Markoosie Patsauq, first Inuit novelist, lived the history of his people


The man who wrote what is considered the first published Inuit novel, and whose life exemplified both the tragedy and resilience of his people, has died.

Markoosie Patsauq, 78, died March 8 in his home in Inukjuak, Que., mere months before his classic novel “Harpoon of the Hunter” was to be reissued in a freshly translated scholarly edition, 50 years after it first appeared.

“The novel is a much-loved text in many, many places around the world,” said Valerie Henitiuk, a professor at Edmonton’s Concordia University who worked with Patsauq on the new version.

“Excerpts of it were reproduced in children’s readers all around, including Canada.”

Harpoon of the Hunter is short but complex. The tale is told from four points of view, including a polar bear’s. Patsauq flips verb tenses as freely as he alternates between joy and sorrow.

He offers a vivid view of Inuit communities, the relationships between men and women and the realities of their daily lives — which few were better placed to understand.

Forced relocation

On May 24, 1941, at a seasonal hunting camp near Inukjuak on the eastern coast of Hudson Bay, Patsauq was of the last generation of Inuit to be born into a traditional life.

At 12, he and his four siblings, parents and four other families were forcibly relocated
far to the north to Resolute in what is now Nunavut and lived in tents on the beach as winter approached.

The federal government said at the time that Inukjuak was hunted out. Subsequent research has suggested the real reason was Arctic sovereignty. Those who survived have called themselves “human flagpoles.”

“It took us many weeks before we were able to get our own food,” Patsauq later told a documentary crew.

“We didn’t know the land. We didn’t even know if we should hunt in the sea or in the land. We were hungry.”

Patsauq was coughing up blood when he later arrived in Resolute, a symptom of tuberculosis. After a year, he was sent — alone — to a sanatorium in northern Manitoba.

He recuperated and learned English. But at 17 he was relocated again, this time to a residential school in Yellowknife.

Patsauq spent his last years in Inukjuak, where he lived with his second wife, Annie, and members of his prodigious extended family — 37 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

By the 1960s, Patsauq had married his first wife, Zipporah, and had become a father. He also became the first Inuk to get a pilot’s licence and flew bush planes around the North. When weather grounded him, as it often did, he wrote.

“I heard some of the stories from my grandfather and grandmother, mother and father,” he told The Canadian Press in 2016.

“From their stories, I decided to find out more. I started asking some elders from the community, ‘How can I do this? How can I make something?”‘

In 1969, “Harpoon of the Hunter” arrived on the desk of James McNeill, editor of an Inuktitut magazine published by the federal government. The manuscript was written in syllabics — symbols representing sounds — and published that way in the magazine.

Patsauq, under McNeill’s direction, then translated it into English. It was a sensation. Launched at the National Library, the book was reviewed in journals such as The Atlantic and the Times Literary Supplement.

Novel translated into at least 12 languages

Patsauq toured the United States and was interviewed between periods on Hockey Night In Canada. The book has never been out of print and has been translated into at least 12 languages, including Estonian and Marathi. It remains the all-time bestseller for McGill/Queen’s University Press.

Patsauq wrote smaller pieces and non-fiction after that, but never with the same impact. Still, he wasn’t idle. Alongside his brother, John Amagoalik, who helped create the territory of Nunavut, he became an activist.

Among others, Patsauq worked for years to get an apology for the High Arctic relocations. It finally came in 2010.

“It took us so many years. The only thing that we were asking the federal government is to acknowledge that when they moved us up to the High Arctic we had to suffer for that. And we suffered, suffered many, many years.”

About five years ago, Henitiuk became interested in “Harpoon of the Hunter.” Although Patsauq always said he was content with the original translation, it had been heavily shaped by McNeill’s editorial hand.

Valerie Henitiuk, a professor at Edmonton’s Concordia University. Henitiuk became interested in ‘Harpoon of the Hunter’ about five years ago. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Henitiuk felt it was time to return to the manuscript. Together with Patsauq and Paris-based linguist Marc-Antoine Mahieu of the Sorbonne Paris Cite University, the three found a more sombre tale that Mahieu feels is closer to Patsauq’s intent.

“Markoosie’s writing is calm and beautiful,” Mahieu said. “It is very different from that suggested by the 1970 English adaptation, which is full of representations that are foreign to the Inuit world view.

“Markoosie was a deeply kind man,” Mahieu said. “Working with him on his text was a great pleasure, and we are so sorry that he will not be here to enjoy the book’s release.”

Patsauq spent his last years in Inukjuak, where he lived with his second wife, Annie, and members of his prodigious extended family — 37 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Henitiuk spent time with him there, working on the new translation.

“He was a very intelligent man, very thoughtful. Also very funny. He had a great sense of humour.”

“He had a lot of wisdom, (both) of traditional life as well as his experiences of being successful in the southern conception of being successful. He had a lot to share.”

He loved hockey and followed the Edmonton Oilers passionately. On one of her last visits, Henitiuk brought him a team jersey.

“For me, that’s like a million-dollar gift,” he told her. He also told Henitiuk that he’d lived “a lucky life.”

“I am not afraid of cancer,” he said. “It’s just something that happens in life.”

The new version of his book, now titled Hunter With Harpoon, is to be released this fall by McGill/Queen’s University Press.

Read more at CBC.ca