Monday, 15 July 2013 12:40

Migrants of the High North

Landscape by Ilulissat, Greenland, a good deal further to the South from the Qillarsuaq's migration route in the 1860s. Landscape by Ilulissat, Greenland, a good deal further to the South from the Qillarsuaq's migration route in the 1860s. Photo: Laila Heilmann


A new film, "Vanishing Point", documents the migration of a group of Inuit between what today is Nunavut and Greenland. The migration took place quite recently, you could say, about a century and a half ago. Which is not very long ago, taking into account the millennia of Inuit roaming the High Arctic. And yet, much has changed since then.

Through the voices of descendants of the immigrants in present day Qaanaaq, Northwest Greenland, filmmakers Julia Szucs and Stephen Smith recount a story that has been told many times before. In Greenland, it is is very well known. It is a story that keeps fascinating storytellers and audiences for a very basic reason shared by all good stories: it is good to think with.

It’s the story about Qillarsuaq, a shaman living with his 50 or so fellow tribespeople somewhere in what is today known as Baffin Island in the Canadian Territory of Nunavut. Qillarsuaq convinced his people it would be a good idea to go on a long journey in search of some other people he did not know but had heard about.

Most people would consider the area crossed by Qillarsuaq and his people as remote as it gets. To the latter, it was the centre of the known world. A world in which they moved about in a constant search for new hunting grounds, dreaming of reaching oases, teeming with sea and land mammals, birds and fish only waiting to be caught.

They did not, to their knowledge, cross any country borders, they did not know about Canada and Greenland. Of course they knew they came from nunavut, i.e., from our land, and that they were passing over to the land of the inughuit they had heard about.

vanishing point poster

 Official film poster

The strait which would later come to mark the border between two countries was an ice-covered highway that allowed the group of migrants to move from one coast to the other in no time, dogs fanned out before the sleds, heavily loaded with every last piece of their belongings.

The immigrating nunavummiut were warmly welcomed by the inughuit. Neither group of people had any idea this was the 1860´s, nor that that kind of number even existed. Yet, according to stories told, the inughuit somehow had allowed them selves to be cornered. They were allegedly very much in need of new blood and technology.

Incredibly, the inughuit, the inhabitants of the area later baptized Thule, had stopped using and forgot about essential hunting tools of their inuit ancestry such as the kayak and the bow and arrow. Qillarsuaq and his people would now reintroduce them to those tools. The inughuit were being re-educated by the newcomers.

At that time, people there still believed in the spirits of everything, the spirit of every part and every limb of your body, of every natural feature of the surroundings, of every utensil, of each weapon and any animal caught with it. And they believed it essential to your own and your family’s survival to keep all those spirits happy and healthy.

Beware of Dog Sleds. These signs warn pedestrians and vehicles of sled crossings Ilulissat Pamela Hathaway

                                                                                                        Pamela Hathaway

And people were named after and thereby infused with the spirits of deceased relatives. They each were given a series of names that were nothing like first and family names. Rather, everybody had a set of names at his of hers disposal from which he og she could pick a name to be known by until it would become convenient or necessary to pick another one.

People did not have chiefs or other forms of formalized leadership, even if there were people like Qillarsuaq whose words, perceptions and intentions counted more than those of others.

They did, however, have a formalized system of justice of a sort, i.e., the drum song contest that was used to solve – or continue – disagreements among individuals.

Murderous enmity is supposed to have been widespread among the Inuit with families retaliating against each other over and over again. Qillarsuaq was said to be prone to this bloody practice, and his migration has been considered not least motivated by his wanting to avoid being murdered by members of his victims’ families.

All those things have changed. However, to speak – like the title of the film does – of a vanishing, i.e., a loss, is potentially a reminiscence of another tradition: that of depicting Inuit and other natives as lost people, sailing into the red, setting sun of their ancient way of life. Whereas the fact is, like the film also shows, we’re still here to be portrayed, reproduced, rendered. Changed, translated, moving about and settling.


 Eye on the Arctic

Vanishing Point film trailer





Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat
Fram Centre, Postboks 6606 Langnes, NO-9296 Tromsø, Norway