True Stories: Materializing History at Bloody Falls

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Kugluk/Bloody Falls, Fall 2008. Photo: Emilie Cameron
Kugluk/Bloody Falls, Fall 2008. Photo: Emilie Cameron

Most people familiar with exploration history in the Canadian North will have heard of the “Bloody Falls massacre,” an alleged massacre of a group of Inuit by a group of Dene along the shores of the Coppermine River in July, 1771. The massacre was made famous by Samuel Hearne, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company who was sent north from Prince of Wales’ Fort in search of copper deposits rumoured to exist near the mouth of the river (see Figure 1). Hearne was guided on his long, overland trek from Hudson’s Bay to the Coppermine River by a group of Denésoliné (Chipewyan Dene), led by Matonabbee, and later also joined by a group of Yellowknives Dene. In the travel narrative describing his journey, Hearne claimed that, as the group traveled north into Inuit territories, his guides plotted and carried out an act of “savage,” “shocking,” and “brutish” violence. They allegedly came upon a group of Inuit early one morning, asleep in their tents along the shores of the river, and killed all but the few who managed to escape. Hearne’s account was graphic and sensational; it went on to become an iconic piece of northern literature and his description of the massacre has been excerpted, reproduced, and memorialized in songs, plays, plaques, murals, documentaries, novels, and magazines over the past two centuries. It was Hearne who named the site of the event “Bloody Fall,” a reference to the rapids that had drawn Inuit to this stretch of river for centuries to fish, and for whom the rapids are known as “Kugluk.”

Samuel Hearne's travel route. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Samuel Hearne’s travel route. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

From the beginning there were doubts as to whether Hearne’s account was actually true. His contemporaries questioned the accuracy of his findings, and subsequent explorers were told by Dene who had participated in Hearne’s trek that Hearne himself was not present at the scene. Contemporary scholars agree that Hearne’s published travel narrative was shaped significantly by his editors (the narrative was published three years after Hearne’s death) and the original field notebook upon which the narrative was based is itself lost. Ethnographic and oral history research carried out in the 1980s in Kugluktuk, a primarily Inuit community located close to Bloody Falls, suggested that Inuit-Dene conflict is storied extensively but the Bloody Falls massacre itself is not. Regardless of whether the massacre actually happened, however, or happened in the way Hearne describes, Hearne’s story has had material consequences. It has shaped racialized understandings of both Inuit and Dene, informed mineral exploration and extraction in the region, and interweaves with colonial and decolonizing geographies in the Central Canadian Arctic.

My chapter considers a particularly important moment in the history of producing Bloody Falls as “true.” I consider the ways in which the members of the first Franklin expedition (1818-1822) helped order Bloody Falls as both an historical site and an historical event. At the time of the expedition there was some sense that Hearne’s account of the massacre was fabricated, and yet the expedition members worked to confirm the truth of both the event and the place itself, in spite of their personal doubts about the veracity of Hearne’s story. They did so precisely without their own verbal or written testimony, moreover; none of the expedition members ever explicitly declared Hearne’s account of the Bloody Falls massacre to be true. The truth of the massacre was instead confirmed through the ordering of a series of things: the invention of a “mournful” flower, a visual depiction of the massacre site, and the conjuring of bones as physical evidence of the event. These “things”, I argue, attested to the truth of Bloody Falls where words fell short.

The chapter explores, in that sense, the relations between story and history, not as a contrast between fact and fiction or between Indigenous oral history and archival documents, and neither as a study of the ways in which narrative structures historical research and writing. These approaches to the narrative dimensions of truth and history have been well developed and they have yielded important insights. My concern, instead, is with the ways in which story, understood as a relational and material ordering practice, produces truth-effects that can become concretized as history, and I am particularly interested in the ways in which material objects become enrolled in these processes. If all knowledge is narratively constructed (a key poststructuralist premise), then my concern in this chapter is with the processes and practices through which certain narratives come to acquire the status of historical truth (in certain places, and for certain people) and the relations that such “truths” make possible.

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Emilie Cameron


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