Death and Dying in the Canadian Arctic

On Senicide, Rogue Polar Bears, and Life in Cape Dorset

By  Justin Nobel

The following is from Nowhere Magazine‘s 2016 print annual.

*

The flight to Cape Dorset, an Inuit community on a small island in the Canadian Arctic, was due to depart in minutes, but Inuit elders were still checking in with battered suitcases, swollen duffels and giant black trash bags filled with frozen and bloody caribou legs. Once aboard, I snacked on Oreos and ginger ale as the turboprop plane hummed west across Baffin Island—a treeless brown expanse fractured by gleaming blue streams. Taking off in Iqaluit, capital of the vast Inuit territory of Nunavut, skies were clear, but as we approached the Hudson Strait a bright wall of clouds swallowed our plane. This foggy shield had prevented aircraft from landing in Dorset for seven days. Our pilot found a hole and down we went, skidding to a stop on the gravel runway.

Outside was an eerie Arctic world. Dark hills surrounded the town. The mountains looked like crude piles of rock, flung down by a primordial god who then stopped time, petrifying the landscape in buckles and cleaves. The waiting room was a crush of people clamoring for essentials like milk, bread and booze, which had run dry in the fog. Royal Canadian Mounted Police in tight beige uniforms with guns strapped to their hips monitored the crowd. A banner indicated the reason I was there:

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Welcome to the Elders’ Gathering in Cape Dorset, August 15–19, 2011

*

There is not much material out there about how different cultures once killed their elderly, a practice called senicide, but there is some. In rural Japan, upon reaching age 70, sons carried their mothers and fathers up a holy peak called Obasute-yama, or Granny-dump Mountain, and left them on top to die of exposure and starvation. The Bactrians, who inhabited present-day northern Afghanistan, threw the old and sick to specially trained dogs called undertakers. Streets were littered with human bones. In North Africa, Troglodyte elders no longer able to tend to their flocks asphyxiated themselves by fastening the tail of an ox around their necks. East of the Caspian Sea, the Derbiccae murdered males at age 70 and ate them. Women were merely strangled and buried. Among the Massagetae, who lived around the Aral Sea, relatives sacrificed old men and stewed them together with wild beasts, while the Iazyges of Sarmatia, who roamed lands north of the Black Sea, were slain by their children with swords.

Closer to home, on the rocky Diomede Islands in the storm-thrashed Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, the Iñupiat ritualistically murdered elders with knives, guns and nooses. Those who wanted to die would explain their wishes to a relative, who would try to dissuade them. If minds could not be changed, the killing went forth. The person to die turned their clothing inside out, and relatives carried them on a seat of caribou skin to the destroying place at the edge of the village. The one who did the killing was called the executioner, usually the victim’s eldest son. One story, reported in a 1955 Southwestern Journal of Anthropology article, tells of a 12-year-old boy who killed his father with a large hunting knife: “He indicated the vulnerable spot over his heart, where his son should stab him. The boy plunged the knife deep, but the stroke failed to take effect. The old father suggested with dignity and resignation, ‘Try it a little higher, my son.’ The second stab was effective.”

From the Canadian Arctic comes the story of Charles Francis Hall, a Cincinnati newspaper publisher who in 1860 abandoned his wife and children to explore the frozen north. On southern Baffin Island, not far from present-day Iqaluit, he visited the igloo of a dying old woman named Nukertou, only to find the community had barricaded her home with bricks of snow. Thinking it unchristian to let her die alone, Hall forced his way in. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven did I slowly count in the intervals of her breathing,” he wrote in his journal. “At last I could count nineteen between her inspirations but her respirations were short and prolonged—irregular. At length Nukertou ceased to live.”

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“Those who die slowly, from a withering sickness, go to a purgatory called the Narrow Land located at the bottom of the ocean.”

