BLOODY FALLS OF THE COPPERMINE: MADNESS, MURDER, AND THE COLLISION OF CULTURES IN THE ARCTIC, 1913, by McKay Jenkins, Random House, 278 pages, $25.95.
In the winter of 1913, two Catholic priests trudged through the high country of the Canadian Arctic in an effort to reach a group of isolated Eskimos to convert them to Christianity. They traveled through the frigid, bleak country known as the Barren Lands, finally reaching the Coppermine River where it feeds into the Arctic Ocean.
Three days after they reached their destination, they were murdered by two Eskimos who disemboweled their bodies and ate portions of their livers in a strange ritual intended to prevent their spirits from haunting them. When news of the grisly murder reached Canadian authorities, they determined to track down the killers and bring them to justice.
The major problem, which no one in the Western world properly understood, was that the Eskimos knew nothing about Western justice. Nor did they have any understanding of Western culture or the English language. Nevertheless, Canadian Mounties were directed to go into the wild domain, discern who the killers were and bring them to justice.
Denny LaNauze led a trio of constables on a 3,000 mile journey to find the bodies and the killers. Fortunately, LaNauze was a quick study and a man of integrity and wisdom. He was
completely willing to use the abilities of an Eskimo interpreter to determine that the priests had been killed by Eskimos Sinnisiak and Uluksuk.
The Eskimos were quite cooperative and open, telling everything they knew. When LaNauze found the two suspects, they were also forthcoming, and their stories corroborated each other.
The problem remained — how did the police arrest people who had no impression of their authority and then deliver them to a courtroom. Once in the courtroom, how could such a trial proceed with people who had no knowledge of English or English law? How could they be convicted without a jury of their peers?
Once in the city of Edmonton, the Eskimos, who had never seen a car or a building, were totally confused. Things got worse as they tried to listen to legal arguments, suffered from the heat of the courtroom and fell asleep.
The media had a field day reporting this bizarre trial and the aliens accused of the crime. The six white jurors were incorrectly instructed by the biased judge to find the defendants guilty.
At the end of the trial, the jurors seemed to be reacting adversely to judicial pressure and acquitted Sinnisiak, the first to be tried. When a second trial was held for both defendants, the judge gave the same untenable instructions and this time the men were convicted.
This is a compelling story of cultures in collision. Jenkins uses his research and his superb writing gifts to tell a provocative story, the crux of which could apply to many other situations in different eras.
The Europeans were condescending to the Eskimos at best, failed to take into consideration all aspects of the case, and structured a trial that should have been illegal by any civilized gauge. It was the priests who were the nomads going to a strange land to try to rescue native peoples who did not need rescuing.
This true story, filled with interesting characters interacting in a hostile world, reads like an excellent, mysterious novel. In spite of the detail of the research and occasional repetition of events, this is a page-turner of the highest quality.