My Name is Masak, a childhood memoir by Alice French

You can always learn new things in books. For example, in the first paragraph of this brief memoir of Inuvialuit life in the early twentieth century, I learned that Baillie Island, in the Northwest Territories, “was quite a big settlement at one time, but now it has washed away into the Beaufort Sea. Not the whole island is gone — just the buildings that once stood on the sandy point: the trading post, the Roman Catholic and Anglican missions, the shack where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were, and the Eskimos’ houses.” 

Yes, that seems to have happened, according to the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, which describes a small village, known as “Avvaq, now washed into the sea.”

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Hm. 

But on to the story. 

My Name is Masak is the short (100 pages in fairly large type) 1976 memoir of Alice French, an Inuvialuk who was born to Alaskan parents who had settled on Baillie Island. She was named Masak for her father’s mother, but given the English name Alice, which she used for much of her life. Because few copies of this book are available, I’m going to offer spoilers. 

French starts with the various taboos her mother experienced around pregnancy and birth, recounts how her great-grandmother was left to die as a newborn until she uttered the word “Mama” and was picked up from the snow, and explains the elaborate celebrations that attended the birth of a boy.

“For the birth of a girl, a meal was enough,” she writes.

French then describes her family’s move to Cambridge Bay, a terrible flu epidemic, and her move at age seven to Aklavik, where her mother entered the TB hospital while she and her brother moved into the All Saint’s Residential School. Her mother died that fall and her father returned to his trapline. “I did not hear my name Masak again until I went home.”

In spite of this dark précis, French’s memoir is mostly light-hearted, with few traces of anger or bitterness. At school, she describes being punished for speaking “Eskimo” as “a frustrating but effective” way to get kids to learn English. She remembers being issued seven candies a week, trapping rabbits from which she earned twenty-five cents apiece to spend as she pleased, and going on Saturday walks and picnics featuring hot dog roasts. She pays close attention to the natural world. “Cranes did their mating dance before pairing off. If we saw one feeding on the ground, we would sing to it and it would flap its wings and jump up and down, doing its dance for us.”

French spends three years at school before her father comes to take her home for the summer. This time, she is to live with the parents of her stepmother, virtual strangers to her. Still, she enjoys the whaling camp at Whitefish Station, about thirty kilometres from Tuktoyaktuk, “a place where young people had fun.” She describes the summer as “happy and carefree” while noting that her aunt, who had a boyfriend she loved, has been forced to marry a man of her new grandmother’s choosing. 

Back at school that fall, she describes an event that shakes up the girls during a class trip into the Richardson Mountains. There they meet up with the Roman Catholic mission students on their way out, and learn that a girl is missing. A desperate search comes up empty. 

Age eleven, French says, is the turning point in her life. She is now going to Banks Island with her father and will not be returning to school again. A freak accident just before the trip (she tips forward while carrying a rock “baby” in her parka) results in a severe concussion. “All September, October, and most of November I seemed to live in an unreal world where I caught occasional glimpses of Granny sitting at my bedside.” After three months in bed, she crawls on the floor until her legs are strong enough to hold her. 

She’s now in polar bear country, living in a tent framed with snow blocks, charged with gathering driftwood and willow branches, skinning and drying fox fur pelts. Food becomes scarce, and she recalls a broth of caribou hooves. “This may sound offensive because of the toe-nails, but it tasted good.” French carefully describes the life here. “Once more we were living well off the land.” 

At the end of that season, French is taken back to Aklavik, where she is to live with one of her former teachers. She learns this at the last minute; all she knows at the time is that she’ll be looking after the child of a Mrs. Robinson. Unhappily, her father does not come for her that summer. He arrives in November, and she is taken away for good. 

Her reaction is characteristic.

“It was sad to say goodby to my friends but at the same time I felt a great sense of relief, like a prisoner whose sentence is finally over. When the door closed behind me and my father I felt like a bird flying home to the vast open tundra.” 

But the reader, who has by now collected all those tales of women abandoned as newborns, forced into marriage, lost in the woods, enrolled as servants at strangers’ houses, might wonder just what’s in store for her now. (French eventually married an RCMP officer and moved to Manitoba.)

This book is so spare, it’s nearly impossible to get through without wanting to read between the lines. 

Though I tried not to.

“Our history has been largely written by outsiders and these stories do not often mention people like Alice’s family,” notes Wally Firth, then the MP for the NWT, in the forward to the 1976 edition. “However, one can never understand the North without getting to know its people. My Name is Masak is one northerner’s story in her own words. The North will never be the same again, but Alice’s memories will help keep the recent past alive.”

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