’s rifle and shot several of the sled dogs. Markusie was laughing. “We do not need bullets or dogs,” he said. He smashed Sala’s rifle against an ice bank. “Material things are of no use now. Jesus is coming!” So nie people started playing ball with a cap. ' They seemed very happy. Only the children were frightened and crying.

Lifting the walrus from his sled Sala entered the big igloo. It was crowded with Deople. Ouyerack, in a stained white cotton surplice, a wooden cross hanging from his neck, sat with a staff in his hand facing the others. Near him sat Keytowieack, the catechist.

Sala tried to hide his fright and offered them walrus meat. Ouyerack refused. “How can we eat meat,” he said, “when we are waiting for God?” And all the

people began to cry, “God! We want God.”

“Who is God?” Sala asked.

No one spoke. They looked at Ouyerack. He was staring fixedly at Sala. Then Kugveet said to Sala, “You are not an

ordinary Eskimo. You are taller, stronger, better than the rest of us.”

“No, do not think that,” Sala said. Kugveet did not seem to hear. “You must be God,” he said. “You will teach us to be good.”

“No,” Sala said, frightened, “1 cannot teach you. I am not good.”

Ouyerack rose and came close to Sala. “I am Jesus,” he said. “We have all been saved. Our sins are blotted out. You are the best among us. You are God.” He lowered his voice hypnotically. “Say you are God. Tell them I am Jesus.”

“Hear me." Sala shouted. “I am God!” He believed now.

It grew dark in the igloo. Singing happily, they built a bonfire of all their hymnals and Bibles and the flames leaped in the close steamy darkness. Apawkok, the widower, came crowding in with his family. Everyone shook Apawkok’s hands and the hands of his eldest son Alec and kissed his thirtecn-year-old daughter Sarah. Then they joined in prayer to Peter .Sala and Charlie Ouyerack.

Sala saw that Sarah was not praying. “Come here,” he said.

"I don't know what to say,” Sarah said. “Come here,” Sala said. He took her by the arms. "I am God. Do you not believe in God?”

"1 believe in God,” Sarah said, “but I do not believe you are God. And 1 do not think Charlie Ouyerack is Jesus.” The people began to murmur. Ouyerack in a loud voice said, "My body is Ouyerack but my thoughts are Jesus.” “You should believe and follow us,” Sala said. “You should believe as your father and brother believe.”

Sarah hung her head. She was a willing girl who had always done as her father told her. Her brother Alec, sitting beside Ouyerack, reached over and pulled her roughly toward him. “You do not want to say yes,” he said angrily. “You are lying when you say you believe in God.”

“No,” Sarah said, frightened now. “Do not hurt me. Please. 1 am telling the truth.”

“Is this girl any good?” Alec asked Sala.

“No.” Sala said. “She does not believe.”

Alee hit Sarah heavily in the faec. He shifted his grip to her hair atid struck her again.

“1 want to believe,” Sarah cried. “I want to believe what my father believes.” “You are lying,” Alec shouted. He hit her until she collapsed, then he pulled her up off the floor by her hair. Sala looked away; he did not want to see Alec hurting his sister.

“Eyah!” Sarah cried faintly. “Please stop.”

“What’s the matter?” Alec shouted. "You look bad.” Her eyes were swelling shut. “1 will do worse. Someone bring me a piece of wood.”

“No, no,” several people murmured. Alec turned in fury to Ouyerack. “Am 1 doing right or am I doing wrong?” “You are doing right,” Ouyerack said. "She has a devil in her. The devil will not let her believe.”

“I do believe. 1 do believe,” Sarah was crying.

Someone put a board in Alec’s hand. He beat Sarah about the head and neck. Blood gushed from her mouth and she fell on her side, pulling her parka hood over her head. Sala leaned down in the dark and felt her heart.

“It docs not matter if she is dead,” Alec said.

Sarah moaned softly.

“What? You can cry yet?” Sala said, amazed.

“Should this girl live?” Alec asked Ouyerack.

“It is just as well to kill her.” Ouyerack said. “God will not mind.”

In the glare from the burning books Sala saw that the people’s faces were pale. "Take her outside,” he commanded. And the people murmured, “God does not want her in the igloo."

