Trapped In A Human Zoo – an interview with France Rivet (part 3)

Today is the last instalment of my interview with France Rivet.  But there is still plenty to learn about this story. If you’d like to learn more, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of France’s book, In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab: The events of 1880-1881.

I found myself wondering what it would be like for France, after all of her research, to finally come face to face with the skeletons of Abraham and his colleagues. Would it be sad? Would it be a happy moment, after 3 years of searching? Here’s what France had to say….

“Honestly, I had no clue how I was going to react the moment I would be standing in front of the skeletons. On my first visit to the anthropological collections of the Natural History Museum in Paris, I started by asking to look at their archives, at the actual papers. Finding new information, new pieces of the puzzle, was a higher priority for me. But, obviously, the time came when the person responsible for the collection asked: “Would you like to see the skeletons, now?” I didn’t have the choice. I had to say, “Yes”. I dreaded that moment, but everything went well. In fact, it may sound heartless but I didn’t have any reaction. Maybe it was because the five skeletons stood among a collection of 2,000 who all looked alike! I did not recognize Abraham, Ulrike, Tigianniak, Tobias, nor Maria in the skeletons I was seeing. They could have shown me the wrong skeletons and I would not have known. The names engraved on their skulls, and the identification numbers matching those of the certificates and other archival documents, were what confirmed that they were indeed the right ones. I was a lot more impressed by a collection of 19th century busts made on living people. Those looked so real! Had I come face to face with the Labrador Inuit’s busts, I probably would have had an emotional reaction.

Here’s a link where you will see a photo of a selection of these busts: (http://www.theguardian.comartanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/oct/14/paris-musee-de-l-homme-museum-reopening)

I must also say that I found the remains in the very early stages of my research. Five years later, with thousands of hours spent researching, writing and telling their story, the bound is somewhat stronger. What I remember is that when I left the museum, as I was walking in the Jardin des Plantes, I told myself that these skeletons did not belong in reserves covered under plastic bags. It became clear that it was now my responsibility to do whatever I could to make their dream to return home a reality. These people had left Labrador in good faith. They tragically died, and scientists studied them as much as they could before, and even after their death. To me, they had given enough to science. I felt that it was time for them to come home and rest in peace.”

France’s writing of this final chapter of the story of Abraham and his companions was the culmination of 5 years of work. I asked France, what do you feel is your proudest moment or greatest accomplishment associated with this project?

She answered, “I guess my proudest moment is whenever someone from the Inuit community comes up to me to thank me for what I have accomplished. Whether it is a simply thank you, a hug, or a handshake, I know that all of my efforts were worth it. They are making a difference for them. They are allowing them to finally close the chapters on one of their sad stories.

The other moment that made me very proud is after we ended the filming of the re-enactment scenes for the documentary film. To see the pride in the eyes of the Inuit actors, and to see Charles, who plays Abraham, jump up and down because he was so proud of himself, was just priceless.

I can’t change the life of everybody, but knowing that I’ve had a positive impact on the life of at least one person, makes it all worthwhile.”

We look forward to knowing what happens next. Currently, the Nunatsiuvut government is discussing the repatriation of the remains of the Inuit, back to their home in Labrador. I hope that this does indeed happen. I think it needs to happen. Abraham had realized the mistake he had made by taking his family and colleagues to Europe. He wrote about looking forward o the day that they would go home. Abraham did not live long enough to have his wish fulfilled. But thanks to France and the governments of Nunatsiuvut, Canada and France, hopefully Abraham will finally come home.


October 2014 when Johannes Lampe and myself visited with Sylvie Bédard and Pierre Guimond at Canada’s Embassy in Paris.

Trapped In A Human Zoo – an interview with France Rivet (part 1)

I hope you were able to watch, “Trapped In A Human Zoo” on this week’s Nature of Things. What a story! It’s hard not to feel emotional about it. It’s a tragic tale, but sadly, not an uncommon one back in those days.

France is a very good friend of mine and it’s been fascinating to watch her on her journey, researching this story and getting to this point of telling the story very publicly, in a wonderful and fascinating documentary. And with the remains of Abraham, his family and the other Inuit likely to be repatriated back to Labrador, France is ensuring that the last chapter of this story is finally being written. Over a number of dinners over the past 4 years, France has shared with me, the things she was uncovering as she did her research.

France’s research (visit her Polar Horizon’s website for more information) for this project was self-funded. Funds raised through a crowd funding campaign as well as her own personal money, were what she used to uncover this mystery. Clearly she was driven by curiously, passion, and a desire to provide the Inuit of Labrador with a concluding chapter to this terrible story. She made a promise to two people, including an Inuit woman from Labrador, to find the answers about what happened to Abraham and the seven other Inuit. Finally, she is able to tell the story of their fate.

I interviewed France last week to ask her about her experience in uncovering the mystery of the fate of Abraham and the other Inuit. What follows is a multi-part blog post interview of France and her journey to write this final chapter.

