Episode 2.13

Digging deeper into arctic archaeology, Rudy finds something unexpected. The team works hard to finish excavating the qammaq. Radio chatter in Inuktitut alerts the team to action out on the water: the hunters have spotted a whale. The first bowhead hunt in decades, this is cultural revitalization in practice, and if the hunt is successful its bones will be used to rebuild the whalebone winter house.

Digging In

Lead archaeologist Marc Stevenson is supported by a team of local experts, including elders, Meeka Mike, and Naulaq Adamie, who has recently taken over the role of advisor for his father Inookie Adamie, the traditional steward of Qaummaarviit.

Marc shows the team the remains of the original qammaq. The qammaq was built half underground with a deep entry passage to trap warm air inside. The entrance and the roof of the qammaq were supported by the rib bones of a bowhead whale, the roof covered with sealskin and further insulated by snow. The floor of the entry passage consists of whale scapula bones.

Thousands of artifacts have been found on Qaummaarviit to date, including household artifacts such as hide scrapers, awls, needles, ulus, soapstone lamps, toy weapons, tools, and dolls, as well as spears, harpoons, arrowheads, sled runners and dog harness equipment.

The archaeology team will need to stay focused – they have only three weeks to complete the excavation. The digging season here is short, and they must finish excavating before the qammaq can be rebuilt.

Picturing The Past

According to the archaeological evidence, people first settled at Qaummaarviit as early as 1200 AD and were still there until the 1800s. Artifacts associated with hunting, and the volume of sea mammal bones found at Qaummaarviit indicate that the inhabitants used qajaqs and umiaks to hunt a variety of seals and whales.

“All the oil from the seal and whale was sitting there on this little platform in front of this storage area where things would have been prepared…all the grease at the bottom is still congealed, it looks like my BBQ back home.”

– Dr. Rudy Reimer

The Whale Hunt

Naulaq is the captain of this year’s whale hunt, representing a multigenerational continuation of leadership and culture. Naulaq’s direct ancestor hunted the bowhead whale whose bones were used to build the original qammaq. This whale’s bones will be used to rebuild that same qammaq at Qaummaarviit. The whale will also provide vast quantities of food to be shared across the community.

Inuit hunters were prohibited from hunting bowhead whales after commercial whaling nearly brought the species to extinction in the 1970s. The Department of Oceans and Fisheries continued to classify bowheads as endangered for decades, undermining indigenous knowledge and hunting practices despite assertions from Inuit hunters that the whales were far more abundant than estimated.

By the 1990s, bowhead whales were so plentiful in eastern arctic waters that they became a navigation hazard. In 1995, a family of American tourists drowned after their boat was overturned by a surfacing bowhead. By the mid 2000s scientific surveys estimated the bowhead population at 14,400. No longer considered endangered or threatened, Inuit hunters have resumed hunting the bowhead whale.

“This is the past coming back to life, it’s cultural revitalization”

– Dr. Rudy Reimer

The Whalebone House Excavation

Returning from the mainland, Jacob is surprised to see the walls and floor stones of the qammaq exposed. The archaeological team has been working hard to meet their deadline. Dr. Marc Stevenson walks Jacob through their most recent discoveries, and points out a whalebone support, tangible evidence the first ever whale ever hunted at Qaummaarviit.

Rebuilding The Qammaq

Led by Naulaq and Meeka, community members, elders, and the archaeological team will reconstruct the whalebone winter house on its original site with as many original materials as possible. The rebuilt qammaq will be used as a learning tool, for cultural performances, and perhaps even for archaeological and ethnographic summer and winter camps. The reconstruction of the qammaq is envisioned as a bridge between Inuit culture, past and present.

“Everywhere we’ve gone, we have seen the impacts of colonization and how our lives have been changed as indigenous people in this country. But at the same time, there’s hope. We’re reclaiming our culture again, we’re reclaiming our songs again, we’re finding our voice again, and I’m so honoured and humbled to be a part of a journey where we are part of sharing these stories”

– Jenifer Brousseau