Monday, August 26, 2013

The Long Exile

Veering a bit off-topic here with Melanie McGrath's The Long Exile (2008, Vintage) but if you read White Heat and enjoyed it, then it is worth reading this true story of how the Inuit ended up on Ellesmere Island.  McGrath is a journalist by trade, so knows a good story when she sees one.  And the circumstances of how the Inuit ended up moved thousands of miles from their ancestral lands is just a particularly shocking example of white people using native people for their own ends, with little regard for the human impact of their (bad) decisions.

McGrath sets up the trajectory particularly effectively by starting with the making of the hugely influential film Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, in Inukjuak, which is sort of southeast Hudson Bay.  The film, and some of Flaherty's subsequent work in other parts of the world, is considered among the best filmmaking of the 20th c., although only Nanook was a commercial success.  There are two reasons to start the story here.  First, the film set up the idea of the "happy Eskimo" in the public's mind, people who can survive anywhere with a smile.  This is of course false; the northlands and Arctic are as diverse in their landscape, flora, and fauna as any other landmass in the world.  It is ignorant to assume that people native to one place can then survive off the land in a place 2,000 miles north, within the Arctic Circle and basically one of the most northernmost landmasses on earth.  But this is what the Canadians - Canadians!  those nice people to the north! - do.

The second reason to start the story with Flaherty and Nanook is that while filming, Flaherty had a relationship with an Inuit woman, who had a son after he left town, never to return.  This son ends up in the second wave of Inuit to move to Ellesmere.  How did the first wave get there?  Well, in a nutshell Canadian authorities felt the need for human settlement in the arctic regions to maintain sovereignty there during the Cold War, and so they told the local constabulary to find some Inuit to move up there.  Because you know, the frozen north is all the same, right?  And those Inuit in Inukjuak aren't doing so well anyway, since the white people moved in, so it would be the humane thing to do to return them to their natural state of living off the land and stop their moral decline and dependency on white people. And sure, one Eskimo is the same as another right, so Inuit from the southern Hudson Bay can surely survive where it is completely dark four months a year, and there isn't much fresh water, or caribou to hunt or berries to pick or pretty much anything to live off of.  Through cajoling and misrepresentation and a bit of bullying a few families from Josephie Flaherty's settlement move there, terribly undersupplied and completely unsupported.  Amazingly, many survive, but when they ask to go home they are put off with excuses or flat-out denied.

It actually ends spectacularly well, with the establishment of an Inuit state in Canada, Nunavut, some reparations, and finally a governmental apology in 2010.  But all of that only comes decades after starvation, madness, profound alcoholism, and a whole lot of general misery.  And it only comes after Josephie Flaherty's daughter, an incredibly strong woman who overcomes extraordinary odds to get herself off of Ellesmere, spends years talking about the island's Inuit population and its problems to anyone who will listen.  She and others finally make a big enough issue of it that official enquiries and hearings are held and the Canadian government is formally taken to task.  The officials - top to bottom, comfy govt. types to the local constabulary who had to carry out the effort - who thought they were doing the right thing for Canada are shown to have been ignorant, racist, and in some cases criminal in their proceedings.  The road to hell, you know.

And you thought Canadians were so nice.

McGrath's research is deep, broad, and generally excellent.  While the proceedings of the hearings are obviously recent public record, she clearly went far into archives and oral history to put together this compelling portrait of Inuit life, survival, and as she puts it, betrayal.  I did want to see footnotes, and a complete bibliography because I think there is more there and I'll bet one could do all sorts of research off of that.  You can easily find materials about this online, if you want to read more.  There is a thin Wikipedia article here, and you can start with the media coverage here.

I didn't need the late-in-the-book chapter on the rest of Robert Flaherty's life and work.  It is interesting, but it is pretty clear that McGrath found the quote about how the protagonist in all of his post-Nanook films represented "son he never had" and wanted to use it but couldn't figure out how to do that without a whole chapter for preface.  The starting of the story with Nanook makes a lot of sense, but it is a distraction from the narrative flow to go back to Flaherty late in the game.  Yes, he started it, but he didn't finish it.  

This is a great, extraordinary, story that is over-written at times, and one wonders about the editing given the glaring error on the back cover (the exile happens in the 1950s, not the 1930s!).  I found the prose occasionally weirdly passive, and hard to get into.  The exile itself doesn't happen until about two-thirds of the way into the book, which is all about setting context, but I wonder if a little less Flaherty would have streamlined that lead, because the exile is when the narrative really gets going.

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