About 60 years later, in the early 1920s, Knud Rasmussen, an explorer and anthropologist, reported senicide among the Netsilik Inuit of King William’s Land. “For our custom up here,” he noted, “is that all old people who can do no more, and whom death will not take, help death to take them.” During long winter marches between hunting grounds, elders were left behind on ice floes to die. A decade later, the French adventurer Gontran de Poncins lived among the Netsilik and described a son who abandoned his mother in a blizzard, one of the last known accounts of senicide.

De Poncins marked the end of the explorer anthropologist. Anthropology became a profession thereafter, with guidelines and degrees. Some questions were deemed relevant, others ridiculed. Modern anthropologists are more concerned about how things like Christianity and television and climate change affect the Inuit. Rather than being locked in igloos, Inuit elders are now confined to elder homes, which have popped up across the territory. No one thinks much about senicide, and if they think anything, they think it is a lie. “Over the last three centuries, white explorers and adventurers, police officers, missionaries, traders, and especially anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars have spun many a twisted story about the Inuit,” wrote Canadian anthropologist John Steckley in his 2007 book White Lies About the Inuit. But when I dialed Steckley by phone at Humber College in Toronto, I was surprised to learn that he had written his entire book from the university library. The man had never been to the Arctic.

It was at about that time that my grandparents, who had traveled the world in their seventies with nothing much more than a beat-up green rucksack, staying in hostels, taking local buses and sending me postcards from remote villages in India and China—missives that surely helped spawn my own wanderlust—were being transferred by their sons from their rustic south Jersey home to a fancy nursing home in the suburbs of New York City. The questions of how best to deal with the aging, the inevitable frailty of the body and the transition to death we all face seemed more important than ever. And the Inuit, at a crossroads between the violent elderly deaths of the past and the sleepy elderly deaths of the present, promised answers. Around the same time, an opportunity to investigate those answers presented itself: Elderly Inuit from across Baffin Island and Nunavik, an Inuit region in Arctic Quebec where I once spent a summer reporting for the local newspaper, were meeting in Cape Dorset for an elders’ gathering. In the summer of 2011, with my grandparents safely squirreled away in their new living quarters, I returned to the Arctic.

*

To communicate with the elders, most of whom spoke only Inuktitut, I needed a translator. On my first night in Dorset, the mayor introduced me to just the man: Black. We chatted outside the Sam Pudlat School, where events for the elders’ gathering were to be held. Children played on swings as the sun slowly dropped. Black wore a black hoodie, black sweatpants and black boots without laces. He had black hair that was going white and a wispy goatee that had already gone. He was sarcastic in a way one seldom sees among the Inuit, fond of phrases like “Holy Eskimo!” A sloppy tattoo on his left arm depicted a knife stabbing a rose. I liked him immediately.

Black’s real name was Pootoogoo, which means “big toe” and is a very popular Inuit name. Of fourteen kids in his elementary school class, five were named Pootoogoo. One student started calling him Black and it stuck. Black now worked as a translator when journalists and scientists came to town. He also worked as a pseudo parole officer for the police, coordinating releases when Inuit were tossed in the drunk tank. With no planes for a week, there had been no booze and the drunk tank was empty. “This is perfect for me,” said Black, lighting a cigarette. “I’ve got no work right now.”

I explained that I was looking for elders who knew stories of senicide. Black said he had someone in mind and asked for an advance. I gave him 60 bucks. He quickly passed it to his wife, who headed for the grocery store. I mentioned taking a walk that evening to the dark hills outside town, but Black said not to; there was a polar bear on the loose. He relayed a story I would hear several times: A hunter camped outside town was recently dragged by his head from his tent. The man broke free, but couldn’t see a thing; his scalp had been ripped away and was dangling in front of his eyes.

