Behind the making of Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story

Share Button

Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association’s (COTA) latest film, Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story, showcases the sustainability of life on Cape Hope (Nunaaluk), a James Bay island near Wemindji, while exploring the rich history of its former Inuk inhabitants.

An Inukshuk on Cape Hope Island

An Inukshuk on Cape Hope Island

This 29-minute documentary, directed by Louise Abbott and produced by COTA, tells the story of George Weetaltuk and his extended family’s peaceful coexistence with their Cree neighbours on Cape Hope at a time when Inuit/Cree relations were poor.

Narrated by Mini Aodla Freeman, the last remaining Inuk born on the island, the film is a celebration of Nunaaluk’s past. She tells a story of Freeman’s return to the island after many years and revisits her childhood through film and photographs shot in 1954 during a visit by the late Arctic author and photographer Fred Bruemmer.

The film opens with a boat heading to the serene island with Freeman returning for the first time to visit the remnants of her family’s settlement and the hunting camp that belongs to Wemindji’s George Kudlu. While the island was Inuit territory until 1960, it is now controlled by Wemindji.

COTA’s Dorothy Stewart, who is from Wemindji and has a background in history, is quite familiar with the territory, its stories and the Inuit people who once lived there.

“I knew a bit about this history because Old Factory is my family’s hunting territory,” said Stewart. “I remember as a young girl, we were the last ones (to move) by canoe because our hunting territory was there.”

In 2012, before she worked for COTA, Stewart happened to be in the area with COTA Executive Director Robin McGinley. She was asked how much she knew about the island and the Inuit. It was at that time that they spoke with George Kudlu, whose hunting camp is on the island, and when several Inuit dropped by to visit Stewart’s father.

“Robin felt that there was something important there because people have always thought that there was nothing on the coast. This isn’t true – there is a lot of history. That is how this film came about,” said Stewart.

Louise Abbott at work in Old Factory

Louise Abbott at work in Old Factory

Then working for the Cree Nation of Wemindji, Stewart was hired by COTA to work on the film project.

The film tries to show that not only is life possible on one of these islands, but it is sustainable. To depict this, the film illustrates the history of George Weetaltuk, the patriarch of the settlement and Freeman’s grandfather.

Several scenes in the film show images of Weetaltuk from the 1950s and certain items he made as a self-taught master craftsman – everything from boats to furnishings that are still in use at Wemindji’s local church.

One scene shows Freeman standing next to an ornate, hand-carved bishop’s chair that her grandfather had crafted and which the church still uses.

Louise Abbot had already done extensive research on the Cree for her 2010 book Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree/Terre des Cris, which gave her some familiarity with Weetaltuk’s story. But investigating how the Inuit settled on Cape Hope and were eventually forced to leave would take much more digging and a couple of lucky breaks.

The film wouldn’t have happened had COTA and Abbott not been able to locate people from the settlement or the man who shot the original footage on the island.

Now living in Alberta, Freeman documented portions of her life story in the 1978 book, My Life Among the Qallunaat. Once the elderly Inuk was tracked down, finding images of the area and the settlement became the next challenge.

Abbott began a lengthy email correspondence with Freeman to learn as much as she could. One day Abbott asked Freeman if she remembered if any outsider had visited or taken any photos. The elderly Inuk mentioned a 1954 visit by Bruemmer.

It had just so happened that Abbott had interviewed Bruemmer in the late 1980s for a Montreal Gazette article. Despite the fact that he was suffering from cancer at the time, he granted Abbott the interview that appears in the film. While obviously frail, Bruemmer was still very animated and his memory of that 1954 trip to Cape Hope remained vivid.

George Weetaltuk and Inuit crew building boat in 1949.

George Weetaltuk and Inuit crew building boat in 1949.

Sadly, Bruemmer died the very day that the film had its world premiere, though Abbott had previously arranged a special viewing for Bruemmer and his family via the Internet.

Abbott was intrigued by the lasting impression that Weetaluk had left on Bruemmer.

“He had this small sculpture of a seal that Weetaltuk had given him in 1954 and he had brought this with him when he went to get his heart transplant and he had it with him when he died,” said Abbott.

“He said that Weetaltuk had given him a shamanic blessing which translated into English as ‘may your life be blessed with seals,’ meaning probably May you always have something to eat or something like that. But in Fred’s case, it became very literal because up until that point he had never seen a seal before. But his most acclaimed and popular books would be of his photographs of seals. His life was quite literally blessed with seals.”

Abbott said there were many “lucky strikes” while making the film. Had she not begun to work on it when she did, Bruemmer’s memories would not have been recorded for posterity.

More luck came in tracking down Elizabeth Mark, who is originally from Wemindji but now lives in Ottawa. Interviewed in the film, Mark was actually one of Freeman’s childhood friends and vividly remembers the Inuit who used to visit Old Factory. Having previously met Kudlu in 2009 during the research for her book, Abbott said she was quite fortunate to access the people she needed for the film.

Remains of a boat on Cape Hope Island

Remains of a boat on Cape Hope Island

“I felt that this was just the right number of people to tell this story and to get the different vantage points. With a half-hour film you don’t want too many characters. It is much better to get to know the ones that you have,” explained Abbott.

According to Freeman, her return to Cape Hope was one of mixed emotions because she remembered life on a land that was once hers.

“We had to accept the idea that it is being looked after by the Cree and it is in very good hands. When I landed I wanted to kiss the land, but I got very shy as there were people looking at me when I arrived so I didn’t do anything,” said Freeman.

Her grandfather’s mark on this territory and the people who still inhabit it are lasting. But when asked what she thought her grandfather’s reaction to the film would have been if he were still alive, she spoke of his modesty.

“He was such an unassuming person and so he would never say I did this or I did that or I made this and that. He would just never tell you about all of the things that he did. He was a quiet and proud person and I don’t think that we could ever really know what he thought but I know that he enjoyed Cape Hope,” said Freeman.

Freeman hopes that young Native people who view the film remember to be very careful with their own land. But, more than anything, she said, “I hope that they enjoy this film. That is all.”

COTA is currently exhibiting Nunaaluk around Eeyou Istchee and has already toured film festivals throughout Canada and the United States. It will be screened in Montreal at the Présence Autochone’s Terre en vues Festival on August 2.

George with his fishing net on the shore of the island.

George with his fishing net on the shore of the island.

Share Button

Comments are closed.