I asked France, “How did you get involved in this project and what was the path that led you to the point where you are now?”

France: “I got involved in this research in 2009 following a promise I made to two people I met on a cruise along the Labrador Coast. The first person, Hans Blohm, is an Ottawa photographer of German origin. In 2005, Hans and his friend, German professor Hartmut Lutz, published a book entitled “The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context”, the English translation of the diary of a Labrador Inuit who had been taken to Europe in 1880, with his family and three other countrymen, to be exhibited in zoos. Since the ship was heading in the communities where these eight people came from, Hans highly recommended that I go to the ship’s library to read the book. That’s what I did.


Hans Blohm and Zippie Nochasak on board the Lyubov Orlova, July 2009. They are the two people France made the promise to, to find out what happened to Abraham and the other Inuit that had been exhibited in the human zoo.

The story fascinated me, but there was a piece missing. The book said nothing about what happened to the Inuit when they were in Paris. Five of the Inuit died in Paris. On the ship with us was an Inuk lady whose family originates from Hebron, Abraham’s place of origin, and she has the same name as Nuggasak, the first of the eight Inuit to die in Europe. This lady had just learned about Abraham’s story and she was very upset by what had happened to her people. In the fall of 2009, the three of us met in Ottawa and Abraham came on the subject. By that time I had reread the diary and I had many unanswered questions, so I promised both Zippie and Hans, that since my mother tongue is French, whenever time allowed, I would try to see if I can find any information about what happened in Paris. One thing I was hoping to find out was where the Inuit had been buried.

It took me about a year to finally find a lead to a wealth of articles about the Inuit’s presence, and death, in Paris. But never had it crossed my mind that I would actually find the Inuit’s remains. Being told that they were still in Paris, patiently waiting in the reserves of a museum was a total shock to me. This discovery was THE turning point. I knew from reading Abraham’s diary how much he wanted to come home to Labrador. All of a sudden, my research was no longer a simply matter of finding facts, but a new dimension was being added: could the remains be brought home?

Within a few weeks, I was sitting in the office of Mr. Philippe Mennecier, the person in charge of the anthropological collections at the Natural History Museum in Paris. He’s the one who had taken the initiative to reveal to me that the skeletons were part of their collection. Mr. Philippe Mennecier confirmed that the Museum’s policy is not to oppose a repatriation request for remains that are identified. That is definitely the case of the Labrador Inuit. Knowing that, it became obvious to me, that life was giving me a mission. I would not have been able to simply walk away and ignore the fact that Abraham’s skeleton was there, and that he wanted to come home. The people in Labrador had to be told. They had to know the truth. The little voice inside me told me that I had to see this mission through. Life had picked me. Life must have known that I could do something about it. I had no clue how I was going to cross that mountain, but hey, I started walking! Slow but steady! Slow but steady!


Trapped In A Human Zoo – a documentary airing on February 11th at 8 pm EST on CBC

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On Thursday, February 11th at 8 pm EST, CBC’s, The Nature of Things, will be airing a documentary about a troubling, yet fascinating story, a part of our history.

In 1880, two Inuit families from Hebron, in Labrador, Canada agreed to go to Europe to be exhibited in one of the many ‘human zoos’ or ethnographic shows, as they were called back then. The concept of a human zoo is an appalling one, but 130 years ago, a visit to a human zoo in Europe was an extremely popular thing. The idea was that Aboriginal people or ‘savages’, as they were horrendously referred to then, were brought from far off lands and put on display to provide so-called entertainment to the general public.

The eight Inuit who were brought from Labrador to Germany to be part of the exhibit met a tragic ending not long after arriving in Germany. Contrary to the law at the time, when these Inuit families arrived in Germany they were not vaccinated for smallpox. And having never been exposed to the disease, the Inuit succumbed, one by one. Less than four months after their arrival in Europe, both Inuit families had died from smallpox.


Labrador, Canada

It was thought that this was the end of the story. Until my good friend, France Rivet, became intrigued and wanted to find out the fate of these Inuit who sadly lost their lives in Germany. Thought self-funded research trips and a passion for investigation, France is writing the final chapter on this story. She discovered the whereabouts of the skeletal remains of the Inuit families who died in Germany. It is this story – her story of fascination and discovery – that is being told on this week’s episode of The Nature Of Things.

Despite being a tragic tale, it is a part of our history. To me, history is not just a record of the past, but also an opportunity to learn from experience. There is a saying that history repeats itself. But I hope that by learning from the tragedies of the past, our job is to ensure that history never repeats itself.

I hope you will tune in to watch this incredible documentary about France and her discoveries about this little known story. The story is about this final chapter being written, one which will likely come to close with the repatriation of the skeletal remains of these Labrador Inuit from the 1880’s. After 136 years, it’s finally time for them to come home.

This blog post is the first in a series about the story, In the Footsteps of Abraham  Ulrikab. I hope you’ll come back to read more, including my interview with France, telling her own story of discovery.


France’s book about Abrham’s story and the writing of the final chapter of this piece of history