Remembering the Years of My Life is the memoir of Paulus Maggo, an eminent Inuk Elder in Nain. Maggo’s account covers most of his life, from his birth at Salmon Bight in 1910 right up to the early 1990s, with a focus on details of day-to-day life, both for himself and for his community. The focus changes with Maggo’s life stage in the narrative. For example, he describes playing games as a child, then following the life-ways of his generation as an adult (both in town and out on the land and sea), and finally reflecting as an Elder on broader perspectives and community change.
My own favourite part might be the descriptions of the games, right near the beginning. Most of the games have a universal flavour, but also a community-specific twist at the same time. For example, alluk (“killer whale”) is a lot like “What Time is it Mister Wolf?” Another game, pualusi (“your mitts”) is more unique, and has its own stakes built right in:
“For this game, we’d divide into two teams and one child was picked to collect the mitts from all the players. This child would chase the rest of the players and throw mitts at them. Both teams would attempt to pick up all the thrown mitts and collect them for the team. The losing team players would have to endure the cold without mitts on their hands while the winning team kept them for fun. It was an enjoyable game to play.” (page 58)
Later chapters on hunting, sealing, and fishing are equally interesting. Many of the details there are similar to those found in other accounts, but others relate Maggo’s own unique experiences. The final chapters contain his reflections on the community itself, including some of its institutions and the ways in which it changed throughout his life. Maggo offers many important and insightful perspectives here, particularly about the roles of Elders, and this is the section where it becomes especially clear why this memoir is so valuable for future generations.
In addition to capturing Maggo’s memories and wisdom, the book also reflects the research perspectives of its editor, Carol Brice-Bennett, who worked in partnership with the Labrador Inuit Association throughout her career as an anthropologist. Brice-Bennett is probably best known in Labrador for her work on Northern Labrador Inuit land occupancy, which was instrumental in the advancement of the land claim that led to the creation of Nunatsiavut. See the book Our Footsteps Are Everywhere—which would actually be a great pick in its own right, one of these weeks! Brice-Bennett continued to work on related topics throughout her life, and this abiding interest led her to take on a project for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, from 1993-1996, wherein she collected the life histories of three Inuit men of different generations.
Paulus Maggo was one of those three men. The other two memoirs were submitted to the Commission as well, under the titles “Moving from a Life on the Land to the Community,” by John Jararuse, and “Young Labrador Inuit Today,” by Sean Lyall. Brice-Bennett donated some material related to each of these accounts to the Labrador Institute Archive shortly before she passed away (see our finding aid).
Of the three narratives, Paulus Maggo’s was especially full and eloquent, and it was also of particular interest, since it covered the earliest time period. So with Maggo’s permission, Brice-Bennett published the account as its own, stand-alone book in 1999, alongside a preface explaining how the material was collected, and a lengthy introduction laying out some background on Northern Labrador.
As Brice-Bennett notes in the introduction itself, Maggo’s memoir is so detailed, and so focused on personal experience and perspective, that outside readers are likely to need some context for understanding it. Far from a weakness, this is a clear strength of the material (and one of the reasons I have assigned the book as reading in several of my classes!), because throughout the book, Maggo is clearly not speaking to strangers, but to his own community.
This is made possible because of the way the memoir was collected and prepared. Maggo narrated his memoirs aloud in Inuttitut, in conversation with a fellow speaker who was intimately familiar with the context: Martin Jararuse, whom Brice-Bennett had hired to help with interviews. The book is therefore actually a transcription of Maggo’s oral history, which at times gives it a bit of a Them Days feel.
Brice-Bennett’s editorial hand is somewhat heavier than in Them Days (she was after all an academic!), but that is partly because the material had not only to be transcribed and arranged, but also translated. One interesting part of this process was how Maggo went about approving the final version. As Brice-Bennett describes in her preface, the whole thing had to be translated back for Maggo to read it! Sam Metcalfe did this work.
“I can only wonder about Paulus’s initial reaction,” writes Brice-Bennett, “when he received the printed text deriven from spoken conversations about his personal experiences, twice translated, and arranged by a non-Native female a distance away” (page 11).
No two collaborative processes are alike, when it comes to memoirs, and they are always complex. But the result in this case is certainly a book well worth checking out—not only for history buffs and researchers, but for anyone with an interest in Labrador culture.
Student Cheat Sheet
Remembering the Years of My Life, by Paulus Maggo (1999)
Author. Paulus Maggo (1910-2000) was born near Makkovik and spent his life in various places on the Northern Labrador Coast. He was a hunter and seal harvester, and he was also involved in commercial cod trap fishing. Later in life he served as a Church Elder in Nain. Editor Carol Brice-Bennett (1949-2018) was an anthropologist who worked extensively with Labrador Inuit from the 1970s-2010s.
Summary. Remembering the Years of My Life is Maggo's personal memoir, detailing his remembrances since childhood of life in Northern Labrador. The memoir was first created orally in Inuttitut, and then transcribed and translated. An introduction by Brice-Bennett provides additional historical and cultural context.
Origin. Between 1993 and 1996, Brice-Bennett edited the life histories of three Labrador Inuit men, including Maggo, for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. She afterwards received permission to publish Maggo's life history as a stand-alone book.
Legacy. As a submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Remembering the Years of My Life is an important piece of legal and social history. As an independent publication, it is also a significant book of Indigenous memoir, and one of only a few full-length books that documents life in Northern Labrador from an Inuit perspective. The book occasioned several contemporary reviews, all positive, and was afterwards excerpted in Bill Rompkey's From the Coast to Far Inland (2006). It is still widely cited today, and remains a go-to resource for all readers interested in twentieth-century Labrador Inuit history and customs.
Working on a book report for school? Here’s how to cite this article:
Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: Remembering the Years of My Life.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 20 June 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/06/20/remembering/. Accessed [today’s date].