Sunday, 14 August 2016
An Eskimo Patriot
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, July 1918
The grief of it is keener to me to-day than it was a week ago when the news first reached me; and I know the shadows of time will never hide it, though tingeing the grief to a brighter hue in a great pride at having known him, at having been called by him one of his two friends in England during his trying days in khaki.
To know John Shiwak, even in the old days of peace, was to be filled with a mysterious admiration that grew without realizing its own roots, a quiet fondness that complimented one’s self-respect. But to have been in touch with him even by mail at the end, to have heard from his lips, in words only a few hours old, the unfaltering admiration of him, was to be branded with a mark time dare not try to obliterate. And to have seen him in the moment of his passage! But John’s story must be told first—and I hope that ten thousand slackers may read it and see the picture as I see it—which is infinitely better than I am able to present it.
It was in the summer of 1911 that I met John. It was only in that summer that I met him. But to have met him once was to remember him always. Seeking new out-of-the-world places in or around Canada, I had picked on the bleak coast of Labrador. Across the straits from North Sydney the boat had plunged through a parallel swell all night, and in the morning landed us at Point aux Basques. Twenty-six hours of travel on a narrow-gauge railway, through hours on end of manless land, had brought us to St. John’s, that inimitably quaint capital of Newfoundland.
And one afternoon we pushed our way through the heaped boxes of cod and salt and general merchandise that line St. John’s piers and boarded a little mail steamer that ran twice a month—seldom more than five times a year—“down” the semi-settled coast of Newfoundland for five hundred miles, and then another five hundred far off to the north, into the birthplace of the iceberg, along the uncharted, barren, rugged shores of a country God never intended man to inhabit—Labrador.
Yet it was a pleasant trip, one to look back upon with no shuddering memories, but with a dreamy halo of unreality dimming its thousand unwonted events and sights, a composite picture that frays off about the edges and centres about one lone figure—John Shiwak, the Eskimo.
We were a motley crowd on board. For the next two weeks we would be bound to each other in the depressions and exaltations, the trials and strains of a confined existence that centred and circled and spread no farther than the tight dining-room and the after-deck. My personal variation was visits to the bridge, where I spent days at a time. The transient passenger list consisted of the woman-who-worries and myself, three professional world-vagrants who travelled as most people work, a mysterious newly-married couple whom none knew better at the end than at the beginning. And below decks crowded a score of Newfoundland fishermen and fish merchants on their way to the great cod grounds along the Labrador.
And there was John.
I was aware of him at first as he sat at the Newfoundlanders’ table in the dining saloon, never uttering a word, watching with both eyes every movement at the table of the “foreigners”. Presently I noted that he ceased to spread his bread on his hand, that he gave up his knife except for its legitimate purposes, that he stopped reaching as the others at his table did. Frequently I caught his eye, and always it dropped in confusion—only to return in a minute to the ways of our table. In a couple of days he was eating in the manner of so-called culture.
I watched for him on deck, but for several days caught only fleeting glimpses of him. And always he was the daintiest man on board. Evidently he had invested in a new wardrobe in St. John’s, and the muscular, short, straight-standing figure of him did each garment fullest justice. Twice a day he appeared in different array—in the mornings usually in knickers and sealskin moccasins.
Not a word did I ever see him speak to another. He would appear on deck for a half-hour twice a day, lean over the railing within sound of our voices, and disappear as silently as he came. I set myself the task of intruding on his reticence, of breaking his silence. In truth it was a task. Observing him one day watching the unloading of salt into the small boats that play the part of wharves on the Labrador coast, I leaned on the railing beside him and made some trivial inquiry about the scene of bustle. His reply was three words. To my second question, after several minutes, the reply was two words. And then he turned away. It was discouraging. But soon thereafter I noticed that when I stopped to look over the rail, if it were not in too quiet a part of the ship, John was leaning just far enough away to be out of range of questions. I took to wandering about, stopping by myself to look out on the sights of shore and iceberg. The interval between us decreased.