*

On opening day of the elders’ gathering, I joined a group of old ladies from Iqaluit who were watching a pot-bellied Inuit with a guitar named Nowdlak Oshuituk. Oshuituk played folk songs introduced by Scottish whalers. “He’s a self-taught musician from Cape Dorset,” whispered Napatchie, chaperone of the Iqaluit ladies. “His name means ‘man without a penis.’” Napatchie’s mother, a stoic eighty-two-year-old named Enoapik who wore sealskin boots and a floral dress, stood up and motioned for me to dance with her. I’m a terrible dancer, but with much of the crowd watching me, turning down one of the gathering’s VIPs seemed foolish. We did a sort of jitterbug. Then came the World’s Smallest Clothes competition.

Five elderly women paraded across the gym floor in ridiculous outfits. One wore Spiderman tights, a too-small Spiderman top and a child’s Spiderman cap. Another had on jean capris and a lacy top, not necessarily that small, though her sunglasses still made her something to look at: tiny, vintage, dusted in glitter. The clear winner in my opinion, though I don’t think one was ever declared, was an obese woman in sweatpants and a tube top. As contestants posed for pictures, one of her breasts slipped out of the tube top. With the whole gym in hysterics, the ladies retired to the locker room and a big bucket of cookies was passed around.

“There’s evil amongst us, sicknesses the health system can’t do anything about,” a pastor named Udjualuk Etidloie announced the following day at a church opening in The Valley—a stretch of trailer-like homes bordered by a gravel pit, a metal dump (where the polar bear had last been seen) and a cemetery. His church was part of a homegrown religious movement gathering steam across the Arctic. Inuit pastors, bored of the vanilla Christianity of Anglicanism and Catholicism, preached their own brands. Services featured rolling around on the floor and speaking in tongues. Some scholars believed these new churches signaled the reemergence of shamanism.

“There was no scandal of death; that is a Western idea.”

The spark for the movement occurred in 1999 in the Baffin Island community of Pond Inlet. Plagued by suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence, community leaders decided to torch pornographic magazines and heavy-metal CDs in a bonfire. But sin remained. Then one cold February morning a mysterious booming interrupted a church service. “There was a mighty rushing fire, and tongues of wind,” an Irish missionary in Dorset told me. Those present were convinced they had witnessed the Second Coming, or at least the coming of the Second Coming. The event was thereafter referred to as The Revival. There is a YouTube video about it.

After Pastor Etidloie finished his sermon, an elder snipped a piece of red yarn, then held the scissors triumphantly above her head. Church was open. The animated group marched back up the hill to the Sam Pudlat gymnasium, where the pastor donned a saxophone and took the stage with an Inuit Christian-rock group called the Kingait Band. The elders’ gathering was beginning to feel like a hokey family reunion, and I began to tire of it. One evening, as elders posed for photos in traditional white bead-studded jackets with capacious hoods for carrying toddlers—called amautis—I slipped out the back door of the gymnasium. A trio of youths were climbing on a shipping container, smoking cigarettes and looking bored. I introduced myself.

Numa, thirteen, was a chatterer with a backwards New York ball cap and braces. Willie, fourteen, wore black jeans and had acne on his forehead. The leader of the pack was Tiggy, who was only ten and looked like a lost pup, with untied shoelaces, patched jeans and an oversized green hoodie. He carried a slingshot made from a scrap of rubber and was continuously picking up stones and shooting them into the tundra. I suggested we walk to the dark hills outside town. They said okay. There was a waterfall there that they wanted to show me. I asked if we needed to worry about the polar bear. They said no.

The sun fell and the kids fired questions at me.

“Do you wanna go party?” asked Willie.

“You like Katy Perry?” asked Numa.

“Is your father still alive?” asked Willie.

“You should live here,” said Numa.

All the while, Tiggy gathered rocks and loaded them into a slingshot. He seemed underfed.

“Guess what?” said Willie, pointing at Tiggy. “His mom smokes weed with him.”

“He’s kinda poor,” said Numa.

“Look!” Tiggy shouted, pointing into the sky. A delicate line fluttered against the blue, barely visible, like sewing thread fluttering in the stratosphere. It was a skein of snow geese.

