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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic October 24, 2014 - 9:26 am

Taissumani, Oct. 24

Eqariussaq, AKA Miss Bill

KENN HARPER

"Miss Bill" as a child. (HARPER COLLECTION)

In 1893 Josephine Peary accompanied her husband, the explorer Robert Peary, on an over-wintering trip to northern Greenland. This was daring on her part because she was in the last stages of pregnancy when she left the United States.

On Sept. 12 she gave birth to her first child, a daughter which the couple named Marie Ahnighito. She was nick-named The Snow Baby.

The following summer Josephine and the baby returned south, but they took with them a young Inuit girl, who would spend the following year with the mother and daughter in Washington. She was 12 years old and had been The Snow Baby’s babysitter; her name was Eqariussaq.

Josephine Peary found the name Eqariussaq to be a bit of a tongue-twister, and, for some reason referred to the girl as Miss Bill. By the time they reached America, young Marie was beginning to talk, and she called her “Billy-bah.”

In 1901 Josephine published a children’s book called, appropriately, The Snow Baby. In it she talked about Miss Bill’s trip to America.

For an audience of American young people, Josephine wrote, “When Miss Bill left her Snowland to come to the United States with Ah-ni-ghi-to and her mother, she left her father and mother and two sisters, who were very proud to have her go to the land of the white man, and see the animals and trees and houses and people whose pictures they had seen in magazines.”

Josephine went on to describe Miss Bill’s astonishment at the first sights she saw in America. At the railway station in Philadelphia, her eyes “nearly danced out of her head, at the sight of what she called the big dogs (horses) which pulled the carriage, and the high igloos that lined the streets… When she saw an engine pull out a train of cars, she clung to Ah-ni-ghi-to’s mother and asked what sort of an animal it was, and would it eat people. Long after the train… had started, Billy-Bah sat with both hands clutching the seat in front of her, and gazed in amazement at the trees and fences which seemed to fly past.”

Miss Bill had a lot to learn in living with the Pearys. She began, of course, to learn some English, but she also had to learn to eat American food in regular meals, and to sleep at given times. She also learned the hard way that toys left lying on the streets in Washington quickly disappeared.

She learned to sew, and avidly collected and saved gifts and mementos of her year in America. Mrs. Peary described her trunk as “a regular Noah’s Ark. A bit of everything that was given her during her stay was always carefully put into it, to be carried back home and explained to her friends.”

When she saw a Chinese man on the street, she ran up to him and tried to strike up a conversation in Inuktun. Some time later the tables were turned – members of a Chinese Legation saw her on the street, surrounded her and began talking to her in Chinese.

The following year, Mrs. Peary chartered a vessel, the Kite, to take supplies to her husband in Greenland. Miss Bill travelled home on this ship, taking with her a year’s worth of adventures with which to regale her friends and relatives.

In 1897 Josephine and The Snow Baby returned north on a summer voyage, where they renewed their acquaintance with Miss Bill, or Eqariussaq as she was known in Greenland. She met them in their cabin, sharing biscuits and tea, and was happy to have an opportunity to talk English once again with Marie.

She was 15 by then, but already married to a young hunter named Ahngoodloo. He refused to leave the ship until his young wife did, fearing that she might be tempted to sail away to America again.

It is just as well that she didn’t. Her parents, Nuktaq and Atangana, and her younger sister Aviaq all accompanied Robert Peary to New York that summer, and all were dead by the following spring, of common diseases to which they had no immunity.

In 1900 Josephine and Marie were again back in northern Greenland and wintered there. Two years later they returned again on a summer voyage. On both occasions they renewed their friendship with Miss Bill.

On the last trip, when the ship was about to depart, Miss Bill and her husband walked up to a mountain alone to spare themselves the pain of another parting from their friends.

Next Week — The Sadness of Miss Bill

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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