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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic December 05, 2014 - 12:45 pm

Taissumani, Dec. 5

“And the Stars Shall Fall from Heaven” — The Belcher Island Murders

KENN HARPER
Peter Sala, the man on the left, photographed at Inukjuak in 1949. (PHOTO BY FREDERICA KNIGHT.COURTESY OF AVATAQ CULTURAL INSTITUTE)
Peter Sala, the man on the left, photographed at Inukjuak in 1949. (PHOTO BY FREDERICA KNIGHT.COURTESY OF AVATAQ CULTURAL INSTITUTE)

One night in February 1942 a shooting star streaked through the night sky above the Belcher Islands, a remote island group in southern Hudson Bay.

Inuit looked heavenward and remembered a Bible verse from Matthew 24: “and the stars shall fall from heaven… and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

In the winter of 1940-41 Inuit from the southern group of the Belcher Islands had had vigorous discussions on the meaning of various parts of the Bible.

Most of them owned copies of the book printed in the syllabic orthography. They could read the words, but understanding was another matter. No missionary had ever been resident in the islands and the Inuit had not had the benefit of any religious instruction.

Different Inuit put different interpretations on what they read, and interpreted it in light of the comet they had seen. Some came to the conclusion that the end of the world was near. 

Shortly thereafter, nine Inuit would be dead, victims of a religious cult led by two local men, Peter Sala and Charlie Ouyerack, who had proclaimed themselves to be God and Jesus.

Peter Sala was described as “a natural leader” and “one of the best hunters on the Islands.” Later reports also described him as being sly and evasive. Ouyerack was described as “a quiet, sickly type of man.”

(Ida Watt of Kuujjuaq, in her book in Inuttitut on this subject, spells Ouyerack’s name as Audlakjuk, and this is no doubt the correct spelling.)

Many Inuit prayed to the two self-proclaimed holy men. The RCMP later reported that “some natives destroyed their rifles and dogs, believing that they would have no further use for them due to the imminent end of the world.”

But not all Inuit believed in the teachings of the local prophets.  Keytowieack, a lay reader, who had perhaps studied the Bible more than the others, was one. So was a young man, Alec Ekpuk, and a 16-year-old girl named Sarah Apawkok.

On Jan. 25, Sarah was forced to attend a prayer meeting in a snowhouse. When asked if she believed in the teachings of Sala and Ouyerack, she was frightened and said yes.

Unfortunately, the others present didn’t believe her, and her brother beat her until she fell unconscious. Ouyerack, asked what should happen to her, said that she should die, whereupon five Inuit dragged her outside, and a young woman only a year older then her beat her to death with a rifle.

The next to die was Keytoweiack. The prophets had decided that he was Satan and must die. They ordered Adlaykok to kill him. He dutifully fired two shots through the window of an igloo, killing the man instantly.

Ouyerack then moved his camp to Tukaruk Island, where three other families lived. There he ordered Quarack to kill Alec Ekpuk, who happened to be Quarack’s son-in-law, because he did not believe that Ouyerack was Jesus.

Quarack obeyed the order, and killed the man with three shots to his body. The RCMP reported that “The natives all rejoiced that Satan was dead.”

The death toll to this time was three. But in early March things escalated, when Peter Sala’s sister, Mina, went mad.

Continued next week.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 

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