Today on the show I am looking at one of the most important Indigenous individuals during the 18th century of Canada, Mikak. She is known for ensuring friendly relations between Europeans and the Indigenous of Labrador and is one of the first Inuit to appear in recorded history.
So, let’s look at her fascinating life.
Born around 1740 in what Labrador would one day be, Mikak would enter the history books when she was 24 thanks to a man by the name of Jens Haven. Haven, who was Danish, was in Greenland when he learned about a man named Dr. Johann Erhardt, who had been killed by a band of Inuit off the coast of Labrador. Haven used this as a reason to travel to Labrador and preach the gospel to the Indigenous there. He had returned from Greenland to England in 1764 and was given permission to go to the British base at Chateau Bay to begin preaching the Inuit. He would arrive in 1765 and while preaching, a storm came in and stranded him. He was able to take refuge in the tent of an Inuit spiritual leader and with the leader was a woman named Mikak.
Mikak was interested in the Europeans and their stories and she would memorize a prayer taught by Larsen Drachardt, who was with Haven when the storm came in. The missionaries would move on and it would be two years before Mikak would have another encounter with Europeans.
In 1767, a fishing village owned by Nicholas Darby was raided by the Inuit, and several boats were captured. The British responded by sending a group of men from Fort York, who then killed all the men in the raiding party and taking the women and children as prisoners. In all, its estimated at least 20 men were killed by the English. Mikak was one of the individuals captured, along with her son. Taken to Chateau Bay, she was held there through the winter and while there she began to learn English and conversed with Francis Lucas, the second in command of the garrison there. She quickly learned English and then taught Lucas words in her own language. It is believed she did this to help make future trade agreements easier between her people and the Europeans.
Mikak also impressed Hugh Palliser, the Governor of Newfoundland, with her knowledge and he quickly saw that she could be a tool for creating friendly relations between Europeans and the Inuit.
As spring came, Lucas was ordered to take Mikak, her son Tutuak and another boy named Karpik back to England. The intention of this was to show the Indigenous European society and how advanced it was and it was believed upon the return of Mikak to North America, that would make the Inuit more receptive to trading with the Europeans.
Mikak would meet several aristocrats in England and the Royal Family. John Russell would paint her portrait there and the portrait would be exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. In England, Mikak became friends with Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and their friendship would continue for many years with the two exchanging gifts after Mikak went back to Labrador. While in England, she would meet Jens Haven again and she urged the cause of the Moravians to aristocrats, who were looking to settle in North America. Thanks to her efforts, they received their grant in May of 1769. The Moravians exist today and are one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, dating back to the roots of the Bohemian Reformation of the 15th century. They had attempted to establish a mission in 1751, founding the first Moravian station in Labrador and calling it Hopedale or Valley of Hope. Four missionaries began to build a log house, dig the gardens and get things ready while Johann Erhardt, the ship’s captain and five other companions left to trade with the Inuit in the north. That group never returned. The remaining members at the settlement abandoned the site and went back to Europe.
During her time in England, Mikak would meet many important individuals. The Earl of Bathurst would speak of her the following:
“There is so much to be said in relation to the Esquimaux lady that I shan’t be able to go through it. She has an admirable understanding. She has been twice with the princess, who is as fond of her as I am. Twice she has dined with me and tho’ I had very good dinners, she would eat nothing but Salmon.”
The Earl would relate the gift of the famous gown to her, and her relationship with the princess. He finished off his account as follows:
“They are all to be sent back in May and it is hoped they may be assistant in making some treaty with those people and open a trade for whale fishing.”
While in London, Mikak lived in the home of Francis Lucas and Jens Haven would visit her frequently in the hopes of obtaining the mission among the Inuit.
In the summer of 1769, Mikak would return with her son to Labrador with Lucas, while Karpik remained in England. While Inuit had traveled to Europe before, Mikak and her son were the first to return from Europe. Sadly, Karpik died of smallpox soon after Mikak and her son left. Once back in Labrador, she told the other Indigenous about the Europeans and their society. Thanks to stories of England, the Inuit would let the Moravians settle in Labrador in 1770 after receiving their grant of 100,000 acres of land. When the Moravians arrived, they were greeted by Mikak who was wearing the dress given to her by the Princess of Wales as a sign of diplomacy. Her new husband Tuglavina was with her, wearing a white woolen coat, as well and the encounter went well. Tuglavina was an angakok, which held great weight among the Inuit. The Moravians respected Tuglavina for his intelligence and courage but also feared him for what they called his turbulent spirit. They also said that “her husband is very fond of her an extremely cautious not to leave her alone with the Europeans…Mikak appears to be a great lady among the Inuit.”
