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The Shepherd Of The High Arctic

The Shepherd Of The High Arctic

A ruthless shaman leads his people to the ends of the Earth and back
By Jerry Kobalenko
Jun 11
From the June 2011 Issue

The Qitdlarssuaq story would make a great movie. It has all the ingredients of epic drama: murder, magic, rivalry, cannibalism and a heroic figure both dark and charismatic. Qitdlarssuaq – the great Qitdlaq – was a man “little encumbered by scruples,” as one scholar described him, driving his group of Inuit families over vast distances of harsh, nearly uninhabitable regions of the High Arctic, in pursuit of a vision.

Qitdlarssuaq was born in the early 1800s around Cape Searle on Baffin Island, near what is now Auyuittuq National Park. In 1832, he murdered a man as a favour to his hunting companion Oqe. Vendettas among the Inuit of that era had an almost Sicilian predictability, and both Qitdlarssuaq and Oqe became marked men. To breathe easier, they rounded up family and friends and moved to the north end of Baffin Island. Over 50 Inuit joined the migrants, a testimony to Qitdlarssuaq’s charisma.

After almost 20 years, the victim’s determined relatives finally caught up and attacked the wayward group on the east coast of Bylot Island, a picturesque circumflex off northern Baffin. Qitdlarssuaq and his allies cut steps up a frozen-in iceberg, which they used as cover from the hail of arrows and as high ground from which to launch their own retaliatory salvos. They managed to repel the invaders but it was clear to Qitdlarssuaq that it was time to move again. 

That spring, they crossed the shifting ice of Lancaster Sound and settled on the south coast of Devon Island. Not much distance separated them from another attack – on a clear day, you can see the snowy crown of Bylot Island from their camp – but the open water and pack ice was a good barrier against vengeance-seekers. The vigilantes never troubled them again.

For years, the migrants hunted the area’s abundant walrus, bears and seals. In 1853, Qitdlarssuaq met Commander Inglefield of the British Navy, whose ship was in the region to stock a food cache. By 1858, his group moved 80 kilometres east, to Philpots Island. In fact a peninsula, Philpots is a comparatively lush oasis on an otherwise barren coast. That summer, Qitdlarssuaq bumped into a second British explorer, Leopold McClintock. Through an interpreter, Qitdlarssuaq shared stories, and learned about the Polar Inuit of northwest Greenland for the first time.

By now, Qitdlarssuaq had a reputation as a formidable shaman. A glow was said to hover above his head as he walked at night – a reference, perhaps, to his bald pate, unusual among Inuit. Stories exist of him turning into a polar bear, or into a bird that went off on long reconnaissance flights. During one such flight, Qitdlarssuaq brought back tales of a group of Inuit living to the northwest, probably neglecting to mention that he gained this knowledge from McClintock. 

The peninsula had good hunting, with no vengeful figures from the past to imperil them. But in 1859, after eight years on Devon Island, the aging but still-vigorous Qitdlarssuaq convinced the group to move north again, this time on a spiritual quest to find this group of far northern Inuit. 

Family groups travel far more slowly than a hunting party. Their six-metre-long komatiks – a necessary length to protect their fragile kayaks – would have struggled to maneuver through rough sea ice. Such a large group would also have needed to stop for long periods to hunt. When morale sagged, the inspirational Qitdlarssuaq spurred them on with the eternal motto of the traveller: “Do you know the desire to see new lands? Do you know the desire to meet new people?”

Nevertheless, by the time they reached Orne Island, a low speck off the east coast of Ellesmere, a schism had developed between Qitdlarssuaq and his old accomplice. Oqe had long been sullen, and now began to speak wistfully of whale-meat and other culinary favorites that they had enjoyed at their old Baffin haunts. He began to “long for the ‘onions of Egypt’,” as scholar Guy Mary-Rousselière put it. So the group split in two, the forward-lookers led by Qitdlarssuaq and the backward-longers led by Oqe. The two clusters of qammaqs – traditional Inuit homes made of sod, stone and skin – were separated across a spit of Orne Island, a stone's throw apart.  

Over time, they had forgotten how to make a kayak, a bow-and-arrow and a fish leister, their three-pronged spear. They couldn’t hunt caribou or char, and were only marginally successful with marine mammals as well. They were within one bad hunting season of dying out entirely.

Like Philpots Island and south Devon, Orne offered great hunting. It lay on the edge of the North Water polynya. Seals sunned on the sea ice; heaps of walrus drifted past on floes; polar bears passed constantly and even gave birth in nearby Talbot Inlet. Little wonder that despite tensions, both groups remained there for two years. 

Around 1862, Oqe and at least 24 followers turned south toward home. There is no evidence that they ever made it. A year later, Qitdlarssuaq and his group pressed north another 150 kilometres to Pim Island before crossing frozen Smith Sound to Greenland.

Near Etah, a hunting camp often used by American and British expeditions, Qitdlarssuaq’s migrants found a cabin left by US explorer Isaac Israel Hayes. Lighting a fire inside, they touched off some of Hayes’s explosives. Several died. The following spring, they met their first Greenlander. The old man had a wooden peg-leg – a gift from an exploration ship’s physician – on which he limped around fluidly. Qitdlarssuaq wondered if this was a land of wooden-legged people.

The Polar Inuit of Northwest Greenland had been isolated for centuries by the near-impassable ice porridge of Melville Bay. Only about 140 of them remained, in scattered communities. Over time, they had forgotten how to make a kayak, a bow-and-arrow and a fish leister, their three-pronged spear. They couldn’t hunt caribou or char, and were only marginally successful with marine mammals as well. They were within one bad hunting season of dying out entirely.

Qitdlarssuaq and his group soon integrated with the Polar Inuit and re-introduced crucial technologies. Their dialects were different, but they could understand one another. Several intermarried. The migrants revitalized a vanishing culture. 

It would have seemed that the aged Qitdlarssuaq found peace at last. But this legendary Arctic myth had one act remaining. Qitdlarssuaq had a falling out with a Greenland shaman. His people and even some Greenlanders pressured him to murder the rogue conjuror. Qitdlarssuaq complied. He ambushed the man outside his snow house and stabbed him to death in the armpit. 

Soon after, Qitdlarssuaq’s health began to fail. Ever the roamer, he longed to see his native land one last time. About 20 of the original migrants agreed to join him. But the party had barely crossed back to Ellesmere Island when Qitdlarssuaq died of a stomach ailment, around 1870. Some say he was buried on the ice, others maintain his grave lies somewhere on Cape Herschel. 

Although Qitdlarssuaq was dead, his momentum continued to propel his followers forward. Soon they were back on Orne Island. Then a fateful error: They decided to move to Makinson Inlet, 150 kilometres south, when one hunter brought back favorable reports of caribou, muskoxen and fish. By the time they reached Makinson and discovered that it was not as fertile as promised, it was too late in the season to return to Orne Island.

They built qammaqs on the shore of a lake and hunkered down for the winter, starving. Several died. Two men began eating corpses, eventually turning to homicide in order to feed. One young man named Merqusaq managed to fight off the cannibals, but lost an eye in the struggle. He and four others fled the dark doings of that camp, which they called Perdlerarvigssuaq – the place of great famine. Two years afterward, in 1873, the five survivors managed to return to Greenland. Decades later, the fantastically weathered, one-eyed Merqusaq relayed the epic tale of the Qitdlarssuaq migration to explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen. It is thanks to Merqusaq’s survival that many details of the Qitdlarssuaq saga also survived.

Today, over one-third of Greenland’s Polar Inuit are direct descendents of those bold migrants from Baffin Island.