Zoar Inuit find their final rest

Hans Rollmann hrollman@mun.ca
Published on July 13, 2011
Moravian choir at the reburrial ceremony at Zoar. - Photo courtesy Jamie Brake, archaeologist, Nunatsiavut

Named after the biblical village of Zoar ("Little"), where Lot and his family fled for refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the mission station between Nain and Hopedale was built in 1865 for spiritual and economic purposes. It sought to share and sustain the faith of Inuit and settlers and encouraged them to trade their fish, skins and pelts at the Moravian store instead of the merchant firms of Hunt & Henley or the Hudson's Bay Company, or even with the Newfoundland schooner people who were showing up annually on the coast. Eventually, economic difficulties closed the store in 1894, when the numbers of people trading at Zoar had decreased, and their indebtedness had reached unmanageable amounts.

Three deaths

During the night of July 7, 1881, blind Magdalena, a widow living in Zoar, went missing. Since spring she had stayed with her son's family in Tessiujaksoak Bay, an excellent place for trout fishing, just north of Zoar. Tired from daily labour, the sleeping family had not even heard their mother leave the tent. When the family awoke and discovered her missing, they became alarmed, knowing that the 65-year-old blind woman might easily have lost her way. Despite a frantic search, she was nowhere to be found. With low tide, her body washed ashore at the opposite side of the bay. The family brought her mortal remains by boat back to Zoar, where she was buried in the community graveyard on July 12.

Toward the end of August 1884, the same community experienced a quite sudden and frightful death of an otherwise strong and healthy man. His name was Mattheus, son of Assa and Clementine and husband of Kristine, a native of the Kernertut Islands near Nain. Mattheus succumbed to a severe case of facial shingles, which began as an infected gland in one of his ears. The swelling progressed so quickly that it soon extended to his entire head, neck and throat, and finally also to his entire upper body. He then lost his ability to speak. Within a few hours, on Aug. 30, he took his last breath, and was also buried at Zoar.

In December 1890, Andreas, a 68-year-old native of Nain, came down with a serious stomach ulcer, a condition that grew progressively worse. Andreas, the husband of Amalia, had been a multi-talented individual. Equipped with a good mind and practically gifted, he was a great help to the missionaries when they first established the community in the mid-1860s. His musical capabilities were known so far and wide that he became the leading personality in the Zoar choir. In 1875, he had even been appointed chapel servant and native helper, one of the local lay leaders. Yet the endemic vagaries of the fishery and the people's constant indebtedness to the trading store had made life difficult. In 1888, he led a revolt against the local store for what many Inuit perceived to be unfair trading conditions. Andreas never apologized for his actions, not even on his deathbed. In the absence of intravenous feeding and surgical treatment for his ulcer, death came to this senior on June 16, 1891, when he literally starved to death. He was laid to rest the following day in the church cemetery.

Grave robbery at Zoar

Magdalena, Mattheus and Andreas rested in Zoar only briefly. In 1927, less than four decades after Andreas's painful death, the bodies of these three and 19 other Inuit were taken from their graves without any knowledge of relatives or church authorities. Even after the grave robbery was discovered and the scientists had promised local authorities an immediate reburial of the bodies, the remains were not returned to the Moravian graveyard at Zoar but taken to Chicago, where they remained until this year.

The grave robbers were not sinister thieves out to find valuables among the corpses but rather quite respectable American archaeologists from Chicago's Field Museum, who perpetrated their actions in the name of science. One of the leading lights of American archaeology and anthropology, Dr. William Duncan Strong, the assistant curator of North American ethnology and archaeology at the Field Museum of Natural History, was the driving force behind the grave robbery.

Strong was not after silver and gold but bones, especially skulls, which he wanted for his research. As archeologist and historian, he used the then burgeoning method of anthropometry, which measured meticulously skeletal remains and living individuals, to draw conclusions about the biological and cultural development of aboriginals. The published results from Labrador, despite an abundance of statistical data, appear rather meagre, namely that the head shape and stature of recent Inuit differ somewhat from those of prehistoric ones, which was likely caused by a change in diet. In the book in which Strong and his colleague T. Dale Stewart made known the results of this research in Labrador, the scholars also published anonymously photographs of Mattheus's and Andreas's skulls, together with those of four other Moravian Inuit buried at Zoar, David (1840-1883), Noah (1808-1881), Zachariah (1867-1888) and Margareta (1835-1887).

Ethical challenge

The Zoar grave robbery illustrates vividly that serious, collective, ethical short-sightedness and lapses are not the monopoly of governments or churches. Here, academics pursuing truth and knowledge seem to have had no reservations in treating the bodies of fellow humans who had died only a few decades before as mere objects for scientific investigation and suitable specimens for cranial measurements. The ethical ambiguity of scientific work with artifacts and human specimens, often taken from native peoples without their permission, challenges us to assess scientific inquiry on the basis of human values that should never be set aside in the interest of mere curiosity. The ethics governing archaeological excavations today have changed considerably, so that the removal of buried individuals would be inconceivable. Thus Chicago's Field Museum co-operated willingly with the request of the Nunatsiavut Government to repatriate the bodies of these individuals to Zoar, a process that was completed last month.


On June 22, 2011, Magdalena, Mattheus and Andreas were once more laid to rest to the singing of Moravian hymns that may have been heard when these individuals were first buried. Johannes Lampe, Nunatsiavut's minister of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, and a lay minister in the Moravian Church, presided over the reburial ceremony. John Terriak, a well-known artist from Nain and descendant of one of the people reburied, carved a bilingual stone tablet in which the names and the events are remembered.

Dr. Hans J. Rollmann is Professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by email: hrollman@mun.ca.