Four Eskimos dragged Sarah from the snowhouse. Her shawl trailed across the blazing books and her clothing caught fire. She made a sound like a sigh. Outside, she sat up and the people inside the igloo heard her say. “I will go to the house of my father.” Then they heard the sound of blows and a young girl, named Akeenik, came back in. She was holding the barrel of a broken rifle. The breech was wet with blood.

“My hands are frozen,” Akeenik said plaintively. “I was holding the steel gun barrel while 1 hammered Satan to death. Thaw them out for me someone.”

“We have killed a devil,” Ouyerack said. "Now we can all have a good time.”

“Let us be thankful Satan is dead,” said the people.

Keytowieack rose. "No!” he said angrily. “No, it is all bad. At first I believed you. Now 1 know you arc wrong. Peter and Charlie are not God and Jesus. God is good. Jesus was kind. He would not take life as you have taken Sarah’s.”

Peter Sala’s mother screamed that the catechist was Satan. Others began to shout. “Devil,” at him. Keytowieack started out, trying to pull others with him. Ouyerack seized him. Keytowieack tore away, thrusting past the clutching hands. At the entrance he paused. “There is only one God,” he said. “He is not here. He is in Heaven.”

For a long time the din in the igloo was deafening. Everyone talked angrily of Keytowieack. Then they heard the window break. Keytowieack had come back. He looked in the broken pane and said loudly, "Those who believe in the true God come out. Come on my side. Help me. Please. 1 need help.”

Sala picked up a slat from the sleeping bench and hurled it through the window like a harpoon. "1 hit Satan in the mouth,” he cried triumphantly.

“All right,” Keytowieack mumbled, holding his bleeding mouth. “1 will go away. I will go to my own igloo. But I will tell you first”—he raised his voice —“a lot of people will go astray from listening to you." He backed away from Sala’s menacing gesture.

“Satan is gone,” someone said. “Now Jesus will come." And they all sang happily, “Jesus is coming.”

“No. no." Sala said angrily. "Jesus is here. God is here. How can Jesus be coming when Jesus is here? Speak to them, Jesus. What they say is not right."

But the people would not listen. All night they prayed and sang that Jesus would come. There was no longer need to work or hunt. Some families, though half-starved, had put away food for Him, for He would surely be hungry after His trip.

In the morning Sala was still angry and more than a little frightened, for the things Keytowieack said had found an echo in his heart. He ordered several Eskimos to harness what dogs were left and prepared to leave camp with his family. As he walked past Keytowieack’s igloo. a harpoon in each hand, he looked in the window and saw the old man sitting, his head bowed, in a chair. Bit-

terness welled up in him against Key towieack whose malice had destroyed his happiness.

"Who are you praying to?” Sala shout ed derisively.

Keytowieack did not answer.

Sala broke the window. "Look at me." he said. He poked Keytowieack with his steel-tipped harpoon. "You are not praying right,” he mocked. “Your prayers will do you no good.”

Keytowieack did not move or speak.

Some Eskimos, hearing voices, had left their snowhouses to watch; others had remained at the all-night meeting. Sala feinted with his harpoons, but Keytowieack did not flinch. Sala threw a harpoon; it pierced Keytowieack’s sleeve. Still he sat with his head bowed, silent.

“What can you do now?” Sala taunted. “Look at me. I am God.”

But Keytowieack’s eyes remained on his lap and still he did not speak. Infuriated, Sala said, “You are Satan. I will kill you.” Keytowieack gave no sign that he heard. Sala gestured to Adlaykok, a>n onlooker. "Shoot him!”

Adlaykok was a tall, balding, middleaged Eskimo whose face had set in tired, half-humorous lines. “If that was God’s command,” he said, “to kill all who do not believe, we should all have be^ . dead long ago.”

“I am God," Sala raged. "Shoot him. I said!”

Adlaykok went to his house and came back with his rifle. Deliberately he aimed through the window at Keytowieack. “Shoot!” Sala said, as he hesitated. Adlaykok fired.

Keytowieack jerked slightly as the bullet entered his shoulder, but no sound passed his lips.

