As a young girl growing up in northwestern Greenland, Navarana Harper recalls hearing stories about how Qitdlarssuaq, an Inuk shaman from Canada’s Eastern Arctic, led a bold 2,900-km dogsled expedition along the forbidding coastlines of Baffin and Ellesmere islands and across the sea ice to the northern coast of Greenland 130 years ago. That expedition is widely credited with saving Greenland’s isolated Polar Eskimos from possible extinction. “I thought it was exciting and fantastic that they could travel that way,” says Harper, now 45. “I didn’t know anything about Canadian Eskimos. The world seemed so far away from here.” By most accounts, Qitdlarssuaq’s journey began in the late 1850s, when he was accused of using his shamanic powers to murder several people on Baffin Island. After fleeing to Devon Island, the shaman heard
tales about the Eskimos across the sea. Inuit oral history maintains that Qitdlarssuaq located the Greenlanders by sending his soul on journeys through the air. Then, like some Moses of the Arctic, he exhorted his people to follow him. “ ‘Do you know the desire for new countries?’ ” he asked them. “ ‘Do you know the desire to see new people?’ ” After about six years, Qitdlarssuaq and his followers finally crossed Smith Sound into Greenland. There, near Etah, they encountered the Polar Eskimos. For a variety of reasons, including an epidemic that is believed to have killed most of their elders, the Greenlanders had lost many traditional and vital skills. The newcomers taught them how to erect better snow huts, to hunt reindeer with bows and arrows and to spear salmon. After six years, Qitdlarssuaq decided to lead his party home. He died during the
first winter of the return journey, and famine broke out among the remaining members. Some starved to death; others resorted to cannibalism. A few members eventually returned to Greenland on foot—they had eaten all their dogs to survive.
Despite its tragic ending, the expedition had a lasting impact. Now, representatives of the 900 Polar Eskimos who still live in Greenland say that they are determined to maintain their traditional culture. While many Canadian Inuit long ago abandoned the dogsled for faster and more convenient snowmobiles, the Polar Eskimos have passed laws against hunting with snow machines. They are also placing greater emphasis on teaching their native language in schools. One hundred and thirty years after the Baffin Inuit took their survival tips across the frozen sea, the Greenlanders may have some lessons of their own to impart.
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