The winter of 1941 was a strange one in Canada's Belcher Islands—and that was before nine people were killed in a panic about Satan.
Photo via the author/courtesy Avataq Cultural Institute
The hunting was poor in Canada's Belcher Islands in the winter of 1941, and a meteor shower led some Inuits to suspect the world was coming to an end. It was around this time that a 27-year-old tribal shaman named Charlie Ouyerack proclaimed himself Jesus Christ, and anointed his pal Peter Sala—the tallest man on the island who also happened to be the best hunter and ice navigator—as God.
The duo's first holy act was to order the killing of sled dogs, complicating escape for the devoted and skeptical alike.
One teenage girl, Sara Apawkok, publicly questioned the new religious order, and was promptly denounced as Satanic. She was killed by the religious leader's zealous converts, who hammered her head in with the barrel of a rifle. More murders soon followed.
The Belcher Islands are remote, but not exactly otherworldly—a collection of 1,500 rocks in the turbulent eastern waters of the Hudson Bay. With ferocious winds pounding glacial boulders into a sea of granite pebbles, the frozen sea stabs into North America like an icy dagger on the incoming tide. The New Testament had been introduced to the area fairly recently, but it only took a matter of years for the Good Book to be used to disastrous effect.
In his new book, At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic, Lawrence Millman juxtaposes the Belcher Islands murders with our present day screen lives. He sees our ongoing obsession with the digital as a religion unto itself that signals a way of life coming to an end. That might sound like the cranky raving of a Luddite—VICE talked via land line to Millman, who doesn't text, tweet, or have a cellphone—but few Western authors are as experienced as he is in grappling honestly and thoroughly with remote cultures and the Inuit people in particular.
We asked Millman why he thinks this World War II–era story of religiously inspired murder matters in 2017, why he's alarmed at what he sees as society's transition from the real world to a digital one, and where we can—or should—go from here.
VICE: How did you first find out about the murders on Blecher Islands, and what made you want to pursue it for a book?
Lawrence Millman: I've been traveling to and studying the Arctic for 40 years, and I've done a lot of ethnographic work—collecting stories, tales, myths, superstitions, and taboos from Inuit elders. I always have my antenna out for unusual stories in recent history where people are still alive who remember them. I go with my tape recorder and talk to somebody who's 80 or 90 and say, "Do you remember this?" I'd read here and there in about these murders, and I wanted to find out more.
I was there in 2001, and I happened to be there at the time of 9/11. Most of the elders wouldn't talk to me about the murders. They were embarrassed by them, humiliated. As one man said, "If your daughter was raped, would you go around talking about it?" He thought these murders made them look primitive. At the time, the Inuit in the Belcher Islands weren't primitive, they were traditional. Still, like a lot of native people in the US and Canada, they wanted to erase the past, because they want to be just as up-to-date technology savvy as everyone else in the world. This is part of globalization.
In your research and interviews, did you find out what really happened? How did the introduction of the Bible lead to nine Inuit losing their lives?
The one man who could read the Bible talked about its truthfulness, literal truthfulness: There's this guy up in the sky known as God, and there's a guy named Jesus who died to save us. And people who hadn't the sense of abstraction or contemporary motives of religion wouldn't have taken all that so literally. One of the women, Mina, thought of Jesus kayaking down from the sky, a literal individual who would come down and save us by kayaking down to Earth. The people who were at the fore of this were people who were at the fore in the culture.
[Charlie] Ouyerack was a bit of an Angakok shaman, but was so short that he wanted to make himself seem bigger. And Peter Sala is a key figure—he had contact with the outside world. He was the best hunter, hence he was God. He was the one person on the islands, because of his contact with the outside world, who could have stopped this, but in fact, he was swept up in it. And I think the fact that they didn't have food, they were starving, it was cold, there was no contact with the outside world, and there was no internet to tell them there was an outside world—their minds went in weird directions. Not the whole population were believers, but they were terrified to say they weren't because of what happened to the first person that was killed. The young teenage girl, Sara, who told Peter Sala and the shaman, "You're not God and you're not Jesus." She was killed because she was Satan.
And it didn't stop there, right?
Altogether, nine were killed. A batch of them were killed when Mina, Peter Sala's sister, ushered all the old people and children out onto the ice in minus 20 degree temperatures in February and forced them to take off their clothes. She ran around the village declaring the world was at an end with an Inuit dog whip, which is a scary thing that can whack off your ear or take out your eye. Six people froze to death. All of them were related to Peter Sala. In a way, there was a lesson there, and he took it. After he became aware of that, he realized what a terrible mistake he made, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was too late.
When and how did the murders cease?
The murders finally stopped when the people on the mainland found out about them from Peter Sala. He was very divided—he was God on the one hand, but he was also a fairly rational human being. He'd led an expedition of scientists in the 1930s to Belcher. He even knew a little English. He told the Hudson Bay Company's person on the mainland that there'd been three murders—he only knew of three at that time because the six others were occurring when he was absent. Immediately, the Hudson Bay Company telegraphed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and said you better come, there are murders in these islands. Not only were there no ministers or priests in these islands, there were no police, either.
Ultimately, Peter Sala and one other were sentenced to a couple of years hard labor and imprisonment. "Jesus" and "God" were exiled from the Belchers for the rest of their lives.
Check out our documentary about the ex-cop trying to solve the murders along Canada's "Highway of Tears."
And how do you juxtapose those murders with society's obsession with technology? What is the relationship, and what does it mean?
People regard iDevices in the same way as they used to regard God. Nothing else matters—they don't see anything else in the world. They walk around playing with them, and they don't see a tornado or a tsunami coming. It's a form of idolatry. I talk to people who are more upset when their computers or smartphones malfunction than if they have something seriously medically wrong with them. That, to me, seems more akin to a religion.
I was watching 9/11 in the Belcher Islands. There weren't too many TVs, it was a real old one, and I was curious about why I was far more moved by this old woman's accounting of the 1941 murders than I was about watching 9/11 on a screen. Why was I not moved by these people falling from skyscrapers? This is a crucial event, and I'm not moved by it. It was because I wasn't there. It didn't feel alive to me. But the old woman that was telling me of the events of 60 years earlier was right next to me. Very important.
So your book is a warning cry, then, about how culture can be reduced to machinery?
I think it's too late to be a warning cry—it's already gone. I have a totally bleak attitude about society's survival, and one of [those attitudes is toward] Donald Trump, but I won't go into that. I see it as a warning cry to select individuals who read the book. It's like, Hey, there's something else around, there's nature and we're losing it. If you are swaggering around with your iDevice and you don't see nature, then why would you want to preserve it? One imagines huge tracts of land of wilderness turned into super malls. That could be considered a warning cry also, because what I do as the book progresses is I sort of start to talk about technology as a religion—a religion that may be more destructive than the one that killed nine Inuit in the Belcher Islands in 1941.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Lawrence Millman's new book, which dropped Tuesday, here.
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