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.

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

Arctic Expedition 2014 – some experiences just change your life forever…

Getting out in zodiacs to explore was one of the huge highlights of the trip for me. I love that the students (and staff) got to see, smell, taste, touch, hear - to experience the north with all of their senses. (photo copyright Shelley L. Ball)

Getting out in zodiacs to explore was one of the huge highlights of the trip for me. I love that the students (and staff) got to see, smell, taste, touch, hear – to experience the north with all of their senses. (photo copyright Shelley L. Ball)

A few days ago I returned from the trip of a lifetime. No, not a trip of a lifetime. An experience of a lifetime. I was an educator (biologist, photographer, and environmental communicator) on the 2014 Students On Ice Arctic Expedition. I, along with 45 other educators and support staff and 86 high school students from Canada, the U.S., Scotland, China, Monaco, and Greenland, spent 12 days together on an icebreaker, exploring the arctic – northern Quebec, the coast of Labrador (including the absolutely spectacular Torngat Mountains National Park), and then southwest Greenland.

The incredible rugged beauty of the Labrador coast near Torngats Mountain National Park. (photo copyright Shelley L. Ball)

The incredible rugged beauty of the Labrador coast near Torngats Mountain National Park. (photo copyright Shelley L. Ball)

It was 12 of the most spectacular, action-packed, eye-opening, inspiring days of my life. And for those 86 high school students on board, it changed their lives. For some, profoundly. In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some of those stories. In my 20+ years as an educator, I have never seen such transformations in young people in such a short time. It may sound corny, but what I witnessed on that ship in those 12 days renewed my hope in humanity. There are truly good people out there who will do good things, not just for themselves, but for our entire global community. I have no doubt that some of those 86 students on our expedition will be the ones to go on to do great things – big things –  for our world. But also small things too. I think it’s important to be reminded that big isn’t the supreme goal. We can all do something good for our world, in our own ways, no matter how small. So I believe that all of the 86 students on this expedition will have an important influence on the world, in one way or another. Every effort, every action matters, regardless of magnitude.

Me, teaching a photography workshop on shore. I wanted to inspire the students to use their images to share their experiences with the world and to share their concerns about the health of the arctic environment and its cultures, with the rest of the world.

Me, teaching a photography workshop on shore. I wanted to inspire the students to use their images to share their experiences with the world and to share their concerns about the health of the arctic environment and its cultures, with the rest of the world. (photo copyright Lee Naraway).

If I had to sum up the achievements and milestones of the expedition, it would be difficult, because there were so many. We learned about the arctic environment – plants, animals, geology, ocean currents…. We learned about the peoples of the arctic – their culture, history, and some of the tragic stories of contemporary times, when Inuit were forced by the government to leave their homes, their communities, to live elsewhere, and to adopt ‘southern’ ways of life. This was all part of the governments strategy, decades ago, to assimilate our northern peoples into ‘southern’ ways of life. We learned about climate change. We learned about the geo-politics of the north. From early in the morning until late at night, we were busy – outside exploring on the land, exploring the shoreline by zodiac, participating in workshops on board our ship, listening to presentations given by educators, hearing ‘life stories’ that inspired us. There were so many great things we experienced and that resulted from this expedition. But I would have to say that watching the students stretch – to muster up the courage to step outside of their comfort zones in order to experience life to the  fullest and to connect with the people in our group, was by far, the most incredible result of our experience. For me, it did a lot to reinforce my desire to follow my passion – to take youth around the world on life-changing expeditions that will teach them about themselves, help them reach beyond their limitations, to show them some of the earth’s most incredible places, and to inspire them to preserve them and the cultures of the people who live in them. This is my dream. And now, more than ever, I’m determined to make it happen.

Our arctic sunsets were some of the most spectacular I have ever seen. (photo copyright Shelley L. Ball).

Our arctic sunsets were some of the most spectacular I have ever seen. (photo copyright Shelley L. Ball).

 

Over the next several days, I’ll be blogging about my experience on this Arctic Expedition 2014. I want to share with you the things we saw, the things we learned, the experiences we had, the insights we had, and the stories that developed over our 15 days together (12 of which were onboard the Sea Adventurer, our floating home).

I hope you’ll come back to read more. And please pass the link to this blog to anyway you think would enjoying reading it. Thanks!

Shelley

Me, aboard the Sea Adventurer, with a massie glacier in the background. Our wonderful ship's captain took us down some of the most incredible fjords in Greenland.

Me, aboard the Sea Adventurer, with a massie glacier in the background. Our wonderful ship’s captain took us down some of the most incredible fjords in Greenland.