The Inuit may not have celebrated Thanksgiving a century or so ago, but they were thankful for the blessings that came their way. Nothing beats a big, fat seal when you and your huskies face starvation in the dead of winter.
In 1920, Canadian explorer Robert Flaherty hauled two cameras and nearly 15 miles of raw film to the shore of Hudson Bay to make what became the world’s first documentary feature. Nanook of the North, released in 1922, profiled a year in the life of a hunter-trapper and his family as they struggled to survive in their inhospitable land.
It is an admiring portrait, with little of the patronizing or hostile racism that was common at the time. “These people, with less resources than any other people on the earth, are the happiest people I have ever known,” the filmmaker wrote.
Flaherty knew his subject well enough to take liberties with the literal truth in order to depict what he saw as the factual truth. “Nanook” was, in fact, a hunter known as Allakariallak. “Nyla,” his wife in the film, was Alice Nuvalinga, with whom Flaherty fathered a son. Though Allakariallak hunted with rifles, the film’s Nanook used spears. Flaherty sought to portray the Eskimo, as he and his contemporaries called the northern peoples, as they were before contact with modern technology.
Through the titles in his film — talking pictures did not exist in 1922 — Flaherty tells us that Nanook died of starvation while hunting in the barren interior of northern Quebec. Historians have determined that Allakariallak died in 1923 in camp; most likely he was a victim of the tuberculosis that was rampant in the North at that time. (I know tuberculosis was prevalent because, in his excellent autobiography Labrador Doctor: My Life with the Grenfell Mission, Canadian physician W.A. Paddon described the precarious health of settlers and natives alike at that time in that part of the world.)
Flaherty’s work has been criticized for deceiving the viewer and distorting reality. I was, myself, somehow disappointed to learn the truth about “Nanook’s” demise. I had already grieved for the cheerful, brave man who, desperate to provide for his family, abandoned the fish and marine mammals of the coast on the off chance that he would encounter a deer or caribou on the tundra.
On reflection, I think Flaherty did capture the greater truth. At any time and in any place, people will do what they must to provide for their families. They will wander the ice floes of Arctic seas to catch a seal, or they will climb aboard a tiny boat in the Gulf of Alaska to pursue the profits of the king crab. They will face the rigors of a coastal New England wilderness, or they will pay coyotes and snakeheads to smuggle them to modern America.
Thanksgiving is the day we pause to savor and be thankful that we have made it through the rigors of another year. If the people we love have made it with us, even better.
For many people, this has been a more difficult year than most. I suppose some may find it hard to be joyful this holiday season. If Nanook the man never quite existed, Nanook the idea can still inspire us to face challenges with cheer and courage. He reminds us that times may get hard, even desperate. But we can be thankful for the good things that have come to us thus far, and we can strive to get that big, fat seal, just when we need it most.