New Perspective on Ancient Petroglyph Damage

Archaeologist: “Injustice” of accusation against Christian Inuits

A month after I covered damage to the Qajartalik petroglyphs in Northern Canada, the archaeologist at the centre of the controversy has written to the Nunatsiaq News. Daniel Gendron was described in the paper in August as suspecting that the vandalism “was a religiously motivated attack by devout Christians from a nearby Inuit community”, and as believing that it

follows the pattern of previous attacks by members of what he called “a very strong movement” of conservative Christians in Kangiqsujuaq and several other Inuit communities in northern Quebec.

Now, however, Gendron is adamant that he said no such thing when he was interviewed by reporter Randy Boswell, as he explains in a letter to the Nunatsiaq News:

…we had no clue as to the extent of the damage and who were responsible for it, and we still don’t know. I then told him of the history surrounding the discoveries of the site in the 1960s, and the description the Catholic missionary of the time gave of the petroglyphs as reminiscent of “devil” faces.

Other events in the mid-1990s were also documented and published. One of these events, was a message in syllabics and defacing of some of the petroglyphs alerting to the “evilness” of the place. I also mentioned that some individuals were reluctant to set foot on the island because they were told that the place was “evil.”

There was also more mundane damage, such as some graffiti left by teenagers who actually signed their initials on one of the soapstone panels. Soapstone quality testing (where one individual will take away small pieces to verify the quality of the rock) was until recently the most frequent and recurring damage to the site.

So, there was one religiously-motivated attack of unknown origin in the mid 1990s, rather than a “pattern of previous attacks” by members of the latest religious revival, as alleged in Boswell’s article. Gendron adds:

…rumours prove nothing, and should remain unpublished until proof is brought forth I do find regrettable that this has come out in this way.

…My intent has never been to blame innocent people, and I do apologize to the entire Nunavik population for this, and especially to the Kangirsujuammiut.

I hope that this note will correct some of the injustice that might have come out of the initial publication of the news, and that these recent discussions on the uncertain future of this site will help in having it officially recognized and protected.

When news of the damage broke, I wrote two pieces that investigated the nature of the religious revival in the area, which can be seen here and here. This led to bitter complaints from Mike Somerville and Roger Armbruster, two missionaries who work in the area, that I was “kind of racist” and that I had maligned a whole community through “insinuation” simply because I had repeated and discussed the published accusation which appeared to have come from an authoritative source, and which I did not claim was more than a suspicion that community leaders had rejected. The full exchange can be seen in the comments.

Naturally, had I had reason to believe that Gendron had been misrepresented I would have worded things differently, and I would have considered Pentecostal involvement in the damage to be less likely than I originally indicated. I believe that I provided as fair and as accurate an account by an outsider blogger as could be expected, but it is always regrettable to find that one has been a conduit for inaccurate information. Therefore, in so far as I drew inferences based on Randy Boswell’s dubious reporting, I apologise.

(One of the two missionaries, Roger Ambruster, brought the letter to my attention)