Then one night we stopped, in the sudden darkness that falls in that quarter shortly after ten of an August evening, to pick up a missionary and his wife and household goods. It was a task of hours, for everything had to be brought out to the steamer in one small rowboat. I was looking down from the forward deck on the twinkling lights below, hearing the oaths of busy seamen, in my ears the creaking of the steam winch. Suddenly there broke on the night from the outer darkness the shuddering howl of a wolf, then a chorus of howls. I raised myself to listen, peering out into the darkness of the sea where there were only scores of tiny islands, and beyond, scores of towering icebergs.
“The Labrador band,” explained a quiet voice beside me, modest to the verge of self-deprecation, but with a twinkle in it somewhere.
It was John Shiwak. And the ice was broken. I soothed his obvious nervousness by keeping to the text for the moment. “The Labrador band” is the term applied to the howling huskies, most of whom are set down on islands during their summer months of uselessness that they might be out of the way.
Far into the morning John and I sat up there in the dirty, deserted bow, as the ship felt its way through the islands on its northward crawl. By the pitch of the boat we knew when the islands ceased to screen us from the swell outside. Now and then an icy breath registered the passing of an iceberg; and once a disturbing crackling far outside, and a great plunge, told of a Greenland monster that had yielded at last to the wear of sun and wave. Not a sound of life broke the northern silence save the quiet voice of the captain on the bridge above, and the weird howls of hungry or disturbed huskies only one stage removed from their wolfish origin. And in those hours I learned much of John Shiwak’s immediate history.
He was a hunter in the far interior by winter, a handiman in his district by summer. The past winter had been a good one for him—a silver fox skin, for instance, which he had disposed of to the Hudson’s Bay Company for four hundred and sixty-nine dollars. And on the strength of such unusual profits he had gone down to St. John’s, Newfoundland, whence all good things come to Labrador—and whither all good and had things go from Labrador—and had plunged into the one great time of his life. His memory of that two weeks of civilization congealed into a determination to repeat the visit each summer. And I know that the dissipations of a great and strange city had had nothing to do with its attractions.
In his conversation there was the solemnity of a man who does much thinking in vast silences. Everything was presented to me in the vivid succinctness that delights the heart of an editor. John’s life had been filled with the essentials. So was his comment on life. When we parted for our berths I was conscious of a series of pictures that lacked no necessary touch of a master hand; but repetition in the stilted language and phrasing of civilization was impossible. The wonderful gift of nature was John’s, and the marvel of it grew on me through the night hours.
Next morning I smiled at him from our table, and some new life in his eyes convinced me the recognition was not unwelcome. And when we few wanderers collected as usual on the after-deck, there was John a few yards away leaning on the rail. I went to him, taking the woman-who-worries, and after a few monosyllabic words he took advantage of our interest in some scene on shore to glide away. But an hour later he was there again and thereafter he adopted us as his friends. For the next two days we separated only for meals and sleep. And on the night of the second day, as we swung a little into the open to make the Hamilton Inlet, a storm arose. And through the storm a tiny rowboat bobbed up to us in the moonlight, poised for minutes in the flush of a great danger as it struggled to reach us without crushing against our sides, and then quietly dropped aboard us two Moravian missionaries. And it was John who seemed to know just what to do to make the boarding possible. The missionaries recognized him and rewarded him with a smile and thanks, but John appeared unmoved. A moment later he was standing beside me, staring into the torn reflection of the moonlight, held by the same strange affinity that had been working on me.
Early the following morning we cast anchor far within the Inlet, before Rigolet. And as we glided into position, John and I were talking. In his manner was a greater solemnity than ever. I believe now it was the knowledge that in an hour or so his new friend would pass from his life.
“Can you read?” he inquired. And the unusual embarrassment of his manner made me wonder. Then, “Can you write?” And when I modestly admitted both accomplishments he hesitated. I made no effort to draw him out. In a moment he explained. “I can, too.” There was a great pride in his tone. I recognized it quickly enough to introduce my commendations with the proper spirit. “And I write much,” he went on. “I write books.”
