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Prof’s book revisits tragedy and murder in the Arctic

9:12 a.m., March 10, 2005--The murder of two priests by Eskimos, the hunt for the men who killed them by two Royal North West Mounted Police in the vast wilderness north of the Arctic Circle and the subsequent trials of the two Eskimos who confessed to the crime is the subject of McKay Jenkins’ new book, Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic in 1913, published by Random House.

USA Today’s reviewer called the book “ a haunting and thoughtful account of a collision of cultures” and a “fascinating slice of forgotten history.”

A full-page article on the book in Edmonton Journal in Canada called Bloody Falls of the Coppermine a “compelling new book” and “a fascinating story of culture clash, colonialism and fatal misunderstandings.”

In writing about books about the Arctic, the reviewer of The Washington Post wrote, “This is a tale of misunderstanding and cross purposes, and Jenkins tells it well.... As Jenkins reminds us, while explorers and missionaries were busy clothing themselves in glory, aboriginal peoples were being stripped of everything they held dear.”

Jenkins, Cornelius A. Tilghman Professor of English, who said he has long been intrigued by the Arctic, began writing the saga four years ago when he encountered an old Reader’s Digest article outlining the events that took place. He laid the project aside to write his book, The Last Ridge: The Epic Story of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division and the Assault on Hitler’s Europe, before picking it up again.

What emerges in his new book is a study of the Eskimos’ way of life against the landscape of the unforgiving Arctic, where they had lived for centuries before Western civilization brought about change.

Jenkins writes, “Ships from Victorian England would disgorge hundreds of men with tons and tons of equipment to spend a few months or years in a place Eskimos lived domestically with virtually nothing. Europeans imposed themselves on the land; the Eskimos simply adapted to it. Missionaries and explorers often showed up ragged, hungry and sick. They discovered locals who were healthy and hardy.”

McKay Jenkins (center) on the banks of Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River, summer 2002, flanked by his brother (right), Brian, and a guide with a rifle as a precaution agains Barren Ground grizzly bears
The book brings to life the range of personalities whose lives intersected against the background of the Coppermine murders--itinerate guides, explorers, priests, police, Eskimo translators, the men involved in the murder trials and the Eskimos themselves. The narrative draws on the trail of diaries, reports, letters, court records and accounts of the trials, which Jenkins assembled and then wove into an intriguing story.

The book begins with the two priests: Father Jean Baptiste Rouvière, who was later joined Father Guillaume LeRoux on their mission to bring Christianity to the Eskimos near the Coppermine River, beyond the timber line and north of the Arctic Circle. Rouvière was a gentle man and LeRoux more prone to anger and impatience, but both were unable to speak the native language and unprepared for the harshness of the Arctic. What actually happened when the two were killed is still in question--whether they threatened the two Eskimos who shot them or whether they were killed for their guns and ammunition, which were prized by the Eskimos.

Rumors of the priests’ deaths circulated as their belongings began to appear with scattered Eskimos, and there was no word from them. The Royal North West Mounted Police became involved in a mission to find out the fate of the priests, to determine if they were killed and to bring the unknown murderers to British justice in Edmonton, Alberta.

The 3,000-mile quest, first separately and later together, by Mounties Denny LaNauze and Wynham Bruce as they followed the trail, is another remarkable story. The third part of the book deals with the trial and acquittal and then the retrial with a guilty verdict, of the killers Sinnisiak and Uluksak. The two were released and sent home to carry the message about the importance of compliance to British laws and judicial system to the Eskimos.

Jenkins said he felt he had to visit the region he wrote about. With his brother and a close friend he flew to Kuglutuk on the Coppermine River. Air travel made the trip possible in the summer in a few days, rather than months, although travel around the region itself was difficult because there were few roads, he said.

Even in the summer, Jenkins said the landscape felt unsettling and disorienting. “If you left the sea and retreated two hills back, the view of the sea was lost, and there was just a vast wilderness, mile upon mile, hill upon hill of rolling tundra, above the timberline and without vegetation,” he said.

McKay Jenkins
The epilogue to the book is depressing and sad, Jenkins said. With the Westernization of the Eskimos came alcoholism and unemployment, the loss of ancient skills and dependence on the government. It is similar to what happened to the Australian aborigines, he said.

Jenkins closes the book with observations LaNauze had written after his journey to bring back Sinnisiak and Uluksuk.

“The advent of civilization amongst [the Eskimos] will not tend to be to their betterment,” he wrote, concluding that, “Indeed to us who have had the good fortune to see these people live their strenuous, healthy existence on the Arctic coast, we cannot wish them better fortune than to hope that civilization may ever be kept at arms’ length from them.”

Jenkins has been invited to give several talks on Bloody Falls of the Coppermine and will speak at UD at 4 p.m., Monday, April 11, in 123 Memorial Hall.

A graduate of Amherst College, with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and master’s and doctoral degrees from Princeton University, Jenkins joined the UD faculty in 1996. In addition to The Last Ridge, Jenkins is the author of The South in Black and White: Race, Sex and Literature in the 1940s and The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone, and is editor of The Peter Matthiessen Reader.

Article by Sue Moncure
Snapshot courtesy of McKay Jenkins
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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