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…rumours prove nothing, and should remain unpublished until proof is brought forth I do find regrettable that this has come out in this way.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

6 Responses

  1. […] that there has not in fact been a ”pattern of previous attacks”. Please see my entry here for fuller […]

  2. Thank you, Richard, for this timely and helpful corrective to your original blog. I, too, noted that the Nunatsiaq News did not retain the letter from Archeologist Daniel Gendron in its letter archives, so I am not sure why. In the September 1 issue of the Nunatsiaq News, Jane George also picked up on Randy Boswell’s CanWest article, and even suggested that this vandalism “follows a pattern of attacks” by religious groups. What was the only precedent that was referred to in her article? It was the religious Taliban in Afghanistan, who took down a 50-metre statute of the Buddha. In my view, to associate the Christian Inuit (who have forgiven outsiders and governments who have hurt them so much) to the Taliban is unconscionable, and completely over the top. However, I thank you personally for the integrity with which you have corrected your original blog. Have a great day, Richard. By the way, I am not aware (and correct me if I am wrong) that Mike Somerville has ever been to the Canadian Arctic. Also, for the record, I have never accused you of being rascist, but I stand by my original statement that your original blog on “Neo-Pentecostals” in the Canadian Arctic did insinuate something that did not reflect favourably on an identifiable group, the Christian Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Archeologist Daniel Gendron himself has now stated that the article on which you based your article was not merely an insinuation. He states, “I wish to rectify what has been presented in Randy Boswell’s article as an attack on a specific group of people, accusing them for the alleged damage.” So the archeologist sees the original article by Randy Boswell not as a mere “insinuation,” but as an outright “attack on a specific group of people.” To your credit, you did change the word “blamed” in the original article headline to “suspected.” However, in my definitions, to “suspect” somebody of something criminal is to “insinuate” something. Certainly some of the comments to the blog would indicate that some people took your comments as helpful and useful research. It turns out, now, that the story as spun by Randy Boswell was a crock. Again, have a good day!

  3. Just to add this bit (which is may be more than a little bit), and to add something to the ongoing research that is taking place–

    Jane George ran several articles on the Qajartalik site over the summer, and it is exceedingly interesting and instuctive to note the sequence of her articles.

    On June 8, 2001, her article in the Nunatsiaq News was entitled, “Qajartalik’s ancient faces to receive more study.” Some $600,000.00 has been allocated in a grant to study the site this past summer.

    By that time already, Jane George was aware of the long-term deterioration taking place on the site. She wrote at that time, “In the long term, natural processes such as water and wind erosion threaten the site.”

    In the July 28, 2006, issue of the Nunatsiaq News, Jane George wrote a follow-up article entitled, “World heritage designation brings money, protection.”

    At this point, not only was there no mention of suspicion of Christian Inuit in Kangiqsujuaq, but she told how that during the 1970’s, “the residents of Kangiqsujuaq declared a moratorium on further research after someone removed a block of stone from the island.”

    This sounds like the residents of Kangiqsujuaq wanted to preserve the island, rather than destroy it. Researchers did not return until 1995.

    Again, Jane George repeats a statement from her June 8, 2006 article in her article of July 28: “At Qajartalik, natural processes such as water and wind erosion threaten the site. Vandalism and lootings–some by passengers of cruise ships–have also caused damage.”

    This view would be consistent with the view held by the mayor of Kangiqsujuaq, Mary Pilurtuut, who said after Randy Boswell’s article came out on August 26, 2006, that she hadn’t been informed of fresh damage at the site and doubted “something religious” would have been involved. “Recently, it’s not the case,” she said, suggesting that most of the deterioration at the site has been “caused by nature.”

    It must have been these original articles by Jane George in the Nunatsiaq News that caught CanWest reporter Randy Boswell’s attention, for in his letter of September 29, 2006, Daniel Gendron stated, “I was contacted by Randy Boswell concerning the petroglyphs site after he read an article by Jane George in the Nunatsiaq News.”