Mikak is said to have told the Moravians, when they asked how they would be received by the Inuit, the following:
“You will see how well we will behave, if you will only come. We will love you as our countrymen and trade with you justly and treat you kindly.”
The Moravians were still skeptical though of the welcoming of Mikak and wanted proof that they would not be robbed or murdered by the Inuit. They were said to have told her:
“I must tell you that if your country people attempt to steal, murder or do us any mischief our captain, whom you see here, will not let it pass unpunished but will make use of our guns in his and our defences.”
This insulted Mikak and she said they would not be harmed. When the Moravians said that the Inuit were known for killing and stealing, Mikak said that Europeans were known for the same thing. In the relation of the meeting, her irritation was evident, as explained in this recounting:
“She was not pleased that we had such bad thoughts of her country people whom she assured us loved us and would rejoice at our living among them and their behaviour would be such as to give us no cause to alter our determination to come and settle here another year.”
Nerkingoak, Mikak’s father, arrived in a kayak during the meeting on July 19 at Byron’s Bay after the arrival of the Moravians. He told the Moravians that his daughter’s name was now Nutarrak, which meant “changed or newborn” because she was so different after her return from Europe.
Mikak and her husband agreed to be guides for the Moravians and help them find a good spot to settle. Mikak also told her people that the Moravians intended to live among them and that they should be welcomed.
As the group travelled, the Moravians preached to the Inuit they encountered, meetings that Mikak organized. It is known without a doubt that if not for Mikak, the Moravians would not have been accepted to the extent that they were.
On Aug. 4, 1771, the Moravians returned to England with five fox pelts that were to be given to the Princess of Wales and others. Later in 1771, a group of 14 Moravians returned to Labrador to remain for good and built the settlement of Nain. The Moravians also sought the consent of the Inuit to have their settlement there and a gift was made to each family there. A document was also drawn up, with the leading Inuit making marks opposite their names, to detail their acceptance.
Reverend Drachart, who was with the Moravians, related to the Inuit:
“In time to come, when yourselves or your children shall learn to read and write as the Greenlanders have done, they will be able to read these names and they will remember what they have just now seen and heard.”
The Moravians would buy fishing equipment and other tools from the Inuit and the Inuit were quick to adopt the useful technologies of the Europeans for some tasks. Even with the help, the Moravians still showed distrust towards Mikak. They are described as being on their guard and, in their words, “having a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other.”
Once the settlement had been established, Mikak and her husband returned to living the traditional Inuit life. In January 1773, two Moravians named Schneider and Turner went to the island of Nintok, about five and a half hours from Nain, to visit Mikak. They found her there in two large houses, each of which contained 20 people and Mikak gave them an apartment within one of the houses. Later in 1773, Mikak would return to the Moravians and told them that her husband had stolen another man’s wife and ran off with her. The Moravians were upset by this but they also equally blamed Mikak for the actions of her husband. For some reason, the Moravians maintained a good relationship with Tuglavina but fell out with Mikak. The Moravians would baptize Tuglavina but would not baptize Mikak despite several trips to Nain in the hopes of being baptized. The Moravians had hoped that Mikak would remain at their mission, but she did not want to live there, and she and her family would trade with other nearby traders, not just the Moravians.
In 1773, she would learn of the death of the Princess of Wales and stated that she no longer designed to go to England.
In 1774, she returned to Nain with her husband and her new son, with both Mikak and Tuglavina looking to covert to Christianity. Tuglavina would then leave Mikak soon after for another woman, then do so again in 1775. The Moravians would initially state they would have nothing to do with Tuglavina but would then welcome him back each time he returned. Eventually, Mikak had enough and after Tuglavina had left her three times, she formed a partnership with a man named Pualo, who was the husband of the wife stolen by Tuglavina. During the next few years, Mikak and Pualo lived a traditional life and would visit Nain occasionally. As for Mikak, James Hutton, the leader of the Moravians in England, would speak out against Mikak for her earlier visit and criticized her for what he saw as a scandalous life. He would say that her trip to England made her worse than before, saying:
“She is prouder, more wretched and miserable than she was before, less contented with the station she must however submit to and less fit to enjoy for the future, what other Esquimaux call Enjoyment of Life.”
