A Rose for Noggasak

A Nunatsiavut (Labrador) Story

reblogged from June 26th, 2012 – German version here.

The Old Cemetery in Darmstadt, Germany, had an unusual visit a few weeks ago. An Inuk from far-away Labrador (Canada), had a very special occasion to lay down a flower there.

Abraham and his family in contemporary picture, collection M+W Opel
Abraham and his family – collection M+W Opel

Only a few inhabitants of Darmstadt know that a group of Inuit (then called Eskimo) performed in a „human zoo“ in the city in December 1880. Back then, the animal park entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck from Hamburg has initiated such events, where exotic people from far-away countries presented themselves in their traditional clothes and way of life and thus brought impressions from the wide world into Europeans cities. At that time, such international ethnographic shows enjoyed great popularity among the people of all social classes – adults as well as children – and thus filled the pockets of the operators, which most often could close out with substantial gains – although the expenses of bringing people together with their traditional equipment from Africa, America, Oceania, India or Greenland to Europe were rather large.

The Inuit who came to Darmstadt had been recruited for a fee by the boat owner Adrian Jacobsen on behalf of Hagenbeck. They left their homeland on the northern coast of what is now Canada and sailed to Hamburg with him, in order to start a one-year tour through Europe. Abraham and his wife Ulrike, with their two small daughters, and the young man Tobias were baptized Christians from Hebron, the mission settlement of the Moravian Church; Terrianiak and his wife Paingo with their 15-year old daughter Noggasak were „Pagan“ nomads from the Nachvak Fjord.

The old mission station in Hebron – © Wolfgang Opel
The old mission station in Hebron – © Wolfgang Opel

The three-day performance of the Inuit in Darmstadt took place in the skating rink, near the spot where a little later the Orpheum vaudeville theater was built. On Dec 15th,1880, the “Darmstaedter Tageblatt” wrote: “The performance of two Eskimo families in the skating rink excites the highest interest of the visitors because of the most peculiar image of the North presented here, and it is quite regrettable that such adverse weather conditions will keep many from getting these unusual impressions. The people, although quite small, look healthy, contented and neat and endeavor in sleigh rides (where six strong sled dogs are vigorously involved), creeping up on seals and others to teach the viewer a little concept of their arctic life.”
But the following day, the newspapers reported the sudden death of the girl Noggasak and her burial. This was just the beginning; a few days later two other Inuit died in Krefeld, Germany; they all had been infected with smallpox. None of the eight Inuit reached their distant home ever again: the remaining five got only as far as Paris, France, where – after a few days of performing in the Jardin d‘Acclimatation – death claimed them, too, in January 1881.

Noggasak and her father Terrianiak – contemporary image
Noggasak and her father Terrianiak – contemporary image

At that time, local newspapers reported the tragic fate of the Inuit group. Later, also the „Missionsblatt“ of the Moravian Church wrote about the case, but it was forgotten soon after. Only a hundred years later, the Canadian ethnologist J. Garth Taylor, working in a Moravian archive, came across some handwritten papers; it turned out that these were the transcript of a translation into German of a diary containing impressions from the trip of the Inuit which Abraham had kept in his native Inuktitut. 15 years later a book “The diary of Abraham Ulrikab” containing Abraham’s text as well as photos and historic documents was published in English in Canada in 2005 (an enhanced German version was released in 2007).

In 2009, Zippora Nochasak came across that book. When she learned of the fate of her compatriots and saw the photograph of her namesake Noggasak (a different spelling of her own last name which is not common anymore), she was deeply moved. The story captured her and finally made her work with us.

In remembrance of Noggasak
In remembrance of Noggasak

Zippora Nochasak travelled to Germany in the spring of 2012 and together we visited the sites of the tragic journey of 1880. At the old cemetery in Darmstadt, we found the section in which the girl Noggasak has once been buried. Probably for the first time in more than 130 years, the deceased girl was remembered in an informal ceremony with a prayer in Inuktitut.

J. Garth Taylor, An Eskimo Abroad, 1880: His Diary and Death, Canadian Geographic, October-November 1981, 38-43;
Hilke Thode-Arora: Abraham’s Diary – A European Ethnic Show from an Inuk Participant’s Viewpoint. Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall/Winter, 2002, pp. 2-17
The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab. Text and Context, University of Ottawa Press 2005; Hartmut Lutz (Hg.): Abraham Ulrikab im Zoo – Tagebuch eines Inuk 1880/81. Von der Linden, Wesel 2007;

posted by Mechtild Opel on June 26, 2012

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