No good deed goes unpunished. So discover the Inuit band that brought Nanook of the North to the silver screen.
At the outset of this vigorous work of historical detection by UK journalist McGrath (Motel Nirvana, 1996), Canadian outdoorsman Robert Flaherty arrives at Cape Dufferin, in the northeastern Hudson Bay country. He has been here before, having explored it for railroad magnate Sir William MacKenzie, but now he is on his own, making a film about Inuit life. The winter is hard, but sharing his hut with a young Inuit woman named Maggie Nujarluktuk makes it more bearable, as does learning the land through the tutelage of a man called Alakariallak, whom he will rename Nanook. It’s a promising setup, established in just a few pages. McGrath ably delivers on the possibilities, which include the inevitable and the tragic. The first category includes the birth of Josephie, Robert and Maggie’s son, whom Robert, a married man back home, will never see or attempt to contact. The second follows years later, when, in the interest of establishing Canadian claims over the Arctic in a race against the Soviet Union and other powers, the Cape Dufferin band is moved hundreds of miles north. Those who take pains to emphasize the Canadian government’s enlightened policy toward First Peoples in contrast to the Yanks’ murderous ways will not be pleased by the outcome. It, too, seems inevitable: Even as Flaherty enters film history with Nanook of the North, and later Man of Aran, the subject of the first starves to death and his people suffer every pain and indignity—one tiny example of which is that the government school established for the children years later contains only two books, one of them Roads of Texas.
“The relocation was an ill-conceived solution that was inhuman in its design and its effects,” the Canadian government admitted half-a-century after the fact. McGrath’s careful study provides ample evidence.