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Their Beautiful Land

An Inuit history of northern Labrador

Jenn Thornhill Verma

Avanimiut: A History of Inuit Independence in Northern Labrador

Carol Brice-Bennett; Revised by Lena Onalik and Andrea Procter

Memorial University Press

414 pages, softcover

A confidential report that helped to settle past political and legal disputes over Inuit title and use of land has a new life, nearly thirty years after it was commissioned in 1996. Avanimiut: A History of Inuit Independence in Northern Labrador is a revised version of that document and the rare comprehensive account of Inuit on the far northern coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Avanimiut, taken from the Inuktitut word for “people of the North,” replaces the manuscript’s original title, The Northlanders, which made use of a term coined by missionaries from the Moravian Church in the late eighteenth century. Originally written by the anthropologist Carol Brice-Bennett, the book has been expanded and updated by Lena Onalik, an Inuk archeologist, and Andrea Procter, a historical anthropologist from St. John’s. This is an important account of those from north of Hebron, the former Moravian mission station and previously the northernmost European settlement in Labrador. Specifically, it documents the period of colonization from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, drawing upon church records (Moravian and Anglican alike) and commercial sources (including those of the Hudson’s Bay Company).

Two four-year-old boys, Kleophas and Jeremias, in Nain, Labrador, around 1930.

Memorial University of Newfoundland; Archives and Special Collections

Brice-Bennett worked on the manuscript in the mid-1990s, when Inuit in Quebec and Labrador were actively asserting title to the northernmost tip of the Labrador Peninsula. The Labrador Inuit Association, which formed in the late ’70s to advance claims with governments in Ottawa and St. John’s, asked a team of historians, anthropologists, and archeologists to undertake a land use and occupancy study. Once the report had served its original purpose — to support negotiations and the creation of Nunatsiavut, formally established in 2005 as a self-governing region within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador — Brice-Bennett and Nunatsiavut officials sought to prepare it for a wider public.

Brice-Bennett, who died in 2018 before publication of the report was possible, was originally from Montreal. But, having spent her career in Labrador, she authored multiple books on the history and culture of the region’s Inuit, most notably Our Footprints Are Everywhere: Land Use and Occupancy in Labrador, from 1977, and Dispossessed: The Eviction of Inuit from Hebron, Labrador, from 2017. Her work also helped in the establishment of the territory of Nunavut, in 1999.

Lena Onalik had just joined the Nunatsiavut government’s Department of Language, Culture, and Tourism when a colleague shared Brice-Bennett’s manuscript with her. In it, Onalik found numerous references to her own family’s history — references that filled some gaps but prompted some questions too.

Onalik was raised in Makkovik, about seventy-five minutes northeast of Goose Bay by plane. Growing up, she knew of her grandparents’ relocation, from Nutâk and Okkak Bay and from Hebron before that. She also knew they lived even further north in earlier years, but she didn’t know where. “They spoke about their homes with such pride and happiness,” she writes. “I recognize now that they were also speaking with heartache and longing.” She goes on to describe the role alcohol played as a coping mechanism in her family, as well as her own complicated relationship with Inuktitut: “My family thought they were doing the right thing by ensuring I could speak English in the world of settler people. I grew up feeling as though I did not truly belong in Makkovik. I felt rootless and had low self-worth. On one hand, I came from a rich and vibrant culture, but on the other, I felt distant and ashamed of my roots.”

Onalik experienced a “sense of returning home” by spending time in the heart of the Avanimiut homeland: Torngat Mountains National Park. Officially established in 2008, the 9,700-square-kilometre park takes its name from the word tongait, or “place of spirits.” As an archeologist, Onalik studied evidence of the area’s long human history: sod house foundations, tent rings, gravesites, hunting and cooking tools, etchings, and more. “I felt like I belonged,” Onalik recalls.

Brice-Bennett documented Onalik’s great-grandmother Lena, on her father’s side, who came from the Torngats. She was born in Ramah and raised in nearby Nachvak, where she became Lena Tuglavina. (Inuit traditionally had one name, with typically paternal surnames bestowed by Europeans, generally upon baptism.) But missing in Brice-Bennett’s report were the voices, faces, and language of people like Tuglavina and her family. Working with Andrea Procter, who had previously collaborated on TautukKonik: A Portrait of Inuit Life in Northern Labrador, 1969–1986 and written A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland, Onalik sought to incorporate such sources in a revised, decolonized edition — beginning with the title.

The name Avanimiut was once a somewhat derogatory term for “heathen” families that were relocated to the Moravian communities of Nain, Hopedale, and Makkovik. (Today all towns in Nunatsiavut are either former mission sites or former trading posts, including Postville and Rigolet.) Incorporating the Inuktitut word into the book’s title was a way of restoring pride in being from the North. It was also a way to transform a narrative of hurt into one of healing — a text centred on strength, independence, thriving. “The Avanimiut held on to the traditional way of life as long as they could, resisting the move to mission stations and conversion to Christianity the longest,” Onalik writes in the preface. “The harsh yet beautiful landscape provided food and shelter for our ancestors, and continues to, through their descendants. We were here before, and we come here still.”

The archival record speaks to that long history of independence, generally through second-hand accounts. There are some telling direct quotations, however, such as this one from Semigak, at the turn of the twentieth century: “I don’t need this [Christianity]. I have done nothing wrong. I want to stay with the one who has taken care of me all my life and fed me. . . . I don’t need a God or saviour, for if someone among us needs anything, then I’ll heal him and make him alive and the Torngaks help me.” Semigak resisted Christian conversion, keeping his traditional name until his death in 1904; his family then adopted it as their surname.

“Scholars are increasingly sensitive about the inherent biases and erasures within colonial narratives of Indigenous history and recognize the need for Indigenous voices to tell their own history,” Procter writes. “Lena Onalik and I therefore modified the original Northlanders manuscript by incorporating historical Inuit writing and interviews into the text, as Inuit voices had been almost completely omitted.” The result is a unique blend of non-fiction, memoir, and narrative storytelling.

In addition to Inuit writings and interviews, Onalik and Procter have incorporated both historic and modern maps and genealogies. Photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries feature men, women, children, families, and communities thriving in the North. We see them drying fish, sawing wood, riding sleds, and leading their lives in their many dwelling types, including the illuvigak (snow house) and the illusuak (sod house). These images further demonstrate how historical Avanimiut were adaptable and self-reliant — and accustomed to moving across the land, water, and ice. The book’s cover is particularly evocative: the colour snapshot from 1956 features a lone woman carrying on her back a load of firewood, against the treeless tundra. A beacon of strength, she would have walked for a great distance or scoured the coast for hours to gather her fuel.

The final section of the revised book details more recent relocations, including those that followed the Moravian Church’s decision to shut down its mission in Hebron in 1959, after nearly 130 years of operation. “The 1956 and 1959 evictions were the largest exercise in social engineering ever experienced in Labrador, uprooting 418 people in 104 families. Inuit families lost connections with their land and with their relatives. Younger generations grew up not knowing their families’ homeland or their family trees,” Onalik and Procter write. “By growing up as descendants of relocation, many have suffered feelings of rootlessness and not feeling at home.” By reuniting people with their roots and homes, Avanimiut provides a powerful counter-narrative to colonization.

Jenn Thornhill Verma is a journalist covering fisheries, oceans, and climate change.

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