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A member of the legislative assembly (MLA) in Nunavut has proposed adding the Back River, an important waterway in the territory, to the official list of Canadian heritage rivers.

Moses Aupaluktuk, MLA from Baker Lake, told the territorial legislature last week that the river has considerable historical importance. He cited a major Inuit artist, Jessie Oonark, who was born along the Back River, as part of his justification for adding the river to the official list. “Her work is well recognized throughout the world,” he told the legislators. [Her art is] in the Vatican, Buckingham Palace, the National Gallery of Canada,” he said.

The territorial minister of the environment, Daniel Shewchuck, said his agency would be quite willing to nominate the river to the Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, which would then be responsible for recommending the heritage designation. The minister said that his agency would consider carefully the opinions of people in the communities along the river, as well as other affected user groups. If the territorial government did make the recommendation and the Rivers Board approved, it would then be up to the Canadian national government to make the formal designation. Heritage River status would serve to help preserve it in its natural state.

Neither Mr. Aupaluktuk nor Mr. Shewchuck mentioned that a significant body of creative scientific work by anthropologist Jean Briggs was based in part on her work along the Back River. Her important study of anger control and nonviolence in an Inuit band that lived in the river valley should also be considered by the review board.

The marvelous book by Briggs, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, which is still in print, was based on her year and a half of experiences in 1963-1964 living among the Utkuhikhalingmuit Inuit along the river. Her descriptions of the river and its community of life provide convincing evidence of its importance. For instance, on page 11 she writes:

“Rising near Contwoyto Lake, on the edge of Indian country, [the river] flows northeast to the Arctic coast, where, more than two miles wide, it empties into Chantrey Inlet. From any hilltop near its mouth the river dominates the scene. No matter where one looks it is there, winding broad, peaceful arms around knolls of islands, or racing narrow and turbulent between confining granite bluffs. In the spring, torrential with melting snow and ice, the roar of Itimnaaqjuk, the Franklin Lake Rapids, can be heard at a distance of twelve miles or more …. In the summer the churning surf subsides, but the current never slackens. Even in winter no scab of ice forms over the rapids; and in autumn their breath hovers as a black vapor over the hole of open water.”

Her descriptions of the Utkuhikhalingmuit people, who tried to never allow any expressions of anger, are of course the major focus of the book. She describes how the Utku, as she referred to them, had absolute control over their emotions, which served to prevent anger from ever being displayed. Accidents, inept behavior, and failures prompted only murmurs of gentle laughter.

During the daytime in the Inuit home, she wrote, there were normally two circles: men and women. Despite this division into conversation groups, Briggs felt a very strong sense of human warmth and peacefulness, an attentiveness to the unspoken needs of family members. Evenings and during storms, when visiting between families wasn’t really possible, the single family would draw even closer together as a unit. People told stories, discussed various topics, and avidly relived shared experiences.

One of the most effective passages in the book is about Inuttiaq, who was an especially affectionate father toward his four daughters. He never expressed anger toward them; he constantly played with them and openly showed his affection, particularly toward the younger ones. “He loves his children deeply; he is never angry with them,” his father-in-law told the author. His wife Allaq echoed the sentiment: “Inuttiaq is the only parent who is never angry with his children,” she said. Another person commented that the children love him intensely since he never shows any anger toward them.

If the Canadian government were to certify important heritage books about their country, it should certainly include this warm and wonderful work, which records the heritage of the Back River.