Thursday, January 18, 2024

An Inuk Hero

An Inuk Hero in Rupert’s Land 1800-1834

by Renee Fossett

Regina: University of Regina Press, 2023

$36.95 CA Paperback

$89.00 CA Hardback


Reviewed by Lawrence Millman


 Augustine Tataneuck is hardly a familiar name even to Arctic experts.  He was an Inuk, specifically a Kivallirmiuq, who began his Hudson Bay Company apprenticeship in August (hence his first name) of 1812 and continued to work for the Company until his death in 1834.  Among other things, he did household chores, planted cabbages, served as an interpreter, and helped Qallunaat live in various austere habitats.  He also served as an interpreter-guide for Sir John Franklin’s two overland expeditions, winning the admiration not only of Franklin, but also of doctor-naturalist Sir John Richardson, a man whose Arctic expertise considerably surpassed Franklin’s.

In an effort to excavate details about Augustine Tataneuck’s little-known life, author Renee Fossett delved into the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in most cases she came up empty-handed or found only a drive-by mention of his name.  I can imagine Ms. Fossett saying, “This might result in a paper, but not in a book, so I’ll give my research a broader context.”  Thus a goodly part of The Life and Times of Augustine Tataneuck doesn’t mention Augustine at all, but discusses the HBC trading post at Churchill or the Franklin expeditions.  Indeed, almost 1/3 of the book deals with the Franklin expeditions, and Augustine appears only when his skills as a translator or an Arctic survival expert are required.  By the way, the subtitle is a little misleading: along with the overland Franklin expeditions, several of the book’s primary locales are either east or west of Rupert’s Land, which consisted only of the Hudson Bay drainage basin.     

Concerning that subtitle, Augustine seems rather too complicated an individual to be called simply a hero.  Yes, he was an excellent interpreter-guide, but he also delighted in “spiritous [sic] liquors,” wrote HBC trader Walter Harding.  Another trader wrote that he “was very happy to be issued a blue serge jacket and other items resembling what seaman with the Royal Navy wear.”  Yet another said he was too “arrogant” to do certain kinds of work (perhaps emptying slop buckets?).  Might he have been a Qallunaat wannabe?  

With respect or perhaps disrespect to the Qallunaat, Augustine provided his fellow Inuit with all sorts of items such as mirrors, rings, bells, whistles, and medals — I dare say his generosity in this regard might have been a detriment to their traditional culture.  Ms. Fossett writes “Nothing…sets him [Augustine] apart from other indigenous people at the beginning of the 19th century."

Many recent books have been written about the Arctic by individuals who never went there, so it’s a pleasure to come across a book whose author spent a considerable amount of time in the Arctic.  In addition to her field research, Ms. Fossett spent ten years as a community teacher in various Inuit villages.  In fact, she occasionally steps out of her narrative and purveys lore that she probably acquired from the Inuit themselves.  An example: she mentions the designs a seamstress was obliged to put into her clothing.  Any mistake on that seamstress’s part “could be misinterpreted by a person other-than-human [powerful spirit] and bring disaster on a hunter and his community.”  Sometimes I wish she had stepped out of the narrative in a different way and compared the past with the present…indicating, for example, that Churchill has now become the tourist mecca known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

For those readers who are looking for a book fraught with high drama, I would not recommend The Life and Times of Augustine Tataneuck.   But for readers who want a highly detailed, more or less scholarly book that focuses on the history of the Canadian North, I would recommend it highly.

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