Having received my cue, I succeeded in finding out that his “books” were diaries written through the winter months of his long season in the interior. For John, the Eskimo, had taught himself to read and write.
“Will you read my books?” he pleaded of me.
We climbed over the side then and sat together in the little boat that was to take us to the Hudson’s Bay quay. As I climbed first to the pier a great husky leaped at me. I had heard of huskies and their idiosyncrasies, and I was prepared to put up some fight; but John came tumbling up over the edge and rushed. A sliver of a lad jumped likewise from the other side and drove a kick into the husky’s ribs—and then I learned that this particular husky was unwontedly playful. Yet even the Eskimo and the liveyere never trust the husky.
John led me off, past the white buildings of the company, past several ramshackle huts that looked as if a mild wind would make loose lumber of them, and stopped before one a shade more solid than the others, he paused before entering. It was but one of his expressive movements that meant more than words. I was not to follow farther; he did not wish me to see within. I read into it that it was not shame, but a fear that I might not understand his home life. Inside, a few half-hearty words were uttered, and John replied quietly; and presently he appeared with two common exercise books in his hand. These he handed to me and led away from the life of the company buildings and the pier towards an ancient Eskimo burying-ground where we need fear no interruption. It would be a couple of hours before the boat would leave.
But someone shouted. The missionary who had boarded our boat two days before wanted someone to help to unload his household goods, and John, the always ready, supplied the want. And that was the last word I had with him.
I seated myself on the steps of the factor’s house and opened one of the books. The first thing I saw was a crude but marvellously lively drawing of a deer. With only a few uncommon lines he had set down a deer in full flight. Therein were none of the rules of drawing, but in his own untrained way John had accomplished what better artists miss. “This is a deer” underneath was but the expression of first principles. And on the second page was a stanza of poetry. Unfortunately it is not at hand, but this dusky son of nature had caught from his mother what he had never read in books. There was meter and rhyme and a strange rhythm, and there was unconscious submission to something working within. I began to read.
It was all about his past winter back there in a frozen world alone. After a time I became suddenly conscious that something was happening beneath me. I started to a cognizance of my surroundings. A husky had crept beneath the step and jerked from beneath me one of a pair of sealskin shoes I had purchased at the store. For huskies are immune from the appeal of an Eskimo’s soul. Anything is fodder to the insatiable fire of hunger that burns within.
They were shouting to me from the quay—and there are more attractive dangers than to be marooned on the coast of Labrador. With the diaries I started for the steamer, thinking to meet John there. But on the way we passed his boat returning with its last load. I shouted that I had his books; and his reply was to nod his head slowly, then to rest on his oars a couple of strokes, watching me as we drifted farther apart.
I never saw him again. During the six years that followed I received from him a half-dozen letters a year, all there was time for in the short two months of navigation along the Labrador. I wrote him regularly, sending him such luxuries as I thought would please him and add to his comfort—a camera and supplies, heavy sweater-coats and other comforts, books, writing-paper and pencils, a dictionary. From him there came mementos of his life—a beautiful fox skin for a rug, with head and claws complete; a pair of wooden dolls made entirely by the Eskimo and dressed in exact replica of the sealskin suits of the farthest north; a pair of elk-skin moccasins; a pair of seal gloves. It was significant of John’s gallantry that most of these gifts were specifically for the woman-who-worries. For me he was ever on the look for a polar bear skin, and had planned a trip farther north to get one, when other events intervened.
But, best of all, each summer there came out to me his diaries. Diaries have small prospect of breaking through my prejudices, but John’s invariably inaugurated a period of seclusion and idleness until I had read their last word. They were wonderful examples of unstilted, inspired writing. They started with his hunting expedition in the late fall (September, in Labrador) into the interior before the waterways froze over, and through the succeeding eight months, until the threat of breaking ice drove him back to the coast with his furladen sleigh, they recorded his daily life, not as a barren round of uneventfulness, but as a teeming time of throbbing experience. He felt everything, from the leap of a running deer to a sunset, from a week’s crippling storm to the capture of the much sought silver fox, from the destruction of his tent by fire to the misfortune of pilfering mice. And he had the faculty of making his reader feel with him. In a thumb-nail dash he could take one straight into the clutches of the silent Arctic. Now and then he broke into verse, although in his later diaries this disappeared, perhaps under the goad of more careful register. Breathlessly I would read of the terrible Arctic storms that hemmed him in, all alone in there, hundreds of miles from the nearest human being. And the joys and disappointments of his traps bore almost equally for the moment on the one to whom he was telling his story.