“1 have no more bullets,” Adlaykok said.

“Jesus will give you one,” Sala said. Adlaykok went to the meeting, asked Ouyerack for a bullet, came back, and shot Keytowieack through the head. The old man toppled sideways from his chair. After carrying Christ’s word for twenty years among the Belcher igloos, he had died in the image of Satan.

Some people turned away in sudden doubt of the new religion. But most of the watchers crowded into Keytowieack's igloo and stared down in silence at the body.

“We should bury him in the right way, with rocks,” Markusie said.

"No,” Sala said, angrily, "it is no use. He cannot freeze: he is in Hell’s fire.” He rammed his harpoon in the old man’s mouth and left it quivering upright. “Pull the snowhouse down upon him!” he ordered. Then Sala left camp with his family, Adlaykok and Ouyerack. Ouyerack had left his wife; he was sleeping with Sala’s sister, Mina. Her husband Moses did not object since Ouyerack was Jesus.

Early in February, while Sala was hunting, Ouyerack came to the Tukarak Island camp of Quarack, short, square, erect, the greatest hunter in all the islands. Quarack too was convinced by the tongue of Charlie Ouyerack. But his son-in-law, Alec Keytowieack, did not believe.

Keytowieack was the son of the murdered catechist and he could not reconcile his knowledge of Jesus with a man who had taken one man’s wife and now wanted his, Eva Naroomi, daughter of Quarack. Seeing that Keytowieack was not to be persuaded, Ouyerack said, “You are a devil. Obey me or you will die.”

Now Keytowieack was frightened. “I believe a little,” he said. They were gathered, all except Quarack, in Quarack’s igloo.

"You lie,” Ouyerack said. “Kill him, Moses.”

“1 do not want to kill someone like myself,” Moses said.

Ouyerack looked contemptuously at him and went outside to find Quarack. The great hunter was feeding his dogs.

“Keytowieack is bad,” Ouyerack told him. “Jesus will be coming soon and he will not want to see bad people. Shoot him.”

Quarack agreed.

“Come out, Keytowieack,” Ouyerack called.

Keytowieack came out. He had lost his fright. “V believe in God,” he said proudly. “1 do not believe in Charlie Ouyerack.”

“Walk away from the igloo and do not turn around,”'Ouyerack said. “Walk out to that black crack in the ice. You will see something wonderful.”

Keytowieack walked out under the rock ledge of the shore, walking with his back very straight. “Go ahead,” Ouyerack said to Quarack. And Eva Naroomi turned her back as her father shot her husband between the shoulder blades.

“He is still moving,” Ouyerack said.

Quarack, walking closer, shot Keytowieack again.

“He is not dead yet,” said Ouyerack. “We must make sure he is dead.” And Quarack walked to Keytowieack where he lay on the ice and sent a heavy bullet through his brain. Ouyerack smiled. “Be happy,” he said. "Satan is dead.” Singing, they threw rocks at the body until it was covered.

Late that month Peter Sala received an invitation to guide the Hudson’s Bay post manager, Ernest Riddell, to Great Whale River. Here Sala confided the story of the new cult to interpreter Harold Udgarden, a Hudson’s Bay Company pensioner known to Eskimos as the White Brother. Udgarden told Riddell whose wire reached the Mounties via Winnipeg.

The Mounties had lost all their usable planes and pilots to the air force. It was April before they could recondition a broken-down Norseman, borrow a Department of Transport pilot, and fly in Inspector Martin and Corporal Kerr. But even under the best of conditions the Mounties could not have prevented the last act of the tragedy.

It took place at a Camsell Island camp while Quarack was hunting and Sala was guiding Riddell. Ouyerack had gone back to his wife. Sala’s sister Mina had been brooding for several days. She was a powerful hard-faced woman of thirty.

At midday on March 29 she became hysterical. She ran from igloo to igloo calling, “Jesus is coming to earth! Come all thou to meet Him. We must meet Him on the ice!” Shoving and shouting, “Hurry, hurry!” she emptied the camp

and herded the children seaward, the mothers following reluctantly for their children’s sakes. It was a fine day, windless and cold.

