In the winter of 1913, high in the Canadian Arctic, two Catholic priests set out on a dangerous mission to do what no white men had ever attempted: reach a group of utterly isolated Eskimos and convert them. Farther and farther north the priests trudged, through a frigid and bleak country known as the Barren Lands, until they reached the place where the Coppermine River dumps into the Arctic Ocean.
Their fate, and the fate of the people they hoped to teach about God, was about to take a tragic turn. Three days after reaching their destination, the two priests were murdered, their livers removed and eaten. Suddenly, after having survived some ten thousand years with virtually no contact with people outside their remote and forbidding land, the last hunter-gatherers in North America were about to feel the full force of Western justice.
As events unfolded, one of the Arctic's most tragic stories became one of North America's strangest and most memorable police investigations and trials. Given the extreme remoteness of the murder site, it took nearly two years for word of the crime to reach civilization. When it did, a remarkable Canadian Mountie named Denny LaNauze led a trio of constables from the Royal Northwest Mounted Police on a three-thousand-mile journey in search of the bodies and the murderers. Simply surviving so long in the Arctic would have given the team a place in history; when they returned to Edmonton with two Eskimos named Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, their work became the stuff of legend.
Newspapers trumpeted the arrival of the Eskimos, touting them as two relics of the Stone Age. During the astonishing trial that followed, the Eskimos were acquitted, despite the seating of an all-white jury. So outraged was the judge that he demanded both a retrial and a change of venue, with himself again presiding. The second time around, predictably, the Eskimos were convicted.
A near perfect parable of late colonialism, as well as a rich exploration of the differences between European Christianity and Eskimo mysticism, Jenkins's Bloody Falls of the Coppermine possesses the intensity of true crime and the romance of wilderness adventure. Here is a clear-eyed look at what happens when two utterly alien cultures come into violent conflict.
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January 09, 2006
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Excerpt from Bloody Falls of the Coppermine by McKay Jenkins
Very little investigation has been made in Canada of the native races, and what has been done had been under the auspices of foreign institutions. The opportunities for such studies are fast disappearing. Under advancing settlement and rapid development of the country the native is disappearing, or coming under the influence of the white man's civilization. If the information concerning the native races is ever to be secured and preserved, action must be taken very soon, or it will be too late.
--GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA, 1908
One morning in early july 1911, an odd little man walked into a saloon on the shore of the mighty Mackenzie River and dipped his filthy fingers in a sugar bowl. John Hornby was just twenty-seven years old, five feet four inches tall, and barely one hundred pounds, but in the north country he was, among white men at least, a legend. Once, it was said, he ran next to a horse for fifty miles, trotting sideways, like a wolf. Another time, on a bet for a bottle of whiskey, he ran one hundred miles in under twenty-four hours. And Hornby was not a drinking man. His instincts most resembled a trapper's, but he loved animals and hated traps. He never hunted except for food, and often, like the native people with whom he traveled, he went without eating for days at a time. He probably knew the Barren Lands, the country in which he lived, more intimately than any other white man in history.
Hornby had fierce blue eyes that seemed to always be focused on something off in the far distance. Exactly why Hornby decided to explore Canada's north country has been lost to history. He may have ventured north with vague notions of finding gold, but the Klondike rush had long since dried up. He may have been lured by rumors of vast giveaways of land, which the government had promised in an effort to populate the north. More likely he went north to go north, to see what he could see.
John Hornby did not like darkening the doorways of Fort Norman, the dreary oupost that comprised little more than a Hudson's Bay Company store, the Anglican Mission of the Holy Trinity, and the Catholic Mission of Saint-Therese. Even among the usual rough men who passed through such places, Hornby stood out for his disinterest in the trimmings of civilized society. He didn't need the company of white men, and he usually did as much as he could to avoid them. He was happiest living among the Barren Land Indians, chopping wood, carrying water, stalking caribou. But the previous summer, Hornby had had a stirring experience. Scouting territory north of Great Bear Lake, he had come upon a group of people he believed to be the last in North America to have remained outside the reach of white explorers. They were not Indians; they were Eskimos who had followed the caribou inland from Coronation Gulf, some 150 miles to the northeast. Hornby had been so excited by his discovery that he had written a letter to the only other permanent European resident of the Barren Lands: the priest in charge of the Mission of Saint-Therese. "We have met a party of Eskimos who come every year," Hornby's letter said. "The Eskimos come at the end of August and leave when the first snow falls. They seem very intelligent." The letter then sounded a somber note. "The Eskimos and Indians are frightened of each other and it would be dangerous for Indians to try and meet Eskimos without having a white man with them, because the Eskimos have a bad opinion of the Indians. If you intend sending someone to meet the Eskimos, we shall be pleased to give you all the help we can."1