Monday, October 24, 2016


Farley Mowat

One of the reasons I thought I would like Saskatoon was that Farley Mowat grew up there.  In his books for kids he told about bicycling to school with his pet owl clinging to the handlebars with his wings out, getting a free ride.  He was quite a bit like Gerald Durrell, whose family is portrayed on Masterpiece Theatre at the moment.  I thought of him as a crusading biologist because of his book, later a movie, called “Never Cry Wolf .”  It was a defense against accusations that wolves were uncontained vicious killers that pulled down many caribou.  To defend his claim that big animals can live on little animals — like wolves eating mice — Farley lived on mice himself all one winter.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember him slugging down mice pickled in vodka, their tails hanging out of his mouth while he tried to bring himself to swallow.

I did not know that the vehemence and passion of the opposition to Mowat was not just about wolves — it was also about a tribe that was starving.  The government felt guilty -- and it was.

From the obituary of Farley Mowat

“A commissioned officer in the Canadian army during the second world war, Mowat belonged to the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the subject of his second book, The Regiment (1955). He spent much of 1943 and 1944 in Italy, rising to the rank of captain. Early in 1945 he moved to an intelligence unit in the Netherlands, where he crossed enemy lines to begin negotiations about a food drop that is credited with having saved thousands of Dutch lives.

After the war, as a student at the University of Toronto, he first visited the Caribou Inuit tribes, which fascinated him. Their mistreatment outraged him, and he wrote People of the Deer (1952), his first novel, centred on the threat to this native population posed by government neglect and, worse, the destruction of herds by outside hunters – a byproduct of the colonial system that Mowat opposed.”

I have not read “People of the Deer” nor “The Desperate People,” but they’re on order and I’ll write reviews as soon as I get them read. is a link to Paul’s work posting historic photos about Blackfeet/Blackfoot/Siksika (Walter McClintock and Thomas Magee); the great lake-webbed lands of the upper continent where much of the early Hudson’s Bay trapping was located; and the far north, esp. along the two seas — the Inuit people we used to call “eskimos.”  These photographers are not people I’ve known and the tribes they photographed are nothing like the familiar “Indians on horseback” or blanket-wrapped people of the SW of Curtis and others.

Recently Paul Seesequasis, who gathers and posts early photography, drew on the work of Richard Harrington.  His photos are in at least two books:  “The face of the Arctic: a cameraman’s story in words and pictures of five journeys into the far North” (1952) and “The Inuit: life as it was” (1981).  I find them transcendently beautiful, somehow suggesting Greek sculpture.  I think it’s his sense of grace in the human figure.

She's scraping an ice window with an "ulu."

"Padlei was the site of a Hudson's Bay Company trading post during the period of 1926 to 1960. The subgroup of Caribou Inuit who frequented the post were the Padleimiut (or Padlirmiut, or Paallirmiut, or Patlirmiut).

"Harrington, R., and Carpenter, E. S. (2000). Padlei diary, 1950: An account of the Padleimiut Eskimo in the Keewatin District west of Hudson Bay during the early months of 1950. [S.l.]: Rock Foundation. ISBN 0-88240-041-X

"Some hunting years were better than others as resident caribou and migratory herds grew or declined, but Caribou Inuit populations dwindled through the decades. Starvation was not uncommon. During a bleak period in the 1920s, some of the Caribou Inuit made their way to Hudson's Bay Company outposts and small, scattered villages on their own. In the early 1950s the Canadian media reported the starvation deaths of 60 Caribou Inuit. The government was slow to act but in 1959 moved the surviving 60, of around the 120 that were alive in 1950, to settlements such as Baker Lake and Eskimo Point. This set off an Arctic settlement push by the Canadian government where those First Nations living in the North were encouraged to abandon their traditional way of life and settle in villages and outposts of the Canadian North. Author/explorer Farley Mowat visited the Ihalmiut in the 1940s and 1950s, writing extensively about the Ihalmiut."

 A comparison between Ihalmiut and Blackfeet would show that both lived off migratory populations of big game animals who could change routes or numbers so that there was not enough game unless the hunters traveled.  The Euro killing of caribou that thinned the herds was blamed on wolves; the tribal hunting of buffalo that were off the rez was prevented with the threat of military punishment.  The Blackfeet lost one-third of their number over the Starvation Winter and the Ihalmiut lost half their number after 1950.

In other words, it is a recurrent situation that the People are economically dependent on something Europeans intercept and decimate but blame on other forces and address by trying to silence writers and photographers.  Eventually, the tables get turned.

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