“Koola kook!” Willie called to the birds, his hands cupped to his mouth. “Koola kook! Koola kook! Koola kook!”

We circled a still lake on a road sticky with orange mud. The farther we got from town, the more the kids spilled.

“The last couple days lots of people were drunken,” Willie said.

“I live with my grandmother because my mother doesn’t like me,” said Numa. “Some of the people hurt little kids. They get angry, and… I don’t know.”

“You know a lot of people who commit suicide?” asked Willie. I knew some, I said, but not a lot.

“I knew another Willie,” said Willie. “He committed suicide.”

Willie pointed to one of the dark hills, which we were now approaching. “You see that mountain?” he said. “Some girl saw the devil there, with a tail.”

“There are ghosts there,” added Numa. “They’re dark, black and small, kinda like smoke.”

The waterfall was a lathery current pressed flat against slick rocks, like a giant’s unfurled tongue. Tiggy ran up its sheer face as if it were a ladder. I was sure he’d fall, but he made it to the top. He didn’t raise his arms above his head in victory as kids sometimes do, but dashed off. Behind us the sun was fiery red above the town. In the other direction the sea was dusky blue with a strip of gray between it and the sky. Then the moon, a white sphere, three-quarters full and rising. It was hard to believe I was still in the same universe as the elders. The gathering had made them doe-eyed and merry, like children. Meanwhile, the children were the ones who had been abandoned.

Suddenly, Tiggy reappeared. His green hoodie was striped with wet marks. It was just water, but it looked like he had taken part in a strange ritual, as if he really had become a tiggy.

*

One afternoon, I ran into Black outside Northmart. He looked frazzled. “I’ve been looking everywhere,” he said. “Have you been shot?” I’m not sure why, but I examined my torso. No, I hadn’t been. “Phew,” Black said. “A woman who lives next to you was arrested last night for trying to shoot her children; she was firing her gun into the air.” He had other news, also sour. With the town still sunk in drunkenness, Black was too busy to arrange interviews. But a few days later, he called to say the man he had in mind was ready to talk, a brawny seventy-two-year-old with neatly combed silver hair named Atsiaq Alasuaq. We spoke at Black’s home, a small yellow house in The Valley. Atsiaq sat in a swivel chair by a window that looked out on a cemetery of cockeyed white wood crosses. Behind them rose a steep ridge—an ancient polar bear pathway, Black said.

Atsiaq grew up in a hunting camp, where he lived in a sort of igloo condominium. Three igloos, each belonging to a different family, were connected by passageways. To minimize heat loss, there was only one door to the outside. A system of knocks let families communicate between igloos. There were knocks for mealtime, knocks for heading out hunting and knocks for just passing through. Atsiaq’s camp was near a spot where walrus liked to haul up. I asked him if he ever hunted them. “Of course I’ve hunted walrus,” he said. “When I was a kid I was the one who harpooned the walrus, because I was the strongest.” They killed the 2,000-pound beasts as they napped on the sea ice.

Still, famine was common. “Families that went hungry would have to eat their dogs,” said Atsiaq. “I’ve also heard of actual cannibalism, but that was way before I was born.” He swiveled his chair to face the window and began pointing. I thought he was indicating the graves, but he was referring to the ankle-high Arctic plants. When he was younger they would mix the roots with seal fat to stave off hunger. “Nowadays,” lamented Atsiaq, “no one eats the roots.”

He confirmed elderly had indeed been left to die on ice floes, but the practice stopped about a decade before he was born. When he was younger, after someone died, their body was surrounded by a ring of rocks—“so the bones, when they disintegrated, wouldn’t blow away.” A person’s favorite tool was put outside the ring. If someone were to die alone on the land, they placed their tool outside the ring themselves, then crawled inside to die. I asked Atsiaq what his tool would be. “My knife,” he replied immediately. “It is made of ivory with a wood handle, and mainly used to hunt walrus.”

