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In the spirit mountains

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04 Aug 2011
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North Arm, Saglek Fjord
Kangidluasuk Base Camp, Torngat Mountains National Park
Nunatsiavut/Labrador, 4 August

I don’t know yet what to make of this place, the Torngats or Spirit Mountains. Years ago I did graduate research in the Innu village of Shetshatshui, several hundred kilometres south of here. I had wanted to sail up this rugged coast in the ferry that tramps up and down and connects Labrador’s remote, roadless communities. Lacking of money and time, the trip was never made.

But I’m here now. We appeared out of the fog on the Labrador coast yesterday morning, the Torngats glowing in the early sunlight. Crossing the Davis Strait we continue to follow the Viking route. But our mode of travel is far more comfortable than that of the Vikings. Traveling in open boats, subject to the vagaries of wind and weather, I imagined a Viking ship sighting the coast of Markland as they called it for the first time. Cold, cramped and wet they would have seen the same ancient coastal mountains we spotted.

Entering the mouth of the Saglek Fjord, we are surrounded by some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Formed 3.9 billion years ago these mountains have been heated, bent upwards, frozen, cracked and scoured by glaciers. In other places in the world nearly four billion years of such treatment would have erased them. Here they remain, more ancient than anything else, older by far than the Inuit, whose ancestors came into this land over 7000 years ago.

There is a beach at the end of the North Arm of Saglek Fjord that is littered with archaeological evidence of long occupation. We journeyed up the fjord with people who were born here and who lived their youth in a time when the first intrusions of the modern state were beginning. This is now Nunatsiavut. Formed in 2004, it is the youngest of the four Inuit land claims settlement regions in the Canadian Arctic. The agreement that created Nunatsiavut and the newest national park, Torngat, was 30 years in the making. It is part of a process in the Canadian North that has seen Indigenous Peoples regain control over their lives, a reaffirmation of rights of self-government that were never surrendered but were either brushed aside or actively subverted by the force of colonization from the south.

As we stood in a semi-circle around an ancient food cache on the shore, Sarah Pasah Annanack told us about her life and the changes she has experienced moving from a nomadic, land-based existence to life resettled in a community. She is happiest, she said, when she comes back to a place like North Arm where the char are plentiful and cold, clean water flows down the mountainside.

The Inuit and their ancestors have been in this place along time and their love for their land is palpable. Early this morning we collected a group of students and elders from the Torngat Base Camp and brought them onboard to sail to North Arm. Their presence brings an important dimension to this part of the journey -- this isn’t just a magnificent and mysterious landscape, it is a homeland.

Samantha Lyall is an 18-year-old Inuk from Nain, Labrador, who is heading off to environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax this fall. For her, coming into the Torngats is coming home. And her homecoming was made all the more poignant when she greeted her mother who works in the park. This kind of personal connection is an important lesson to all the students. We had similar links made with two Greenlandic students when we visited there.

During the long time Inuit have been in this region they have used Saglek Island, called Rose by some nameless English explorer or trader. The island lies at the mouth of the fjord close to the mountain where Tornga lives, a powerful deity that protected sea mammals. For this reason, the thinking goes, Inuit have used the island to hold the remains of their dead for at least 500 years and probably longer. Hundreds of raised stone graves -- the style used before Christianity -- dot the island.

There is a newer burial site as well -- a mass gravel containing the remains of 112 people whose bones and grave goods were dug up in the late 1960s by a PhD student who took them back to the University of Toronto for further study. Later they somehow made their way to the Department of Anthropology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Discovered a few years ago, they were returned to the people of the Torngats and placed in a large stone grave house. Before the Moravians came to this area in the late 1700s, Inuit buried their dead under piles of rocks, their worldly possessions at their side.

Garry Anderson, a Labrador Inuk who works for Parks Canada, explained that when the new structure was built in the original style (though much larger) on a spot away from the other graves, many of which are undocumented. Anderson was part of the 30-year negotiation process that led to the creation of Nunatsiavut and at one point was responsible for culture and heritage for the Labrador Inuit Association. He received the call when the bones were found and organized their return.

Garry sits on a lichen covered rock in front of the rectangular grave structure and tells us that he recently had a call from the Premier of Newfoundland informing him that another 13 bodies had been “overlooked” at the Memorial. The Premier apologized profusely, he said, and arrangements were made to bring them home as well. Another grave is being constructed and a reburial ceremony will take place on the 16th of August.

As Garry speaks, a rainbow appears in the sky over this sacred island. It is a quiet place, timeless. But because the Inuit were Christianized by the Moravians in the late 1700s, no one knows what kind of ceremonies were held to ease the passage of the dead into the next world. Nevertheless, Tornga remains a powerful force and the people continue feel there is something sacred about Saglek Island.

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