From his diaries I gathered bits of his life. He had left home when only ten years of age, to carve his own fortune, but his father and beloved little sisters were still to him his home, although he never saw them now. He was everyone’s friend, grateful for their kindnesses, always ready to help, contemptuous of the lazy Indian, whom he hated. In the summer he fished, or worked for a Grenfell doctor—all mere fill-ups until the hunting season returned. But always there was a note of incomplete existence in his writings, of falling short of his ambitions, of something bigger within the range of his horizon. Even before I waved farewell to him that day, I had him in my mind for a sketch, “John, the Unsatisfied”.
Throughout his diaries were many gratifying references to the place I had strangely attained in his affections—communings with himself in the silent nights of the far north. And each summer his letters almost plaintively inquired when I was coming to the Labrador that he might take me away up the Hamilton River to the Grand Falls. Even in his last letter, written from a far distant field, he reintroduced our ancient plans! Once he informed me in his simple way that he had his eye on the liveyere girl for his future home, and asked me to send her a white silk handkerchief with “F” in the corner. John was growing up. During his last summer in Labrador he was much absorbed in an ambition to set up as a Labrador merchant, but he had not the money.
During the first three years of our friendship he embarrassed me much by proposing each summer to come out and visit me; and in one letter he had almost made up his mind to come to me in Canada and take his place permanently in the competition of the white man. I funked the issue each time. I had no fear of his ability to hold his own with brain and hand but the Eskimo in civilization seemed too large a responsibility to assume. At every landing-place in Labrador was, at the time of my visit, a notice threatening a fine of $500 for anyone inducing an Eskimo to leave the country. It was a result of the dire consequences of the Eskimo encampment at the Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893. And I could never rid myself of the solemn warning of an Indian chief friend of mine against the risk.
Once a letter arrived in midwinter. The familiar handwriting on the envelope was like a voice from the dead, for I knew Labrador was then frozen in impenetrable ice. Inside I learned that a courier was coming on snow-shoes overland through those hundreds of miles of untracked wastes of Quebec. I replied immediately. And his diary the next summer told of his joy at the receipt in mid-winter of a letter from his friend. A pair of hunters, on their way to their hunting-ground somewhere beyond John, had carried the letter from the little village on the river and left it in one of his tilts.
During the fall of 1914 my letters to him were going astray. His arrived regularly, always lamenting my seeming negligence. A dozen times I wrote on alternate days. The summer of 1915 opened with his diaries and more letters of lonesome plaint. Through June and July they continued. Not a letter of mine was reaching him. Then one day came his despairing effort. On the outside he had written in his most careful hand: “If anyone gets this please send it to Mr. Amy”. Whereupon I wrote to St. John’s friends to get in touch with John at any cost.
In a couple of his letters he had mentioned his desire to be a soldier, but I had dismissed it as one of his ambitions unattainable owing to his race. In the one that was to be forwarded to me he announced that he had enlisted and was going to England immediately to train.
I ask you to consider that. An Eskimo, a thousand miles from the nearest newspaper—no outside life but that of the Newfoundland fisherman for eight weeks of the year, no industry but hunting and fishing, eight months in the snowbound silences of the most desolate country in the world! And John Shiwak, of another race, untutored, a student only of nature, was going out to fight for his country! Hundreds of thousands of young Canadians could scarcely read it without blushing. Within the little Eskimo was burning that which put conscription beyond the pale.