Atsiaq left and I heard a commotion outside. Kids were shouting and I could see people running. The polar bear! Black and I rushed into the street. A crowd had gathered around a neighbor’s house. One boy pointed to a marble-sized black lump on the wall. “Holy Eskimo!” said Black. “We never see those in the north.” It was a fly.

*

The elders’ gathering ended with a flurry of exciting events. There was a soccer game, played with a ball made of sealskin, followed by a feast of raw caribou, bowhead whale and baby seal. I saw one woman snatch something from a bloody slit in the seal’s neck. When I asked her later what it was, she replied cheerfully, “The brain.” On the final night, we gathered again in the Sam Pudlat School gymnasium. It was announced that the next elders’ gathering would be in Aupaluk, a 174-person Nunavik community on Ungava Bay where the United Arab Emirates recently made plans to construct an iron mine that would employ 10,000 people. Select elders gave closing words. Enoapik, still wearing her trademark sealskin boots and floral dress, was among them. “You have to help the elders, share with them your small food,” she said. “You’ll all be old too.”

My flight back to Iqaluit was delayed for two days because of fog, then delayed again because of a deadly plane crash in the Central Arctic, then delayed another five days because of fog. On the evening I finally left Cape Dorset, the turboprop plane climbed quickly into a lavender sky. Below, the community was a button of light in a welt of black. And then there was only black. A stewardess passed around drinks; I got a ginger ale. Just before I left Nunavut for good, I visited an elder home in Iqaluit, the territory’s largest one. Manager Elisapee Gordon greeted me wearing polka-dot galoshes and a cell phone clipped to her tight jeans. She showed me the washroom, the laundry room, the rooms that were more like apartments, where elders had a measure of autonomy. Then she showed me rooms that were more like hospital rooms, where elders had access to 24-hour care. Some things remained traditional: Boiling away in giant steel pots for lunch was polar bear stew.

A few days later I returned with a translator and met one of the tenants, an 83-year-old woman in a wheelchair named Udloriaq Ineak. She was a shrunken toothless thing in fuzzy magenta slippers and teal sweatpants. Her eyes were watery blue and her arms were bruised and swollen from diabetes. Jars of jam decorated her nightstand, and completed puzzles hung on the walls: a parrot, dogs of the world, and Christie Brinkley, sitting on her haunches in a field of flowers.

Udloriaq was born in the Baffin Island community of Kimmirut, but at age four moved to a hunting camp outside town, living more like the Inuit always had. At 14 she married, not for love or because her family wanted a dowry, but for food. “I used to go hungry,” she said. “After I got married, I never went hungry.” Her husband hunted by dogsled. One day while he was gone, a polar bear came by the tent. She had two young girls at the time, and although she had a gun, she didn’t try to shoot the bear; she just watched it. “I had no fear,” said Udloriaq. She had been through too much. In the early 1950s famine and disease struck, and Udloriaq was one of the few people who remained healthy. She became a nurse to the entire community, helping the dying die with dignity, helping the almost dead back to life.

“Are you afraid to die?” I asked Udloriaq.

“I’m not afraid of death at all,” she said. “I’ve seen death around myself a lot, more than once, in the days when there was famine and there were people freezing. I believe once a soul passes away it goes to heaven, and those who are not believers go to that other place.”

*

Unlike explorers such as Hall, who wrote about the north as outsiders, Knud Rasmussen was born in Ilulissat, Greenland. He grew up with the Inuit, spoke perfect Inuktitut and by age eight was running his own dog team. In 1921, he embarked on a 20,000-mile journey across the Arctic, from Baffin Island to Siberia, observing the Inuit just before contact with fur traders and missionaries changed them forever. He recorded senicide among the Netsilik Inuit of King William’s Land and was one of the few explorers who succeeded in communicating with shamans—hermetic, mercurial men who spoke only Inuktitut. During a blizzard in a swampy section of the Central Arctic called the Barren Grounds, Rasmussen took refuge in the igloo of a shaman named Aua. After a meal of raw walrus, talk turned to the netherworld.

