NIAQUTIAQ (Niaqutsiaq, Neahkoteah, Neakuteuk), Inuit trader and post manager; probably b. in the 1880s on the east coast of Baffin Island, son of Iqilarjuq; m. Kowna (Kowdna, Kownang), and they had one adopted son; d. late January 1922 at Kivitoo (Nunavut).
From 1912 to 1922 Niaqutiaq represented the Sabellum Trading Company of London, England, at Kivitoo. His story bears witness to some of the unfortunate circumstances that emerged as Inuit of the eastern Arctic attempted to adapt their socio-economic and cultural traditions to those of western society.
In the late 19th century a number of British whalers increased their trade with the Inuit to offset the rapid decline of the whale population in Davis Strait. A few companies attempted to regularize trade in polar bear, ivory, sealskins, and blubber by appointing Inuit representatives to act as middlemen. Beginning in 1912, the Sabellum Trading Company established several posts along the eastern shore of Baffin Island, including one at Kivitoo where the whalers used to anchor to flense carcasses, bury their dead, and take on fresh water. The management of the trade there was entrusted to Niaqutiaq, who was related by marriage to Angmarlik, the well-known leader at the whaling station on Kekerten Island in Cumberland Sound.
Kivitoo’s population was relatively small compared to that of the whaling stations in Cumberland Sound, but by 1920 there were similarities in the commercial operation. Those living at the post were “employed” by Niaqutiaq, in the sense that they received regular food rations and ammunition. Supplies were considered advances on their credit for the furs they traded, often at a much lower price than those brought in from outlying camps. As manager, Niaqutiaq attained inordinate influence and authority over the Inuit, who were entirely dependent upon his goodwill to obtain ammunition, guns, fox traps, tobacco, and other items. As a consequence, “it was customary for them to do his bidding,” and they did not question his wisdom.
For the first few years Niaqutiaq is said to have returned an acceptable profit for the company, but World War I intervened and the supply ship did not visit Kivitoo between 1916 and 1920. The Anglican missionaries had departed from Blacklead Island in 1913, and their absence added to the isolation of the community from European influence. With little knowledge or understanding, Niaqutiaq and leaders of other camps began instructing their people on the Christian religion. As anthropologist Marc G. Stevenson suggests, “Many of the roles of shamanistic leadership continued to be played out within the context of Christianity.” In Niaqutiaq’s case, some of the rituals and taboos of shamanism also resurfaced and were celebrated in the name of Christianity.
In the winter of 1921–22 the Kivitoo community consisted of around 40 men, women, and children. Niaqutiaq and his family had a frame house provided by the company, while the others lived in skin tents covered with snow blocks. Compared to the conditions at neighbouring Padlee (in Merchants Bay), accommodation, equipment, sanitation, clothing, and general health were decidedly inferior. According to police reports, venereal disease introduced by the whalers was still “rampant” at Kivitoo, as evidenced by visible infections and the “number of sterile women and cases of total blindness.” As winter approached, Inuit visitors had observed that Niaqutiaq seemed to be suffering from bouts of “mental weakness” and that there were “problems” in the community. They reportedly tried, but were unable, to help.
The festivities on Christmas Day marked the beginning of more serious trouble. According to witnesses, Niaqutiaq suddenly appeared at a dance held in the storehouse, dressed in a white gown, adorned with three-foot angel’s wings, and wearing a crown. He first claimed he was an angel, and then later Jesus. Singing and dancing continued long into the night. In the days that followed, he became more demanding and irrational. He appointed two hunters to be his “policemen,” to report on those who were “bad” and carry out his punishments. A reign of confusion and charged emotions ensued, as the community spent days at a time without food and with little sleep. There were many sessions of religious instruction, hymn singing, and frenzied dancing, multiple threats at knifepoint, and forced exhibitions of sexual acts. Niaqutiaq warned that disbelievers would be killed. The Inuit became increasingly subservient and frightened. As one woman related later, “My fear of [Niaqutiaq] when he was living was so great that I used to do what he told me to. . . . I thought he was God and Jesus.”
Derangement eventually led to murder. After failing to restore a blind man’s sight by rubbing his eyes, Niaqutiaq declared Mungeuk was “bad” and commanded his policemen to kill him by stabbing him through the heart. The next victim was Semik (Semming), who could not read or write. When his illiteracy did not improve after he was struck three times, Niaqutiaq ordered his execution. This time death was not swift and the policemen fled, fearing they would be victims because they had dared to question Niaqutiaq’s orders.