    During that interview, Daniel Gendron had the understanding that “we had no clue as to the extent of the damage and who were responsible for it, and we still don’t know.”

    Yet the article that Randy Boswell wrote quoting Gendron was published on August 26, 2006, with this headline, “Christian zealots destroy ancient Arctic petroglyphs.”

    In the meantime, after this was published, Jane George seems to have been influenced by Boswell in the article that she wrote for the Nunatsiaq News on September 1, 2006. That article was entitled, “Vandals damage priceless rock carvings.”

    She repeats in this article her earlier viewpoint on how the deterioration on the island had taken place. She wrote, “This isn’t the first time that Qajartalik’s carvings have been damaged. Carvers used to take soapstone from the outcrop for carvings; and students on a school dayk-trip from a nearby community damaged the site in 1995.” Now, however she goes further, and moves into speculation. It would seem that she must have been influenced to begin to point fingers by the Randy Boswell article. So this time, she added, “Although no one knows who did it, some people allege that local fundamentalist Christians may be responsible for the damage.”

    Who are the “some people” who made these allegations? Was it Jim Boswell? Were there any others? Daniel Gendron made reference to the “Catholic” missionary back in the 1960s, but not to “fundamentalist Christians.” She adds, “Kangiqsujuaq’s mayor, Mary Pilurtuut, who didn’t know about it until this week, dismissed this possibility. However, there is a precedent for religious zealot’s destroying ancient relics. The tallest Buddha figure in the world, ak 2,000-year-old statute 55-metres in height, was dynamited into rubble five years ago by the former Taliban government in Afghaniston.” Here, Jane George makes a connection between “fundamentalist Christians” who have never been a war-like people with the “fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan.” The association is grossly unfair, and completely without excuse. It is a comparison way over the top that no one with personal knowledge of the Inuit of Nunavik can justify.

  4. I am amazed. To the original article on this story, there were many comments. But to the corrective article, only silence.

    Perhaps Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion could get a discussion going on another topic of religious interest that is on the news these days. It has to do with the Amish community, and their peaceful religion (which reminds me so much of the Inuit).

    Just like not all philosophies are the same, neither are all religions the same. Please check out these sites for further research and/or comment that have their place on this important topic of religion in the news these days.


  5. Bartholomew, it might interest you to know that since my last comment on this “arctic petroglyph” issue, that both Dr. Daniel Gendron and Louis Gagnon of the Avataq Cultural Institute have visited the site on the remote island near Kangiqsujuaq where the petroglyphs exist. What they found was astounding.
    They found that there was in fact no new vandalism that has taken place on this site, and therefore the reports of recent damage were a complete hoax, a fabrication, a completely fictitious story. It makes some religious superstition look pale in comparison with this hoax which was reported by supposedly reliable news networks as fact.

    The facts are that the Canwest News Services and the Nunatsiaq News have have pointed their fingers at an identifiable group for a vandalism that did not even exist.

    Having just met with some of the community leaders in Kangiqsujuaq, they are looking forward to Dr. Daniel Gendron’s upcoming article which will also be on the Avataq Cultural Institute’s web-site at:

    Look for it! He is going to insist that the news networks carry this story that put a horrendous and unconscionable spin on a previous interview that he had with Randy Boswell of the Canwest News Services. He will pull no punches.

    May the truth prevail!

    Now, Bartholomew, you need to update your report to not only suggest that there is no evidence to point the finger at the “Christians” in Kangiqsuaq for the vandalism, but now it needs to be acknowledged that the so-called recent vandalism did not even occur. You were commenting on a complete hoax which you gullibly and naively believed as fact.

    Be more sure of your sources in future before you spread this kind of libel. Freedom of the press does not mean the freedom to publish lies.

    You have been honourable to correct yourself when the facts come out, and I am sure you will do it again inasmuch as a gross injustice has occurred.

  6. […] In my case, it seemed obvious that natural decency demanded that I should follow-up with a corrective blog entry and a note on my original posting. Anything less would be disrespectful to the truth, to my […]

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