Far out on the sea ice Mina lifted her hands to the sky. calling. “Come, Jesus! Come. Jesus!" She stopped and said, “Take your clothes off. We cannot meet Jesus with our clothes on. Hurry. He is coming!” She ran around the group, clawing the clothes from Kumudluk. her sister, from Moses, her husband, forcing these two to help her undress the children. As their bodies grew' numb the

children cried out in pain and fright, but Mina would not give them their clothes; she beat off Sala’s wife; she ran round the naked group calling, "Jesus is coming!”

Now Quarack’s wife, frantic with fear, came and snatched her children's clothes, dressed them, gave her baby to her thirteen-year-old daughter and, carrying another child, hurried back to camp. Sala's wife tried to dress her sons but they w'ere too stiff to move; her own feet were freezing: she could carry no more than her baby. "Help me!” she cried to

Mina. But Mina said. "Let them freeze, it does not matter." And she ran back to camp alone.

Those adults who could still move each carried a child to safety. When Sala returned he found that his tw-o boys, his mother, his sister Kumudluk and two other children were dead. Of his family, only his wife, his baby and Mina were left, and Mina was insane. It was the end of the madness that had begun with Ouyerack and. long before, with the slaying of Ouyerack’s father.

All this went into the crime reports of Martin and Kerr, the RCMP investigators. On July 25 Martin flew back to the Belchers with a slight red-haired sergeant, Henry Kearney. In five days they had finished the preliminary hearings; Martin, a justice of the peace, acting as judge, Kearney as prosecutor." Sala, Ouyerack, Quarack, Adlaykok, Apawkok, Akeenik and Mina were committed for trial in mid-August when an Ontario Supreme Court judge and two Ottawa lawyers would arrive on a Hudson’s Bay Company schooner. Then Martin returned, leaving Kearney in charge of seven prisoners, fifty-odd witnesses and the trial arrangements.

In this situation Kearney, a precise conscientious man, needed all his knowledge of the north. ’Flu, often fatal among Eskimos, struck every man, woman and child in his charge. With the help of a corporal and two Hudson's Bay men, Kearney nursed them back to health, with only one death. When all their food except rolled oats was gone he organized hunting expeditions. He summoned a prospecting party to act as jurymen, put his prisoners at work making tables, chairs and benches, and by the time Mr. Justice C. P. Plaxton arrived, his courtroom was ready for him.

It was one of the strangest trials ever held. Kearney had set up a marquee as big as a carnival tent. At one end hung a large photograph of the king and queen. Beneath it was the judge’s bench, a wooden flag-draped table. The judge, wigged and gowned, faced the feathered Eskimo witnesses who squatted on the moss floor in their parkas made of duckskin like a flock of manlike birds. Wooden benches on either side held the jurymen, their feet swathed in bearskins, the two black-garbed lawyers, two Mounties in scarlet tunics and the prisoners, arms akimbo. Ouyerack remained emotionless; Sala rocked back and forth, faster and faster as the bizarre case progressed. As the women testified, their children would peep from cocoons of skins on their backs and fix their dark unblinking eyes disconcertingly on the lawyers. Rain drummed on the canvas roof. Eskimos sneezed and snuffled, and over all hung the ripe aroma of half-tanned sealskins.

Mina, who had to be carried into court strapped on a stretcher, was declared insane. The jury found Apawkok and Akeenik “not guilty, on account of temporary insanity.” Quarack, Sala and Ouyerack were sentenced to two years with hard labor to be served in the RCMP guardroom at Moose Factory.

Here, Charlie Ouyerack, after only a year in captivity, experienced the final mystic adventure. Officially he died of tuberculosis. IBut strangely, his tests were negative. It seems likely that the Eskimos were nearer the truth than the doctors; Ouyerack, they said, willed himself to die. Perhaps the murders lay on his conscience. Perhaps he merely mourned his lost prestige. Or perhaps he missed the freedom of life on the Belchers which, unutterably bleak as they are, are home to the islanders.

No one feels this more deeply than Peter Sala. Forbidden by the RCMP to return to his rocky reefs, he wanders the mainland shores, a lonely memoryhaunted exile. ★