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KANAKA, Inuit hunter and trader; b. about 1855 in Baffin Island (Nunavut), possibly near Cape Haven; m. Kumiapik (Ky-mi-a-pik), and they had at least one son and a daughter; d. 25 Aug. 1925 near Cape Mercy (Nunavut).

Kanaka was born on the brink of one great transformation in southern Baffin and he played a part in two more. For centuries the economy of the region revolved around the seasonal hunting by the Inuit of caribou, seals, walrus, and other game. Until the 1840s encounters with Europeans were limited to occasional trade with passing ships, chiefly those of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The bowhead whale, which was also hunted though with great difficulty, drew British and American whalers [see Eenoolooapik*; William Penny*]. In 1851-52 the crew of an American vessel first wintered in Cumberland Sound; the venture was profitable and wintering became common. The Oqomiut, as the Inuit people there are known, began hunting for the incomers but the opportunity came at the cost of a heavy loss of population due to epidemics. These changes were followed by a seasonal reorientation around three whaling stations, one at Cape Haven on Hudson Strait and two in Cumberland Sound at Blacklead and Kekerten islands.

Kanaka was probably born within five years of the whalers’ first wintering. Incomers later perpetuated a rumour that his father was a “Portugee,” a black Azorean aboard a Massachusetts whaler. This claim helps confirm his reported date of birth. Such circumstances did not affect an individual’s place in society. One can be sure that he was named for a cherished kinsman and lived in a skin tent in summer and fall and in an igloo, sometimes on the sea ice, in winter. Kanaka, who excelled in hunting and leadership, was apparently respected by the people at the whaling stations; it was at Blacklead that he would enter the written record.

After the economic and demographic shocks of the 1850s and 1860s, it is surprising that the next transformation, a religious one, was so long in coming. In 1894 the whalers brought the first missionary, Anglican priest Edmund James Peck, to Blacklead. He introduced the gospel in the Inuktitut syllabics he had adapted in Ungava (Que.) and the appeal of this native writing system proved irresistible. By 1903 the struggle between converts and traditionalists was approaching a crisis; mission sources identify Kanaka at Blacklead and Ohitok at Kekerten as the shamans leading the resistance. No confrontations took place, however, and Kanaka soon converted. When Peck was travelling on the sea ice early in 1903, Kanaka hospitably received him in his igloo. During a later encounter on the walrus-hunting grounds, he unexpectedly proposed that Peck conduct a prayer service.

On 22 July 1903 Kanaka and Ohitok left to work at a new station at Igarjuak on Pond Inlet in northern Baffin. They were part of the two crews of whaleboatmen who had come to terms with a Scottish company to move with their families to a region where whales were still relatively abundant but where the local Inuit, the Tununirmiut, were not engaged to hunt them. (A zealous young Christian girl in the same party would lay the foundations of Christianity there.) Economically the venture came too late: only three bowheads were caught in seven years, though the returns did include polar bears, Arctic foxes, ringed seals, and walrus hides and tusks. None of this trade demanded the special skills of the incomers, and for six months in 19067 Kanaka was one of the Inuit who also hunted and guided for the government expedition of Joseph-Elzéar Bernier*. By 1910 the station was closed and Kanaka returned south, settling at the whalers’ rock-nosing (inshore-whaling) harbour of Kivitoo.

Here Kanaka continued his long connection with Scottish whaler James S. Mutch, who had spent much of his life in Cumberland Sound, established the Igarjuak station, and commanded or piloted vessels for the London-based Sabellum Trading Company [see Niaqutiaq]. It is possible in the logbooks to follow their connection from 1903 to Mutch’s retirement in the 1920s, as the two old whalers met almost every year. Kanaka was being given trade goods and provisions by 1911, and in 1913 he moved to Cape Mercy on Cumberland Sound, where he assembled two prefabricated houses as trading stations. These also provided a base for an innovative venture to pack Arctic char – many over a metre long, from coastal rivers and fjords – for export to Britain. In 1916 Kanaka accompanied the Erme to Kivitoo, where he helped set up another station and worked at carpentry and blacksmithing to refit the vessel for its return voyage, which would include a detour to take him back to Cape Mercy, his trading base for another nine years. Goods were picked up or dropped off annually by one schooner or another from Scotland. For a few years his harbour appeared on government maps as Kanacker or Kanacker Inlet, though the name was never officially adopted.

Kanaka took part at Cape Mercy in the third transformation of his lifetime: the movement from the whaler-Inuit relationship to the stricter, debt-and-barter arrangement with the monopolistic HBC. From its post at Cape Dorset it thrust hard in 1921 into the easterly territory served by the whaling concerns. The first HBC trader at Pangnirtung resolved to “break . . . like dogs” any Inuit who remained loyal to the whalers. Two of the three independent firms sold out, leaving Sabellum to wither and abandon its posts in 1927. For a time Kanaka remained an active trader and traveller who made an annual circuit of all the rival posts between Kivitoo and the mouth of Cumberland Sound.

In August 1925 he welcomed to his station another newcomer, Sergeant J. E. F. Wight of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Hale enough to tour the sound in March, Kanaka was now bedridden with tuberculosis. He dictated a will to Wight, and then signed it in syllabics. Written as a letter to the master of the supply vessel, it asked for his wife to be appointed post manager and for their son, Padlooapik, to take over the responsibilities of hunting and preparing the skins.

Kanaka lived to an unusual degree on the borders of two cultures, so it needs to be emphasized that his story is told from only one side, the written records of Euro-Canadians. He almost certainly could speak the pidgin English common in Cumberland Sound in the 1880s but which died out with his generation. A reputed shaman turned Anglican, he bridged the two forms of belief without, one may suppose, discarding core ethical values. He was true to the customs of the new whaling economy, in which Inuit traders carried on the traditions of whaleboat leaders of former eras and acted as brokers between the British suppliers and their own people. Maintaining this blend into the 1920s was Kanaka’s special contribution to Baffin Island and Canadian history.

Philip Goldring

Dartmouth College, Rauner Special Coll. Library (Hanover, N.H.), MSS-122, logbooks of the ship Rosie, 1924-25, 21 Sept. 1925. LAC, RG 85, 64, file 164-1 (1); 1044, file 540-3 (3A). William Barr, “The McLellan: an eyewitness account,” Beaver (Winnipeg), 66 (1986-87), no.3: 60-61. Church Missionary Gleaner (London), 1 Jan. 1914. Philip Goldring, “Goldring’s post[s]cript,” Beaver, 66, no.3: 61; “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; “The last voyage of the McLellan,” Beaver, 66, no.1: 39-44. J. S. Mutch, “Whaling in Ponds Bay,” in Boas anniversary volume: anthropological papers written in honor of Franz Boas . . . presented to him on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his doctorate, ninth of August, nineteen hundred and six, ed. Berthold Laufer (New York, 1906), 485-500.

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Cite This Article

Philip Goldring, “KANAKA,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kanaka_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kanaka_15E.html
Author of Article:   Philip Goldring
Title of Article:   KANAKA
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   May 25, 2024