Coming Up Jesusie: early Inuit reception of Christianity

When I went to Arctic Bay, Nunavut (then part of the Northwest Territories), in 1979, I was surprised to find an active and clearly committed Christian community with no ordained minister. My anthropological training had taught me that the missionary influence had undermined and destroyed the “traditional” cosmologies and was thus incompatible with our research objectives. I found out that the last missionary in the area had died in 1946, and that although Arctic Bay was an outpost of the mission at Pond Inlet, the local people had maintained the Anglican Church throughout that time on their own. How was this possible?
The first mission on Baffin Island began in 1894 when The Rev. Edmund

Photo: McCord Museum
Photo: McCord Museum

Peck arrived at the whaling station on Ummanarjuaq (Blacklead Island) in Cumberland Sound. The story of the qallunaat (white) missionaries over the next fourteen years is so full of missteps and blunders that one wonders how the Inuit even took these men seriously. The missionaries introduced the syllabic system of writing and taught Inuit to read and write in their own language. These skills spread rapidly from camp to camp as Inuit taught each other, so that by the time it reached North Baffin Island, Inuit were convinced that they had invented the writing system. The only reading material at the time was the four Gospels and a version of the Book of Common Prayer (quite different from what we are familiar with, as there were no Psalms and it used Watt’s Catechism). The missionaries provided whaling captains with copies of these texts and had them distribute the books wherever they wintered over.
We must recall that the Inuit had become engaged in commercial whaling beginning in the 1850’s, and by the 1890’s the industry was collapsing. The whaling stations closed in 1908. Inuit had gathered into the whaling stations over this period, and with the closure of the stations, re-disbursed over the land to their traditional camps. This entire period was a time of rapid change, with the whaling way of life disappearing and the authority of the shamans who had provided the spiritual support for this way of life now undermined with the disappearance of the whales. The collapse of these colonial structures may have created an opening for the Christian missions.

Chris Trott with a group of Inuit friends
Chris Trott with a group of Inuit friends

Inuit in North Baffin Island (today Igloolik, Arctic Bay, and Pond Inlet) received their first copies of the Gospels and Book of Common Prayer from Captain Comer at Fullerton Harbour in 1904. What sense did they make of these texts? What were sheep, camels, vines, and olive trees – the whole apparatus of an agricultural society – to whale hunters in the arctic? Indeed, what were kings, governors, judges, Pharisees, and priests in a society that is fundamentally egalitarian? We have no way of answering these questions without considering the events that followed.
At the same time, a series of religious movements, called siqqiqtiq (1) in Inuktitut, traveled up the north coast of Baffin Island to Pond Inlet. We become aware of them through the writings of Captain Munn, who tells us that a man from Cumberland Sound called Akumalik led the people through “Coming Up Jesusie”. Akumalik questioned Captain Munn closely over the meaning of “Trinity” (the Captain demurred to explain), and further declared that his daughter’s child was a virgin birth. One of Akumalik’s disciples was a man called Umik, along with his son Nuqallaq (2).
Umik and Nuqallaq moved south to the Igloolik area. In the spring of 1921, they gathered men and women together in a circle to confess their sins. Umik then took seal organs (heart and liver), cut them up into small pieces and passed them to each person saying, “This is my body” (3). He then filled a ptarmigan heart with caribou blood and passed it around saying, “This is my blood”. These Inuit were now Christians. They flew white flags from their homes, greeted travelers by lining up and shaking hands (including the dogs), turned over all the meat they hunted to Umik for distribution, and exchanged spouses with Umik and Nuqallaq.
This is a very different process of “conversion” from the stories we are

Photo: Clare Kines
Photo: Clare Kines

familiar with. There were no Christian missionaries present – all the work was done by Inuit leading other Inuit. The puzzling pieces (to us) in the last paragraph show that Inuit received Christianity within their own cultural context. I believe that these two pieces grounded the Gospel in Inuit communities and leads to the faithful perseverance up to today.
Ten years later, Christian missionaries (Anglican and Roman Catholic) arrived in Pond Inlet and began teaching a much more orthodox understanding of the Gospel. The more familiar missionary story of colonial dominance of the Church by qallunaat took root during the 1930’s, suppressing the vibrant explosion of faith in the earlier period.
1  a caribou walking down a slope on the land and out onto the sea ice
2  In a Winnipeg connection to this story, Nuqallaq ended up in Stony Mountain Penitentiary for the murder of Robert Janes.
3  For an Inuit account of these events see the movie The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) released by Isuma Productions and directed by Zacharias Kunuk.

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