The Desperate People Summary
by Farley Mowat

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The Desperate People Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Desperate People describes the “virtual extinction” between 1952 and 1959 of the beleaguered Ihalmiuts in the inland plains known as the Barrengrounds. An appendix identifies by name all the Ihalmiut who were living in 1946 and either tells where they were living in 1958 or explains what happened to them. Of the 111 individuals, only 64 were known to be alive twelve years later, many of them at Rankin Inlet on the shore of Hudson Bay. Diphtheria was the commonest cause of death.

Due west of Hudson Bay, in the Canadian District of Keewatin, lies the Land of the Ihalmiut Eskimos, marked in the northwest by Dubawnt Lake and the Dubawnt River, in the southwest by Ennadai Lake, in the south by Nueltin Lake, and in the northeast by Yathkyed Lake. The Kazan River snakes down from the northeast to the southwest, and the tree line meanders around across the southern region. This is the home of the people christened by Farley Mowat as the People of the Deer in his book by that title. In 1912, the Ihalmiut, or “The Other People,” as they knew themselves, were hit by an epidemic of what was probably influenza. This tragedy was followed in 1913 by the first trading post, an institution that introduced the tribes to Caucasian trinkets, flour, cloth, and “much other sorcery” that would convert the Ihalmiut to fox trappers. The introduction of rifles in return for fox pelts meant a rapid decrease in the caribou herds (the “deer” of Mowat’s narratives are not the North American whitetail but caribou) and the disintegration of the people and their traditional way of life. Thus, by 1930, the Ihalmiut were reduced to four small groups, the largest being the People of the Little Hills, something above one hundred in number, clustered around Ennadai. The white trappers who swarmed into the Barrens in these years slaughtered the deer, poisoned the foxes with strychnine, and shoved the Ihalmiut aside. At the same time, the Ihalmiuts’ traditional enemies, the Idthen Eldeli, or Athapascan Indians, pushed northward to put pressure on the Ihalmiuts’ southern flank. Thus, by 1932, the community numbered no more than two hundred across the whole region. In the winter of 1942-1943, forty-four people, a third of the survivors, died of hunger, leaving only about sixty Ihalmiut struggling along northeast of Ennadai.

Mowat flew into Windy Bay in May, 1947, with an unidentified male companion and befriended a lone Ihalmiut named Charles, who let him share his cabin. Through Charles, Mowat met the young shaman Ootek, his wife Howmik, and their daughter Kalak, as well as Ootek’s neighbors Halo and his wife, Kikik. The natural leader of this group was Owliktuk, married to Nutaralik and father of their four children. Owliktuk’s followers included Yaha, a good hunter; the fatalist Miki; and a fringe figure, Ohoto, husband of Nanuk. A nearby camp was under the control of the tyrannical shaman Pommela, spiritual guide to a small group including Katelo, Pommela’s younger brother, and Katelo’s twelve-year-old son; Onekwaw and his wife, Tabluk, and her daughter by a previous union; and Alekahaw, a “sly and clever opportunist.” A third small camp, consisting of Hekwaw and his family, completed the Ihalmiuts when Mowat met them in the summer of 1947.

The Ihalmiuts’ miseries were not alleviated much by the obtuseness of the government authorities, for whom Mowat harbors an obvious contempt. When a government plane flew in to the little outpost of starving survivors in the spring of 1948, it brought boxes marked “Eskimo Relief Supplies,” a brutally disappointing collection of six sheet-metal stoves, several fox traps, one dozen large axes, and twenty galvanized-iron pails. Stoves and axes in a land of no trees revealed the minds of Ottawa officialdom. The best Mowat could do was give the Ihalmiut ten boxes of ammunition for their aging rifles and hope for the best. However, later, in August, Mowat procured one dozen .303 rifles and one...

(The entire section is 1,386 words.)