Labrador memoir a small treasure rescued from oblivion

Published on October 4, 2014

Memoirs from Northern Labrador
By Titus Joshua and Josua Obed
Torngâsok Cultural Centre
$50; 159 pages

Until recently, there weren’t many early texts by Labrador Inuit storytellers available to English readers. The 18th-century Moravian “Periodical Accounts” occasionally carried letters or stories from Hebron or Nain and, in 1894, this newspaper published extracts from the diaries of 75-year-old Lydia Campbell. Abraham Ulrikab’s 1880 diary was not published until 1981.

Before the founding of the newspaper Kinatuinamot Illengajuk and the magazine Them Days, in the 1970s, there were simply no outlets for Inuit writers. In recent years, however, aboriginal memoirs and autobiographies have proliferated, and Labrador Inuit have given us the works of Josephine Kalleo, Paulus Maggo, Josie Penney, Dorothy Mesher, Clarissa Smith, Elizabeth Goudie and others.

This makes “Memories from Northern Labrador” by Titus Joshua and Josua Obed all the more welcome.

Tape recorded some time prior to Titus Joshua’s death in 1972, this collection is almost all we have of the history and stories of that area from the first half of the 20th-century. It also gives us male voices in a predominantly female field.

“Memories from Northern Labrador” is a rather odd book, as it consists of what appears to be transcriptions of raw recordings without much outside interference.

Recorded in Labrador Inuktitut, the original tapes and Inuktitut transcriptions were lost when the Torngàsok Cultural Institute archive burned to the ground.  

However, an English translation was eventually found to have survived in Goose Bay.

The English was retranslated into Inuktitut, and both texts have been published in a back-to-back, bilingual, hardcover edition.

Joshua and Obed were the same age and obviously got on well, but you could hardly have found two more different personality types.

Both had a traditional upbringing, but Joshua was a rather worldly person, having spent 16 years working on the base in Goose Bay, while Obed was highly religious and very active in church affairs.

They both indulge in a certain amount of  old-guy crankiness, complaining about how lazy young people are today, how hard they had it in their time, how people have let their language slip away.

They are also rather hard on themselves. Joshua, in particular, declares that he’s a useless old mouth who should be thrown on the dump.

But he also slyly tells us that he is being paid five dollars an hour to talk into the tape recorder.

For the majority of the book, it is Joshua who takes the lead, scolding the youth, telling about his life, coming up with scraps of history and reminding us often that he can speak English and made a good wage when he wasn’t hunting.

Obed encourages him and occasionally adds a few details to the stories that he obviously knows as well as Joshua does.

Obed is a much more meticulous storyteller. He often tells a story in skeleton form and then tells it again, filling out the details. The first time it might be half a page long, and the second it might be four and a half pages. He knows his dates, particularly when recounting the history of the Moravian church.

While Joshua’s focus tends to be family life and domestic or hunting traditions, Obed is more interested in traditional legends. Many of these stories are known in variation throughout the circumpolar world.

“Lumâ,” the tale of the blind boy and the loon, is probably familiar to most Canadian school children from books and films, but here the location is given as Saglek, south of Cape Mugford.  

Several of the stories are less familiar, but have clear echoes of pan-Arctic legends.

Joshua tells of a shaman who transformed an iceberg into an island near Nain, just as Marble Island in Hudson’s Bay was formed, and there are elements of the tale of the cannibal Iggimarasugjuk and the beautiful but traitorous Navarana in other stories these old men knew.

Towards the end of the book, Obed’s voice begins to dominate, and it is unclear if this was just how the recordings were arranged after the fact or if he was gaining confidence. These tales are very interesting as they are borrowed from church parables, and are mostly set in England or Germany. One involves the conversion of a Jew, another a prodigal son returning from army service in India.

It would be interesting to compare Obed’s account of the travels of Mikak to England in 1767 with some of the Moravian versions.

Most surprising is Obed’s account of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which he apparently heard from old Rev. Hettasch. I was reminded of a version of Ulysses and the Cyclops which I collected in the Central Arctic after a Hungarian anthropologist had been swapping stories with the local men.

The non-standard English translation isn’t a problem as it most likely echoes the English these old men did speak, but the typographical errors and the occasionally confusing modification really intrude on the enjoyment of the texts.

There are errors on almost every page.  You get “hole” for “hold” and “year” for “yard,” some words are enjambed to produce “hisgear,” “theywere” and “ababy,” and apostrophes are inserted into non-possessive plurals.

There is a reference to Inuit making gunpowder on a hill called Ilulitsaliugvik and the explanation is that ilulitsaliugvik means “ammunition.”

Earlier, however, we were told that it was a place where they made arrows for battles with the Indians.

Although I found it very interesting to read a raw, untouched manuscript of translations from Inuktitut, the general reader might have benefited from an introduction and annotations by someone like Carol Brice-Bennett.

Failing that, the old storytellers deserved at least a decent proof-reader.

Even with its flaws, this book is a small treasure, and it is a miracle that its content was saved.

Since it lacks an ISBN number, it will be hard for people to find, but it’s to be hoped that in the future, someone with good editorial skills will be able to mine “Memories From Northern Labrador”  for some of its hidden wealth.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in

Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”  

Her column returns Nov. 1.