1966 I, Nuligak: An Inuvialuit Autobiography

When the book I, Nuligak was published in 1966 it was not only recognized as the very first Inuvialuit autobiography but also highly praised for offering a glimpse of a time and place that few Canadians knew existed.

Nuligak – or Bob Cockney as the Missionaries later christened him – was born in 1895 in Kittigazuit, a traditional Inuvialuit community near the eastern edge of the Mackenzie River delta. This was a time of great change, American whaling ships had entered the Beaufort Sea a few years earlier and had established a base-of-operations on Herschel Island (see map). Their ships became a familiar sight in the waters off the Mackenzie Delta and the adjacent Arctic coast.

The Americans brought both prosperity and suffering for Nuligak’s people. Wage employment on whaling ships, and trading of furs and meat for American manufactured goods, made some Inuvialuit wealthy while also exposing them to alcohol and disease.

Nuligak wrote, “Being orphaned early, the first years of my life were spent in poverty and hardship.” He survived through the kindness of others and as he grew and became a good hunter, he always shared meat with those in need. While in his teens, Nuligak also began working on American whaling ships and by 1910 had learned to read and write.

As the western Arctic whaling industry went into decline Nuligak began to buy steel traps and was soon making his living as a white fox trapper. White fox pelts were worth a lot of money and the 1920s became a time of tremendous prosperity for many Inuvialuit trappers. They could afford expensive schooners and by 1925 Nuligak was able to buy his own. He ordered a schooner from the Northern Trading Company and the Bonnie Belle was delivered to him in 1926. Nuligak described this brand new, forty-foot schooner as having a “Francisco Standard heavy duty ten horsepower machine-to-make-fire.”

Nuligak had gone from a poor orphan born into a society that still used stone tools, to a wealthy, literate owner of a schooner. But soon the white fox trade, like whaling before it, was in decline. By 1932 Nuligak’s income from trapping white fox bottomed out at $70. He survived by using the Bonnie Belle to haul freight along the Arctic coast and by 1940, with the rise in the value of muskrat pelts, was back living in the Mackenzie delta as a muskrat trapper.

In declining health in the 1950s Nuligak began to write, in his Inuvialuktun language, the story of his life. He wrote of his earliest memories of Beaufort Sea whalers, of white fox and muskrat trapping, of family and friends and of times both good and bad. His book, I, Nuligak, was translated into English by Father Metayer and published in 1966, the year Nuligak died in an Edmonton hospital.

See also https://www.pwnhc.ca/inuvialuit/