Chapter 20: People of the Deer
Gunnar finally appeared (more than a week overdue) and landed with his usual panache. Although we were greatly cheered to see him, we were angry to find he had nothing for the Ihalmiut. According to his account, the Churchill RCMP detachment (which was responsible for “native administration”) had received no authorization to release relief supplies.
I scribbled an angry telegram about this for Gunnar to dispatch to Ottawa. There was no time to do more since Gunnar was anxious to get us to our destination and return to his base before daylight ended.
Hastily we loaded our gear and ourselves (including an apprehensive Tegpa) aboard the Norseman. Without the least hesitation, Ohoto, whom we had persuaded to accompany us, climbed into the co-pilot’s seat and nodding his understanding of Gunnar’s pantomimed warning not to touch any of the controls.
Overloaded with supplies for six weeks, an extra forty-five gallons of avgas for Gunnar’s return to Churchill, and the new canoe lashed to the starboard float, the Norseman at first refused to fly.
Roaring down the bay at full throttle, we were perilously close to the Duck Islets before Gunnar was able to rock it free of the water. I thought we were goners as we passed over the islets with only inches to spare, but Ohoto, leaning as far forward as his seatbelt would allow, was ecstatic.
. . .
“There! Angikuni! The Great Lake! My people’s place!”
Gunnar set the Norseman down in a little cove backed by a naked headland near which, so Ohoto proudly told us, he himself had been born.
In a tearing hurry to be rid of us, for it was growing late and he would have to find his way back to Churchill in semi-darkness, Gunnar remained in the pilot’s seat, keeping the engine ticking over while the three of us launched the canoe and ferried ourselves and our gear to a tiny gravel beach.
We had not seen any Caribou during our flight and their absence had made Andy and me distinctly uneasy for, despite Ohoto’s assurances that vast herds would
appear, we could not get on with our investigations of their lives while they were absent. While Andy and Ohoto pitched our two tents, I climbed the long slope of the brooding hill behind the cove for a closer look at the country. The view from the crest was stunning. To the north, west, and east the tundra rolled into infinity like gigantic billows in a frozen sea.
. . .
Rather reluctantly Ohoto accompanied me on my first exploration, which was to the nearby cove where he had been born. At first I could see nothing to indicate that the grassy bench behind the beach had ever been occupied by human beings. Then Ohoto peeled some moss away from what proved to be a ring of boulders twenty feet in diameter that had once anchored a deerskin topay
— a tent.
The topay which had once stood here had belonged, Ohoto said, to his grandfather Utuwiak and both Ohoto and his father had been born in it. Poking around the rest of the site I found seven more tent circles, all apparently of about the same age. Together they may have housed fifty or sixty people.
Where had all the people gone? What had become of them?
I turned to Ohoto, but he was not his usual helpful self. He would tell me nothing except to mutter a few words about “the great dying.” And he was very anxious to be gone from this place of his ancestors. When I started scratching around inside one of the circles, he abruptly abandoned me and trotted off toward our own camp, paying no attention to my attempts to persuade him to return.
Annoyed, I continued on alone around the shore of the bay past a series of paired stone pillars that had once supported kayaks and came upon an even more extensive settlement site of more than two dozen tent rings, some as much as twenty-four feet in diameter. The tents raised over them must have been the size of small houses.
This camp was protected on the landward northern side by massive granite outcrops frost- fractured into a chaos of angular fragments and studded with odd- looking protuberances. When I climbed up to investigate these I found they were rock- built graves. Although originally roofed with flat stones, many had been opened by wild weather and wild animals. Human skulls gaped up at me from the mossy depths of some.
Unnerved by so many dead (I counted thirty-one clearly recognizable graves among many more reduced to mere piles of rocky rubble), I returned to our outpost, but found little comfort there. Andy had just returned from a long trek across the plains to the north and gloomily reported having seen neither caribou nor recent signs of any. Ohoto was in a despondent mood from which he emerged only long enough to assure me he would not go near any more old encampments of his people. Tegpa alone seemed cheerful, and it was in his company that I continued my attempt to discover what I could about the empty camps — and the full graves.
Although examining the graves was an unsettling and unsavoury business, I hoped the tools, weapons, and ornaments placed in them for the use of their occupants in the afterlife might be revealing of how these people had lived.
One thing was evident: they had not suffered from any shortage of material goods. Many well- made hunting and household artefacts of flint, soapstone, bone, and wood, together with trade goods including guns, iron snow- knives, steel hatchets and knives, and copper cooking pots accompanied most of the dead.
The majority appeared to have perished during one relatively brief period. The first to go had been buried in well-constructed graves farthest from the camp and provided with ample grave goods. Later victims had been interred ever closer to the tent circles, in increasingly makeshift graves, and with fewer grave goods. The last burials hardly deserved the name. One that I literally stumbled across was no more than a jumble of human bones (of an adult and a child) scattered within
one of the tent rings, suggesting that no one from this tent had survived to bury them.
Starvation could hardly have been the killer since the many stone-built meat caches sealed with heavy rocks standing in and around the camp were full of animal bones, suggesting that the meat which had once clothed them had gone uneaten except by worms.
Neither was there any indication of assault by other human beings. The bones of the dead were not broken or cut, nor had the graves been pillaged. Furthermore, kayaks and dog sleds (among the most precious possessions of the deer people) had not been taken. I found the decayed remnants of at least seven kayaks crumpled between stone pillars that had once raised them out of harm’s way.
The evidence was unequivocal — many people had once lived around the shore of Kinetua Bay.
Now there were none.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Otherwise by Farley Mowat. Copyright © 2008 by Farley Mowat. Excerpted by permission of Emblem Editions, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.