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The Interpreter with the Golden Dress

For the week of Monday September 29, 2014

On October 1, 1795, Mikak, the famous Inuit interpreter and ambassador who helped make peace between the Inuit and Europeans, died in Nain, Labrador. Born around 1740 in Labrador, her life is exceptionally well-documented for the time because of her contact with Europeans, and provides a window into Inuit life during this period.

A portrait of Mikak and her son Tutauk painted while they were in England.
© Ethnographic Collection Goettingen University. Photo by Harry Haase.
Mikak’s role as an ambassador began when she, her son, Tutauk, and other Inuit were taken captive by soldiers following an Inuit attack on a crew of fishermen in Cape Charles. After spending the winter at York Fort, Labrador, where she impressed her captors with her intelligence and ability to learn English, she and her son were taken to St. John’s, Newfoundland. There, the Governor of Newfoundland arranged their journey to England. He hoped that by continuing to learn English there, Mikak and the others could return to Labrador and improve communications and trade between the British and the Inuit.

In England, Mikak befriended many people with her charisma, including the Dowager Princess of Wales and the Moravian missionaries (a European Protestant church) who were planning to open a mission in Labrador. When Mikak returned to Labrador, she prepared the Inuit for the arrival of the missionaries, and greeted the Moravians wearing the gold embroidered dress that was given to her by the Dowager Princess.

A watercolour painting of a Moravian Missionary Conversing with the Inuit at Nain, Labrador, ca. 1819.
© Library and Archives Canada / 1986-35-1

In 1770, Mikak guided the missionaries along the coast, introducing them to many Inuit camps and helping to find a location for their first mission in Nain. Moreover, she ensured a calm transition for both the Inuit and the Moravians as new communities were built.

The relationship between the Moravians and Mikak was not always perfect, however. The Moravians disapproved of her continuing practice of Inuit cultural traditions and objected to her trading with British merchants for such things as firearms and traps. Mikak was baptized on her death bed, foreshadowing the “Great Awakening” of 1800-1805, when many Inuit decided to convert to Christianity.

Mikak is a National Historic Person and the Moravian Missions and Inuit in Labrador is a National Historic Event.

Hopedale and Hebron, two Moravian missionary communities in Labrador, are designated National Historic Sites. To learn more, please read Hopedale and Hebron: Mission Accomplished!

October is Women’s History Month! To learn more about Aboriginal women, please read: Charlotte Small, a Remarkable Woman, The Birth of a Pioneer in Canadian Poetry, and "Ambassadress of Peace".

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