I, Nuligak: A memoir of Inuvialuit life in the last heyday of the whalers

You don’t get a tougher start in life than Nuligak. 

Born in 1895 in the Mackenzie Delta and soon fatherless, he spent his early years with his paternal grandmother who “could not walk, for one of her legs was covered with sores.” The pair lived on the charity of whomever happened to be nearby. 

“Because I was an orphan and a poor one at that, my mind was always alert to the happenings around me. Once my eyes had seen something, it was never forgotten.”

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Thus Nuligak explains how he was able to recall a huge amount of his life — journeys, hunts, visits, accidents — in this slim but vivid memoir. 

He was encouraged to write by Father Maurice Metayer, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who translated the work from Inuvialuktun. The book came out in 1966, the same year Nuligak died in an Edmonton hospital, and was hailed as the first Inuk autobiography. 

“The original manuscript is somewhat like a mate’s log,” Metayer explains in a brief introduction, “where seasons and even years are not mentioned while the most especially interesting facts of an eventful life are related.” 

By the time Nuligak died at 71, much of his world had changed beyond recognition. His book aims to capture as much as he can remember.

He starts with childhood impressions of the beluga whale hunt. “Lots of people — lots of kayaks. I was too young to be able to count them; I only know the long sandbank of the Kitigariuit beach was hardly large enough for all the kayaks drawn up there.”

He writes knowing how remarkable all this will appear to a modern reader. “To haul the whales back to camp, a sort of pipe was driven into their bodies or necks, and air was blown into the carcasses so they would float. A single man often had as many as five belugas in tow behind his kayak.” 

He describes the polar night festivals, when adults would perform elaborate sketches for children using puppet animals. Here he describes a man performing as an Indian: 

“His long hair, hiding his face, almost touched the floor as he danced. Whenever the Inuit went to war and killed Indians, they would select those with the longest hair, tearing it off their heads and scalping them. This they would bring to the most nimble among them, as he was ‘to be the Indian’ during the festivals. That is the reason why this one had such long hair. My grandmother Okonaluk told me that her grandfather, Kinavinak, would keep these dried Indian scalps on a hook on the wall in his igloo. When he needed them to play the Indian he would chew them to soften them. I had asked Grandmother if there was any fat on the scalp. ‘Not much,’ she said.”

Indians, in this book, are an ever-present menace and danger. Several stories of massacres are told, though Nuligak’s own encounters are friendly. 

Sled dogs, Nuligak writes, were rare when he was young. Most Inuvialuit he knew man-hauled their sledges (women did this too). Only later in his life does he acquire working dogs, who appear almost as friends. He describes watching one favoured animal becoming tired enough to walk with eyes closed. As a good joke, Nuligak watches him walk right into a crevasse. 

Nuligak trapped and traded fox, ermine, mink and thousands of muskrats. He hunted brown bears and polar bears. He worked on several whaling ships and hauled freight for the HBC. 

For old white man history buffs (no offence; it’s just a different type of history), Nuligak encountered several famous whaling boats, including the Karluk, the Narwhal, the Thrasher and the Jeanette. He met Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Christian Klengenberg and other family patriarchs whose names still resound. He spotted a ship from the Amundsen expedition in 1905. Several other people — foreign, Inuvialuit and otherwise —  are named who are likely remembered in the Delta.

Nuligak speaks kindly of most people he encounters, with the occasional sideswipe. “It is the HBC custom to ignore you when you are poor,” he notes. 

But mostly he writes about his own hunts, turns of fortune and amazing journeys over hundreds of kilometres, by foot, boat and sledge.

“Even on nights when it was pitch dark and when there was a blinding blizzard I could find my way,” he writes. “I knew how to recognize the direction of the wind and my journeys when the weather was good had taught me all the nooks and corners of the country. Whenever I came to a new region, it did not take me long to find my way, so that I never became lost. When I travelled on ice, out of sight of shore, I guided myself by snowbanks. When the sky was overcast, if I saw enough to see where I set my foot, I guided myself by the furrow ploughed by the wind in the snow; my sense of direction was good and I always got where I wanted to go.” 

Nuligak later went by the name Bob Cockney (somehow derived from his father’s name, Kaanerk). The family is still thriving in the Delta. 

This book is a great legacy. Highly recommend. 

I, Nuligak
By Nuligak, aka Bob Cockney
Peter Martin Associates Ltd., 1966
208 pages

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