In the winter of 1941, nine members of an Inuit community in a remote corner of the Hudson Bay died at the hands of three neighbors, one of whom proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ returning at the end of days. The victims were presumed to be safe harbors for the devil, and one of the killers, a teenage girl, complained that her hands were frozen “from killing Satan” out on the snow.
It is a story that still resounds in the annals of Canadian crime, and one that many Inuit would like to forget. Some of them are forgetting—and some of them, worries longtime Arctic traveler and writer Lawrence Millman, may be forgetting what it is to be Inuit at all, their world invaded by cell phones and satellite TV.
But as he writes in his new book At the End of the World, some events resist being forgotten: “Try to kill the past and it will get stronger and more angry…like a polar bear you’ve shot and only wounded.”
Millman has been traveling in the Arctic world for years, long enough that, now in his late 60s, he is one of the ancients of the place himself. Speaking from his home near Boston, he explains that in the early 1970’s, freshly degreed in English, he set out to explore a place he had been reading about for years. “I wanted to go somewhere where the spoken word mattered,” he says. “I went first to western Ireland, where I wrote my first book. Then I went to Iceland, where I got a teaching job. I discovered that I could get to eastern Greenland easily, in just a couple of hours. I made friends with a bush pilot, and off we went. I almost died when I fell through the ice into the sea, but an old woman saved me by coating me not in whale oil but Crisco. That did it for me—I was hooked by the north. I learned various Inuit dialects, hung out with elders, collected stories.”
What he did not do, Millman says, was pay enough attention to the young people, who, he says, had fallen between worlds, that of the modern West and the waning one of the old people. Now, years later, those young are becoming the elders, but not entirely connected to the territory their own elders once knew, for good and ill—including those horrific events of a clash of cultures, of old gods and new ones, in a case that even the Canadian authorities hoped would fade away.
Millman came across the story while traveling in the far north at just the time of 9/11. “In my mind,” he memorably writes, “I saw the Twin Towers collapse, and on the ground I saw the waving plumes of arctic cotton . . . that Inuit women mix with charcoal to heal the umbilical wounds of newborns.”
Fittingly, wounds are everywhere in his narrative, a blend of field notes, elegy, history, and travelogue. And, of course, the Inuit are not the only culture to be disappearing. Much of Millman’s book is given to meditations on how technology has torn us from our own past, from history, from the natural world. “Passionately in love with digital technology, our species has become its own predator,” he laments.
It is a haunting place of sorrow and loss, and now one whose icy skin is melting into the sea, but Millman can’t stay away. As we spoke, he was preparing for another trip north. If we are lucky, he will return with another book, bringing more news of the place before it disappears altogether.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.