In the early spring of 1916 I came to England. Within a week I had found where the Newfoundland regiment was in training. John’s reply to my letter is too sacred to publish. There was joy in every line of it. “I have nothing to write about,” he said as usual, in his simple way. And then he proceeded to impress me with a mission in life I had scarcely appreciated. But he was in Scotland, and I in London. And travel in England is vetoed during the war. Within a very few weeks he was on his way to France, full of ardour.
Almost every week, and sometimes oftener, I heard from him. He was not liking the life. There was something about it he did not understand—this killing of men week after week—and his modesty and reticence, I fear, made him a prey to more assertive fellow soldiers. And thereafter, for months, for some reason, no letter of mine reached him. His petitions for news of me drove me to drastic measures, and then I regained touch with him. Once he was sick in hospital “with his neck”, but apart from that he was in the lines every time his battalion was on duty. And after eleven months without leave, suddenly he came to England.
It was unfortunately characteristic of our merely spiritual propinquity that I had left only two days before for a holiday in Devon; and when his wire reached me on a Friday night there was no train to bring him to me and return before Monday night, when he was due in Scotland. I hastened back from Devon to catch him on his way through to France, but the letter he sent me from somewhere in London neglected to include his address, and I could not find him before his train drew out that evening.
His letter of regret, written from Folkestone as he waited for the boat to France, is by me. “I hope we will meet again somewhere,” he said, and I imagined a tone of hopelessness rang in it.
Upon his return to France sorrow seemed to dog his steps. He had induced two other Eskimos to enlist with him, but they could not stand the life and were sent back. But his real grief was the loss of his hunting mate, who often shared his winter rounds in Labrador, a white man. “I am the only one left from the Labrador,” he moaned. And the longing to get back to his old life peeped from every letter. But to my sympathy and efforts to brighten him he replied: “I am hanging on all right. The only thing to do is to stick it till it’s over.”
It is through misty eyes I read his letters of those last three months. The duration of the war was wearing on him. He had no close friends, none to keep warm the link with his distant home. In September he lamented: “I have had no letters from home since July. There will be no more now till the ice breaks”. And in his last he longed again for the old hunting days. Labrador, that had never satisfied his ambitions, looked warm and friendly to him now. He wondered what the fur would be for the coming winter, what his old friends and people were doing, how the Grenfell doctor managed without him.
I had been sending him books and writing-paper, and small luxuries in food and soldiers’ comforts. “It is good to know I have two friends,” he thanked me. (The other was a woman living near his training camp in Scotland). “I don’t think a man could be better off.” Simple, grateful John! He complained of the cold, and I despatched a warm sweater and a pair of woollen gloves. But they never reached him.
That was in mid-November. A month later an official envelope came to me. Inside was my last letter. On its face was the soulless stamp. “Deceased”. More sympathetic hands had added: “Killed”, “Verified”.
It was a damp-eyed sergeant told me of his end, this native of Labrador, the only Eskimo to lay down his life for the Empire.
“He was a white man,” he whispered. Would that John could have heard it! It happened in the Cambrai tank drive. The tanks were held up by the canal before Masnieres, and John’s company was ordered to rush a narrow bridge that had unaccountably been left standing. John, chief sniper of his battalion, lately promoted lance-corporal, the muscular son of the wilds, outpaced his comrades. The battalion still discusses which was the first to reach the bridge, John or another. But John ran to the height of the little arch and turned to wave his companions on.
It was a deadly corner of the battlefield. The Germans, granted a respite by the obstacle of the canal, were rallying. Big shells were dropping everywhere, scores of machine guns were beginning to bark across the narrow line of protecting water. And just beyond the bridge-head, in among the trees, the enemy had erected a platform in tiers, bearing machine guns. As John stood, his helmet awry, his mouth open in unheard shouts of encouragement, the deadly group of machine guns broke loose. That was why the bridge had been left.
The Eskimo swayed, then sank slowly. But even as he lay they saw his hand point ahead. And then he lay still. And they passed him on the bridge, lying straight and peaceful, gone to a better hunting-ground than he had ever known.
And my thoughts of John Shiwak, the Eskimo, to-day, are that he must have been satisfied at the last.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.