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George Back and the Utkuhiksalingmiut !

For the week of Monday July 26, 2004

On July 28, 1834, an extraordinary meeting took place when George Back, a captain of the Royal Navy, arrived at the summer fishing camp of the Utkuhiksalingmiut, the Inuit of the Utkuhiksalik region of Nunavut.

Lieut. George Back, Royal Navy
© Library and Archives Canada / C-002768

Born in 1796, George Back grew up in England, where he dreamt of one day becoming a sailor. With the support of his parents, he volunteered for the Royal Navy when he reached 12 years of age. Promoted to cadet, he was stationed in Halifax N.S., in 1814. He later took part in several Arctic expeditions. In 1821, he became a lieutenant and was appointed commander the following year. During an expedition that took place between 1833 and 1835, George Back and his crew arrived at the Great Fish River, which would later be named after him. It was here that he made the first European contact with the Utkuhiksalingmiut, a name that originates from a natural outcrop of soapstone called Utkuhiksaq, in Nunavut.

The Utkuhiksalingmiut have inhabited the Back River region since at least the beginning of the 19th century. A legend, however, says that their ancient ancestors, the Tuniit, lived in this region long before the Inuit. In the summer and fall, the Utkuhiksalingmiut travelled along the river towards Itimnaarjuk, Akuaq and Aariaq, areas known for their abundance of fish. They fished primarily lake whitefish, Arctic char and lake trout using a hook and line (nallut), a spear (kakivak), or a harpoon (nikhik), drying the fish afterwards to preserve them. Fish not only provided food during the winter, but their oil also provided fuel for lamps called kulliq. In the fall, they also hunted caribou, an additional food source which was used to make winter clothes.

Judas Aqigiaq, an Utkuhiksalinmiut
© Judas Aqigiaq

The residents of Utkuhiksalik have much in common with the other Inuit groups of Nunavut. They speak the Inuktitut dialect and share many of the same customs, traditions and beliefs. For example, important fishing and hunting grounds are sacred. They also perform the same rituals and make offerings, and they share the same legends, including the ones about the famous hero Kiviuq and the giant Inuukpahugjuk.

Parks Canada has commemorations related to the history of the Inuit and the explorers who contacted them in many different locations in the Canadian North. One of the older designations is that of Sir George Back, who was recognized as a person of national historic significance in 1973. A commemorative plaque was erected at Fort Reliance, which was his winter camp before he ventured down the Great Fish River.

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