Sunday, December 18, 2011

Part VII: The people of Churchill

(Please start with Part I, if you haven't already, and work your way up!) One of the big advantages of staying in town, as opposed to a "lodge" on the tundra, is that after long days looking for bears from the vantage of our tundra rover, we were treated to dinner at one of several Churchill restaurants (Gypsy's, the Seaport, or at the  now burned-to-the-ground, Northern Nights Lodge) followed by a visit to hear a local raconteur. But one of my very favorite Churchillians was Stu, driver of our "in-town" van for Great White Bear Tours
Stu, raised in Churchill but now living with his wife, a nurse, in Saskatchewan, had returned to work polar bear season. Returning, for him, is a special pleasure because his mother and sister still live in Churchill. Stu told us his heritage is Cree and Dene, which are the two most prominent First Nations groups of the region. So typical of native peoples, he comes from an amazingly hospitable family. One day, after a drive around the docks along the Churchill River, Stu pulled the van into a parking lot of a building very like this one--a typical modern-day Churchill dwelling:
He left the engine running--we did need the heater on!--unbuckled his seat belt and said, "Wait just a minute, I'll be right back!" In flash, he was back with a cutting board and a large, foil-covered slab of still-hot-from-the-oven bannock bread, baked for us by his sister. Simple, fresh, refreshing, and accompanied by butter and locally-made jam, this was the ultimate hospitality from a woman too humble to come out to the bus for us to thank her. It was one of the highlights of the trip, thanks to Stu and his family.
Guide Sandra and van driver Stu with everybody's cameras taking a group picture.
Stu was not officially a guide, but he was quite knowledgeable about the area, the wildlife, local lifestyles and history. Of the caribou ragout at the Lazy Bear Lodge, when asked if he liked it, Stu said, graciously, "yes, it's good" and then, of course, "but it's not like my mother makes it." I'm sure that's true! 
Lunching on caribou and muskox dishes beyond the caribou skin at the Lazy Bear Lodge Cafe
One evening we visited the Churchill Métis Heritage Center where we were hosted by Métis elder, Myrtle Demeulles. In Canada, Métis is a demographic designation referring to people of mixed European and aboriginal heritage; in the United States such people were denigrated as "half-breeds." Like many such people around the once-colonial world, they suffered from a lack of acceptance by either parent's culture and doubtful treatment by the government. Today, the Métis of Canada are proud of their legacy, and have found strength in their numbers in large part due to the leadership of people like Myrtle. Of Scottish-Cree descent, she was married to a Frenchman. She has in fact been recognized as the recipient of the Order of Manitoba. Here's her certificate, displayed at the Heritage Center to remind the young of the importance of her work:
Myrtle spoke to us for about a half an hour about what it was like to grow up in a Cree community, how the Cree take care of their needy (especially, "skinny women"), and how inspiration comes to her in dreams. Myrtle is well-known for her wonderful tufted caribou fur "dimensional sculptures" charmingly depicting the natural boreal world. Here they are on display, with my apologies for not having a close-up to show you (click to enlarge for detail):
And here is Myrtle, ever friendly and interested chatting with her visitors at the Center:
On another evening, we found ourselves at St. Paul's Anglican Church, of which Churchill's official website, "Everything Churchill" has this to say:

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the first prefabricated building in North America and a designated heritage site by the Province of Manitoba, is the oldest church in the North still in use. It originated as a kit of pre-fab components made in England, was assembled on the west bank of the Churchill River, then was moved in winter by sledge to the other side of the river followed by a final relocation to another street. St. Paul’s also has ties to the exploration era – Lady Franklin donated a stained-glass window in memory of her husband Sir John Franklin, the famous Arctic explorer. It can still be seen today.  

They fail to mention Bill Calnan, the church's lay spokesman, who entertained us on another evening with tales of the early British-European history of the area. Bill was original from the United States, but has lived and worked in Churchill--often as a tour bus driver and guide--for 40 years.  
And here's a detail of the remarkable Franklin window housed at the St. Paul's (click to enlarge to fully enjoy its beauty):
The other prominent cultural legacy of Churchill is of course, that of the Inuit, celebrated and preserved by another religious organization, the Catholic Diocese of Churchill, in the Eskimo Museum. In a possibly uncharacteristic moment of foresight, in 1944 the mission determined that the artifacts of the Eskimo culture (now known by their name for themselves, Inuit) should be sheltered, studied, and appreciated. Today the museum remains very small, but replete with precious objects such as these fine walrus-tusk carvings:

and these larger icons of the Inuit, authentic hide-covered kayaks that look like they are well-used:
In the background the museum's excellent little shop is visible. It's full of brilliant carvings the Inuit are known for so well. I think the whimsey--amply visible in the ivory pieces too--and extreme precision of the work are perhaps what comes of very long northern winter nights with little else to do. To our pleasure and good fortune!

Go to Part VIII


  1. I enjoyed reading about some of the people you encountered. Especially the mixed race people and the pride in their origins.

    Here in NZ there are many many people who have a maori ancester, sometimes way back. Many of us have married into Maori families or have relatives who have.

  2. Nice local bio and great pics. Yeah, the Metis got a bad deal all around--both from whites and the Tribes here in Montana.

    PS: sure hope to blog from China--it's not easy given the censorship (Blogger is blocked). Proxy server, I guess?