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Box 23

Tom Gordon’s Nunatsiavut diary

The Moravian Church in Nain.


There is no equalizer like an unsorted box of archival documents. A day recently spent with 32 boxes exhumed from the basement of the Moravian manse in Nain brought this truth home with dusty clarity. Each lifted cover revealed another unlikely set of document cohabitations. Traces of this world and proclamations of the next commingling in an environment neutralized by aged grit with just a hint of mildew. The Biblical earth from which all creation sprang came.

Appropriately enough, my archival day itself started off under a sky tinged bleak metal grey. But as the day progressed and as I sifted through thousands of seemingly random documents, the colour of remarkable lives lived seeped into the reading room.

The catalogue of items that surfaced out of box 23 was astoundingly varied, emerging in an order as random as life itself. Taken together, these sheaves of paper, envelopes stuffed with records, letters, invoices, reflections – started to define a wholeness of lives of two peoples.

Hand-written Inuktitut sermons from as far back as the 1860s (one dated 1906 was subsequently re-dated 1961 – an early example of recycling) were sandwiched between affidavits of birth for Inuit children born on the land without benefit of witness. An optimistic letter to an architect, commissioning a new church (which today stands an empty concrete pad next to the cemetery) is partnered with bills of lading for hundreds of pounds of flour and a few ginger roots.

More sermons written in a script so infinitesimally small that I had to borrow a magnifying glass (paper must have been in very short supply). Polite letters requesting a missing part for a new machine just received – a part which could not possibly arrive until the next shipping season or maybe the one after. Less polite letters about the mouldy state of a shipment of food. Yet more sermons, each littered with scraps of salvaged paper rhyming off the service’s hymn selections.

Every document relating to this world written in English or German. Every document relating to the next was set to paper in Inuktitut – bravely, valiantly in a tongue so foreign to the missionary scribes that only unshatterable faith in their mission could have led them to persevere.

The mechanical perfection of the old German script became uncannily personal. The missionaries’ fervour and faith, what brought them to this challenging coast, grew palpable on page after page. And their ritualed words – NâlegaK Jêsuse nertortaule – seemingly so far removed from the realities of survival in a harsh environment, must have resonated somehow in the ears they fell strangely on. I came on a ledger of those confirmed in Nain between the 1920s and the 1970s – each newly Christian adult signing his or her name to the register. Lengthy litanies of biblical characters preceded an Inuktitut surname to make up the full legal identity of each young Christian soldier: Zachariah Amos David Tuglavina, Zipora Magdalena Maria Semigak. Those names seem no less improbable to me than the missionaries’ Inuktitut sermons impeccably transcribed in Fraktur, the old German script. Yet the inelegant cursive of the signatures of the newly confirmed spoke to a similarly unshatterable commitment.

Despite the apparent jumble of documents consigned together to box 23, connections began inevitably to emerge. The traces of lives of two different peoples – Inuit and missionaries – commingle like the documents themselves. Perhaps because people’s connections to one another and the world around them were core values to both cultures.

The Moravian missionaries were remarkable, indeed obsessive, record keepers. Thanks to them, for example, we have accurate climate records for the Labrador coast dating back hundreds of years. The near continuous census taking of their adopted communities was a matter of impulse. For the Inuit the records are carried in the web of kinship that defines each individual’s connection to another. Expression of kinship forms an essential pattern of speech. “Natan-my-mother’s-father” comes out in speech like it was a hyphenated name. So does “Ruth-even-though-she’s-my-cousin.” Naming expresses a relationship from the speaker out toward the rest of the knowable universe and back again. I think I’m finally getting ready to go back to read the “begats” in the Old Testament – they’re starting to make sense.

Dr. Tom Gordon, is a professor and former director in the School of Music. He is spending part of his administrative leave on Labrador’s north coast and will regularly check in with Gazette readers.