When his own cousin challenged his actions, Niaqutiaq threatened he too would die. Kidlapik lay awake that night, his gun at his side, ready to defend himself and his family. Yet, for reasons unknown, Semik’s wife was chosen. Just as Niaqutiaq was about to bludgeon the kneeling woman with a hammer, Kidlapik took aim with his rifle and fatally shot him through the chest, thus ending a month of terror. In the Inuit tradition of allowing kin the right to avenge the murder of a relative, Kidlapik tearfully offered his rifle to Niaqutiaq’s widow and others, asking them to take his life. They refused and most thanked him for saving them from certain death.
News of the tragic events spread, reaching the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment at Pond Inlet that summer. A year later Kidlapik’s brother Peneloo arrived at the RCMP post with a more detailed account. Senior officials agreed that it was a “case of insanity” and that Kidlapik “should be commended” for having defended the community. In March 1924 Corporal Finley McInnes and Constable William MacGregor spent over a month at Kivitoo to record more than 70 typed pages of testimony from nine witnesses. McInnes concluded that the missionaries bore a major responsibility for having distributed syllabic Bibles without continued supervision and instruction. To help stabilize the community, he suggested regular police patrols, welfare rations, and education. The investigation also recommended that no further action be taken. Kowna, Niaqutiaq’s widow, assumed the position of manager until the Kivitoo post was abandoned in 1926. There were no recurrences of instability.
Additional incidents of fanaticism and “religious insanity” would occur elsewhere in the eastern Arctic. In some cases the police were successful in preventing bloodshed; in others they were not. Meanwhile, the RCMP increased their patrols to outlying camps to provide support where needed and educate the Inuit on Canadian laws.
Seventy-five years later, memories of Niaqutiaq still seemed to haunt the region, with most Inuit reluctant to discuss the incident. For scholars, the Kivitoo murders reflect a dark side of Inuit-Qallunaat relations, one which might have been prevented had there been more financial support for missions, police protection, medical services, and education.
[Little has been written about Niaqutiaq and the Kivitoo murders. Most of the details described in the present biography were obtained from archival documents and oral history interviews. s.d.g.]
Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada, Western Canada Service Centre, Philip Goldring, “Southeast Baffin historical reports” (1988); North Baffin Oral Hist. Project, Taped interview with Inuit elder Timothy Kadloo (a distant relative of Niaqutiaq), 18 Aug. 1924. NA, RG 18, 3293, 3667. Private arch., S. D. Grant (Peterborough, Ont.), Pangnirtung Oral Hist. Interviews, Taped interviews with Inuit elders Pauloosie Angmarlik and Etuangat Aksayuk (both distant relatives of Niaqutiaq), 15–18 June 1995. Trent Univ. Arch. (Peterborough), Finley McInnes papers, ser.A, box 1, file 11 (testimony of nine witnesses to the Kevetuk/Kivitoo murders, February–April 1924) [A private collection of papers and photographs now owned by a granddaughter and temporarily housed, with restrictions, in the archives. s.d.g.]. Arctic whalers, icy seas: narratives of the Davis Strait whale fishery, ed. W. G. Ross (Toronto, 1985). A. L. Fleming, Perils of the polar pack: or, the adventures of the Reverend E. W. T. Greenshield, Kt., o.n., of Blacklead Island, Baffin Land (Toronto, 1932). Philip Goldring, “Inuit economic responses to Euro-American contacts: southeast Baffin Island, 1824–1940,” in Interpreting Canada’s north: selected readings, ed. K. S. Coates and W. R. Morrison (Toronto, 1989), 252–77. S. D. Grant, “Religious fanaticism at Leaf River, Ungava, 1931,” Inuit Studies ([Quebec]), 21 (1997): 159–88. W. G. Ross, “Whaling, Inuit, and the Arctic islands,” in Interpreting Canada’s north, 235–51. M. G. Stevenson, Inuit, whalers, and cultural persistence: structure in Cumberland Sound and central Inuit organization (Toronto, 1997). Gavin White, “Scottish traders to Baffin Island, 1910–1930,” Maritime Hist. (Tavistock, Eng.), 5 (1977): 34–50.