In 1779, Mikak and several other families decided not to relocate for the winter because they had a good supply of meat. Unfortunately, wolves got into the supply and the Inuit were left with little to eat. In January, a man arrived at Nain and told them about the starving families. The Moravians then sent out two sleds to retrieve the families in February 1780. The next winter, Mikak and Pualo were going to return to their traditional hunting grounds but were convinced to stay with the Moravians instead. Mikak stayed in the hopes her family would be baptized.
The Moravians recorded the following about her desire to convert to Christianity:
“Mikak, who always speaks for her husband, gave us to understand that her whole family were desirous to obtain the knowledge of our Savior, which was the reason they wintered here. They desire also to be among the candidates for baptism. After she had talked a good while, she was asked whether she believed in her own mind that she was quite corrupt and good for nothing. She said, after a little pause, “I do not know myself and there I do not know it.” We were much pleased with this her upright answer, for else the Esquimaux like to speak what they think will please us.”
In that winter, Pualo and her two sons were baptized, with Pualo taking the name Abraham, but once again Mikak was not baptized. In February 1781, she and her family would leave Nain.
Feeling that she had been denied by the Moravians, she chose to distance herself from them and she would go south to trade with Europeans at Chateau Bay. This was an act of defiance aimed at the Moravians, who strongly discouraged the Inuit from going south. Mikak and Pualo returned to Nain the next year and Pualo asked the Moravians to baptize Mikak, feeling that it would help trade negotiations. The Moravians rejected the request and the family left Nain again.
The Moravians recorded the request as follows, stating that Pualo “has lost all grace which was to be received in him some time ago and all his thoughts are taken up with the Europeans that live south.”
In the summer of 1783, Mikak and her family left for Chateau Bay with 180 other Inuit against the wishes of the Moravians. The trip was difficult, and many would die from diseases. Pualo would be one of those who died, likely from infection.
Not much is known about the final years of Mikak, but she would only return to Nain once more in September of 1795 and was in poor health. She expressed her desire to be baptized before she died, and the Moravians finally agreed to do so. She would die in October of 1795 under the care of the Moravian missionaries.
In their epitaph dedicated to her life, the Moravians would say the following:
“The last ten days of her life, she spent at Nain. Immediately on her arrival, being very ill, she sent to Brother Burghardt to request assistance and advice. He found her extremely weak, hardly able to speak and apparently without hopes of recovery.”
In the epitaph, Brother Burghardt spoke to her about the state of her soul and advised her to turn to Jesus. She is said to have responded, “Ah I have behaved very bad and am grieved on that account but what shall I do. I cannot find Jesus again.”
The epitaph continues.
“She departed this life, Oct. 1, 1795, and was buried in our burying ground. We trust in our Savior’s mercy that he has also found this poor straying sheep.”
In 1824, a Methodist missionary named Reverend Thomas Hickson would come across two Inuit at Hamilton Inlet. The Inuit were there with their wives and the older man was Tootac, the son of Mikak. His wife wore the golden gown that Mikak had worn so many years before and Tootac bore the name Palliser, after the Newfoundland governor who had befriended them.
“I found that two of them, father and son, had each of them two concubines. It was not difficult to convince them of the evil of their doings and though it was generally supposed that the senior adulterer would have parted with his life rather than give up either of his concubines, the Lord applied what was spoken to his conscience, which caused him to tremble exceedingly and he expressed a willingness to act in any way that I should direct. This person was taken by Captain Palliser to England about 45 years ago, with his mother, who had a gown presented by the queen. This gown, richly trimmed with gold and very fresh, was worn by one of the women. The man bears the name of the above-mentioned captain who took him.”
In 1870, it was said that pieces of the gown were in the possession of Mikak’s grandson.
In 2011, Mikak was designed as a person of National Historic Significance. Her designation reads:
“A charismatic and resourceful woman, she exemplified Inuit self-determination, political ability and economic control at a time of cultural transition.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada’s History, Biographi.ca, SAIT, Wikipedia, Nunatsiaq News, Labrador Cura, Labrador Life, Newfoundland and Labrador A History, Labrador Its Discovery Exploration and Development, The Moravians In Labrador, Parks Canada.