Click on: Pryde newspaper. (The name and date of the publication were trimmed off.)
Note: I have a few family pictures for Fiona, taken when her Mother Gina was pregnant with her.
Obituary: Duncan Pryde
Tuesday, 30 December 1997
Duncan Pryde, trapper, explorer, writer: born 8 June 1937; twice married (one daughter); died 15 November 1997.
Duncan Pryde, who probably knew the Arctic better than any white man of his generation, was in the middle of the massive task of compiling a dictionary of the 26 dialects of the Inuit (or Eskimo) language when he died from cancer.
He was one of five brothers and one sister, who were brought up in various orphanages in Scotland. At the age of 15 he joined the merchant navy, where he learned to be extremely tough and covered himself with lurid tattoos. Forced to resign due to an eye injury, he went to work in a Singer sewing machine factory, and was feeling bored when, aged 18 in 1955, he spotted an advertisement in the Glasgow Sunday Post looking for fur traders to go to the far north of Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
He spent three years working for the company in northern Manitoba and Ontario, where he learned to speak Cree, but found the life too cushy and asked for a transfer to the Arctic. When he arrived, he was determined to learn to speak Eskimo, and was told by his boss “to learn the Eskimo way, so you will know how they feel about things”.
The only dictionary he had access to was a little red book compiled by a Catholic missionary; it was so full of errors that he determined to write his own. He built up word lists and after a few weeks could communicate on a basic level, but reckoned it took him three or four years to become fluent in the language; for example there are over 25 different words for snow, because in a snow environment it is vital to be able to distinguish between the different types.
From Baker Lake he was transferred to the remote Spence Bay, before going to the even more isolated Perry River. Here he had to deal with drunkenness, laziness and murderers. He was much respected and soon adopted the Eskimo way of life, feeling part of one big family; a northern admirer wrote: “Duncan thinks and measures and becomes part of his environment just like an Eskimo.” He became involved in wife-exchange and had several children, writing that he could “always find a girl to sleep with. The problem is which one.” His obsessive womanising was the one black mark held against him: “He liked girls too much.”
He learned to trap, put together a dog-team and travel with dogs, and was taught to harpoon seal and hunt caribou in the ancient Eskimo way. He also saw shamanism and witchcraft at first hand. On various hunting expeditions he was attacked by a polar bear and even more frighteningly was once charged by a grizzly, said to be 10 times more dangerous than a polar bear. He never felt lonely in the Arctic, but equally never lost his love of the bright lights.
After 11 years with the company, Pryde left to work for the Council of the Northwest Territories, a job which involved travelling to all the settlements in the western Arctic by either sled or canoe. It also meant a much-reduced salary; realising he could not live on it, Pryde decided to live off the land with the Eskimos, as a trapper, a pattern of life he adapted to quickly. He was upset by the way the welfare system was run, feeling that it took away any work incentive.
In 1969 he married Georgina Blondin, the Centennial Indian Princess of the Northwest Territories, they had one daughter, Fiona, and lived in Yellowknife where they started a development business. Cliff Michelmore presented a television programme about Pryde in 1970 and Nunaga (“my land, my country”), a book about his life in the Arctic was published in 1972 and reprinted by Eland in 1985; whether or not he knew about the reprint will remain a mystery, as the publisher was unable to trace him. Ed Ogle, who wrote a long article about Pryde for Time magazine and helped with the book, said that many of his sexual exploits had to be cut as the original publisher was afraid that the book was “too sexy”.
In 1975 he resigned from the council and went to the Inupiat University of the Arctic, where he was commissioned to write his dictionary. He had to leave Alaska while his residency status was resolved and lived for a while with his brother Jack in London; he had so adjusted to life in the Arctic that he ate only when hungry, seeming to have lost all perspective of time.
While away he met his second wife, Dawn, and never returned to the Arctic. Instead, Duncan Pryde ended up quietly running a newsagent’s shop in the Isle of Wight, working on his dictionary between customers. He completely lost touch with his British family who tried to trace him, believing he was in Germany and never for a moment suspecting that he was living openly with a shop bearing his name, Pryde of Cowes, in the Isle of Wight.
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November 10, 2006
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Nov. 15, 1997 — “The Pryde of the Arctic” Passes Away
Duncan Pryde was a fur-trader, polyglot, legislator, writer and story-teller. He was also a legendary carouser and hard-drinking, fun-loving, unreliable rascal. For me, he was also a friend.