Those who die slowly, from a withering sickness, go to a purgatory called the Narrow Land located at the bottom of the ocean, Aua explained. Those who die quick, violent deaths go to the Land of Day, located in the sky. It is “a land of glad and happy souls,” Rasmussen recorded in his journal, “with many caribou, and the people there live only for pleasure. They play ball most of the time… with the skull of a walrus, and laughing and singing as they play.” It’s possible to get from the Narrow Land to the Land of Day, but first you must confess your sins to a sea goddess named Takanaluk Arnaluk, who was flung from a boat by her father in a storm to lighten the load. Takanaluk clung to the side, but her father chopped off her fingers.

“I wonder about it too,” said Laval University anthropologist Frédéric Laugrand, co-author of the 2010 book Inuit Shamanism and Christianity: Transitions and Transformations in the Twentieth Century. I had asked him by phone why Inuit who died quickly were rewarded. He believed it had to do with the body’s desire to free its soul. A slow death held up a soul on its way to the afterlife, whereas a violent death let the soul leave the body swiftly and go straight to heaven. Laugrand thought Inuit senicide made sense within this context, and believed that the elderly were once left to die on ice floes. In fact, he imagined that for those who actually lived to be old, it was common practice. “There was no scandal of death; that is a Western idea,” said Laugrand. “For an Inuit elder, there came a moment when he or she would think life was too much, and that it is better to fall from the sledge and freeze to death.”

*

Once every month or two, I buy a loaf of uncut sourdough bread and a cranberry muffin and take the train from Grand Central Station north, getting off in Harrison. I walk half a mile through leafy suburbs to a majestic neo-Georgian estate called The Osborn. I give the muffin to the nurse and the bread to my grandmother, whose eyes tear with joy. Then I walk to the couch where my grandfather seems to be forever resting, flat on his back. He isn’t so much dying as disintegrating, hurtling through space like a meteorite, with flecks and pieces flying off—his hearing, his back, his vision. But the thing is not dead until the core is dead, and so onward he hurtles.

He was born Joseph R. Knobel in Łódź, Poland, in 1917. His father went to America in search of work and a few years later sent back four tickets. Only Joe and his mother came. His older brother and a twin brother had both died of malnutrition. Once in America, the family settled in Paterson, New Jersey, where Joe’s father ran a small factory that made silk cloth. In the Depression he went bankrupt. Joe graduated high school and hitchhiked to New Orleans, looking for work as a cabin boy on an around-the-world steamer. But there was no work. He tramped to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, camped in an old stadium, fell in love with Francis Seligman while waiting for a ride, got a degree in chemistry, worked at a sugar plant deep in the bayou, married Fran. They reared six children, traveled the world with their green knapsack, sent postcards to their eighteen grandchildren, hundreds of postcards, thousands of miles, millions of breaths, heartbeats, seconds, time, lives burning away under azure skies, foreign skies, broiling away, boiling away, living away, familiar skies. No answer to the answerless question that is the thing called our lives.

“Joey,” my grandmother calls from the kitchen, “your grandson Justin has brought you some bread.”

We are holding hands on the couch. I want to carry him up a holy mountain, abandon him on an ice floe, stab him in the heart, but I don’t have the guts. Those days are indeed over. There will be no ring of rocks, and everyone has forgotten their favorite tool. These days, the world over, we die on couches.

Justin Nobel
Justin Nobel
Justin Nobel’s stories have been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 and Best American Travel Writing 2011 and 2016. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Tin House, Orion, Nautilus and Oxford American. Presently he is compiling a book of journeys through some of America’s most pressing environmental disasters. Justin lives in upstate New York.





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