Pryde was born in Scotland in 1937 and raised in orphanages. In 1955 he answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Hudson’s Bay Company: “Fur traders wanted for the far north.”
The ad asked for single, ambitious, self-reliant young men, and promised a life of isolation, hardship and adventure, all for $135 per month. Pryde was accepted and spent his first three years in Canada in northern Ontario and Manitoba. In 1958, he moved to the Arctic, serving first at Baker Lake. From there he was posted to more and more isolated locations: Spence Bay, then Perry River in 1961, and finally Bathurst Inlet in 1965.
Everywhere he lived, Pryde immersed himself in the language of the Inuit. His grasp of Inuit dialects was phenomenal, and his life’s ambition was to compile the definitive dictionary of the Inuit language as spoken in the Central Arctic.
In 1966, Pryde was elected to the Territorial Council of the Northwest Territories, the body that evolved into the present-day Legislative Assembly, for a one-year term. The next year he was re-elected for three more years. Audaciously , this man, who allegedly had a number of children in the Kitikmeot region through numerous relationships, campaigned on a slogan: “Every family should have a little Pryde in the Arctic.”
Pryde devoted his attention to those issues most important to the Inuit, hunting and game laws. He was the first to propose the sports-hunting of polar bears as a way of bringing extra dollars into Inuit communities. Charismatic and self-promoting, he was also the first person from the Canadian north to have his picture on the cover of Time magazine.
In 1969, Pryde married Gina Blondin, a Dene woman, in Yellowknife. They had one daughter, Fiona. Two years later, Duncan’s fame transcended the North and Canada when he published his autobiography, Nunaga – My Land, My Country.
It was an accurate portrayal of the life of a trader at the end of the era when Arctic posts were truly isolated. Perhaps it was too accurate. Extremely controversial, it unfortunately turned Pryde’s fame into notoriety in the North for his frank recounting of his sexual exploits. A best-seller, the book was translated into a number of languages.
Pryde’s marriage ended a few years later, and he left hastily for Alaska. There he taught Inuit languages at the fledgling Inupiat University in Point Barrow. When he ran afoul of the administration and was fired from his teaching post, he stayed on as janitor so he could remain in the academic environment. A few years later he suddenly left Alaska. And disappeared.
John MacDonald of Igloolik, who had first met Pryde in Baker Lake in 1959, eventually tracked him down. He was living in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, had a skipper’s ticket as a yachtsman, and had remarried. The man who had billed himself as “the Pryde of the Arctic” now ran a small news-agency called “Pryde of Cowes.” Appropriately, he lived at 6 Arctic Road.
With only a sixth-grade education, Duncan Pryde was fascinated by language. In addition to many dialects of the Inuit language, Cree, and some Slavey and Dogrib, Pryde spoke Gaelic, Italian and German, and a smattering of a number of other languages.
Before leaving the North, he had started often on his life-long ambition, the writing of a definitive Inuktitut dictionary, but Pryde was a poor manager of money and always the necessity to make a living – not to mention the temptations of women and booze – interfered. Indeed, “Duncan’s A’s” became a buzz-word in Canadian Inuktitut studies for, despite many starts, he had never gotten past the letter “A.”
Around 1994, Pryde was stricken with cancer. Chemotherapy put it into remission, but he was no longer as robust as before. Unable to work, Pryde returned to his dream, the compilation of his dictionary. Arctic College provided financial support for the first volume – of course it was the letter “A.” When completed in early 1997, it ran in excess of 280 pages.
Pryde was hard at work on the dictionary when his cancer returned and he suffered a stroke. Irreverent and feisty to the end, Pryde complained to his doctors that he needed four more years to complete his work. But it was not to be. He died on November 15, 1997 at the age of 60.
At the end of Nunaga, Pryde remarked: “There will never be a job such as the one which enticed me as a dreamy-eyed young man all the way from Scotland with romantic notions in my otherwise empty head. There will never be another fur trader in the old tradition, just as there will never again be an Eskimo in the old image.”
One might add that there will probably never be another linguist to match Duncan Pryde in the Canadian Arctic. Indeed John Sperry, former Bishop of the Arctic and an accomplished linguist himself, remarked to me, “We will not see his like again. I always felt humbled by his knowledge.”
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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