France Rivet has worked tirelessly to bring forward the story of how two Inuit families were recruited in 1880 to travel to Europe and tour in a ‘human zoo’ where they perished and their remains were put on display in a Parisian museum. While her book, In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab and the documentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television show The Nature of Things – Trapped in a Human Zoo – brought forward the story to many people’s eyes, her story of how a meeting an individual donning the same Inuit hat as she had on turned into a quest to bring the remains of the group back to Labrador is a interesting one as well. Rivet took time out from her busy schedule to explain it here.
1) How long did it take you to write In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab? How did you first come across the story of Abraham and the rest of the group that went to Europe at that time?
I first heard about Abraham’s story in July 2009 during a cruise along the Labrador
Coast. On the second or third day of sailing, a man appeared on the deck wearing an
Inuit hat identical to mine. I immediately knew that I had to talk to him. This man was
Hans-Ludwig Blohm, an Ottawa photographer of German origin. In 2005, Hans
contributed his photos to a book published by his friend German professor Hartmut
Lutz. This book, The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context, was the English
translation of the diary of a Labrador Inuk who had been taken to Europe in 1880, with
his family and three other countrymen, to be exhibited in zoos. Since the ship was
heading in the communities where these eight people came from, Hans highly
recommended that I go to the ship’s library to read the copy of the book he had brought.
That’s what I did. The story both shocked and fascinated me. But there was a piece
missing: the chapter explaining what happened to the Inuit when they were in Paris
where five of the eight Inuit died. On board the ship, Hans and I met Zippie Nochasak,
an Inuk whose family originates from Hebron, Abraham’s home community, and she
has the same name as Nuggasak, the first of the eight Inuit to die in Europe. Zippie had
just learned about Abraham’s story and she was very upset. In the fall of 2009, the three
of us met in Ottawa. When the subject of Abraham came around, I promised both Zippie and Hans that, my mother tongue being French, whenever time allowed, I would try to see if I could find any information about what happened in Paris.
I researched the story for three years, from winter 2010 to fall 2013. During that period, I
went to Europe on three different occasions. I stopped in Paris each time, and visited all cities in Germany where the Inuit had been: Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Krefeld.
Prague is the only city I did not have a chance to visit before the book came out. I also
went to Oslo and Tromsø in Norway to research Johan Adrian Jacobsen, the person
who recruited the Inuit, and to meet with his biographer and a descendant of one of his
The documents I gathered were in several languages: German, French, English, Norwegian, Inuktitut. So, before I could think of writing the story, I had to figure out how to translate them to English and French. Through Hans-Ludwig Blohm, I met
Professor Hartmut Lutz. Hartmut gladly authorized me to make us of the English translations he and his students did for The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab. As well, Hartmut volunteered to translate Johan Adrian Jacobsen’s diary from German to English as
well as the document I had found in Norwegian. On top of it, Hartmut recruited Jacqueline Thun who took care of all the translations from German to French. 2013 was therefore a busy year for translations!
In early 2014, I had enough to start consolidating all of the documents gathered. In
March 2014, I published the translations of the diary of Johan Adrian Jacobsen, as a
booklet entitled Voyage with the Labrador Eskimos, 1880–1881. Once that was done, I
tackled the book In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab. I started with the French version
followed by the English one. It took me about four months to complete both
manuscripts. They had to be ready for early August 2014, in order to get the printed
copies in time for the August 31 departure for Labrador to meet with the Inuit elders, to
publicly announce the search of the Inuit’s human remains, and to start the filming of the
documentary Trapped in a Human Zoo.
2) How has the reaction been to In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab? Are there any memorable experiences about the book you care to share?
So far the feedback about the book has been very good. People recognize the amount
of research that went into it. The book is not a novel and some parts are very “dry” to read
especially after the Inuit’s death. That’s when the story shifts to the vision of the
anthropologists, and of the scientific world. From that point on, the Inuit are seen as
mere bones! Some people had a hard time with that transition, as well as with the
scientific language which can be most difficult to understand. The study of the Inuit’s
brains sure confused me!
I could have omitted these documents, but the book’s primary purpose was to provide
the Nunatsiavut government, and the Inuit community, with as much information as
possible about the events that occurred in Europe, in order to help them make an
informed decision about the repatriation of the remains. So, in my opinion, they needed
to have access to these documents however unpleasant they are to read.
There are so many memorable experiences, but the first one that comes to mind is not really linked to the researching or the writing of the book, but with giving a copy of it to the descendants of the three individuals who had a major role to play in Abraham’s decision to travel to Europe: Carl Hagenbeck (the zoo owner who had the idea of
exhibiting people in his zoos), Johan Adrian Jacobsen (who recruited the Inuit), and
George Ford (Hudson’s Bay Company post manager who convinced Abraham to head
to Europe). In September 2014, when I sat beside Adrian Jacobsen, the grandson of
Johan Adrian, I simply couldn’t believe that I was with someone who had met one of the
main characters of the story I had been researching. Mind you, he was only 9 years old
and his grandfather over 90 in the early 1940s before Hamburg was bombarded by the
allies, but he still remembered listening to him tell stories of his adventures.
Unfortunately, Adrian had never heard of the Labrador Inuit and couldn’t shed new light
on his grandfather’s feelings or thoughts about what had happened. But, his smile and
the sparks in his eyes made for a most memorable discussion. It was also a privilege to
witness Adrian and his daughter having a friendly and joyful conversation with Johannes
Lampe, the representative of the descendants of Abraham and his group. To see that it
was feasible to put the tragic events of 1880 behind and have a conversation was very
3) You seemed to have done a bit of traveling to both the Arctic and to Europe for the book. Is that something you enjoy doing?
Absolutely, I have always enjoyed traveling, but this research has allowed me to
discover how fascinating, and how much more meaningful, it can be to travel for
research purposes. I got to discover European cities from a totally different perspective.
I have met many wonderful people who were most enthusiastic to share their
knowledge and passion for their work as a librarian, or archivist. Most were surprised and excited by the fact that I was actually bringing them a bit of their own history they had never heard of. In many cases, these people went out of their way to dig for information on my behalf. It gave me access to places and people I had never thought it would be possible for me to ever enter or meet. Can you imagine, me, an ordinary citizen, visiting the reserves of the National Natural History Museum in Paris, a museum that exists since the 17th century, or meeting the curators of the Berlin Ethnology Museum, of the Musee du Quai Branly, of the Musée de l’Homme? It’s been such a privilege to work on this research. I’m not sure yet if I’ll feel like traveling for leisure again 😉
4) Your website lists dates where you give public speakings about your work. Is that something you enjoy doing? Were there any memorable speaking engagements that you took part in?
Absolutely! I do enjoy talking to groups about Abraham’s story, explaining how I got
involved in the research, how and where I conducted the research, etc. It allows me to
go deeper into the story, to show lots of photos, to give a behind the scenes look at the
filming of the documentary, and to answer any question they may have.
One thing that makes me very proud is that often, after the presentation, people come,
not to talk about Abraham’s story, but to tell me how inspired they were by my own
story. For some, it was my drastic career change that struck them. For others, it was my
curiosity to want to know more, my perseverance or determination. It is always very
gratifying to know that I’ve made a small difference in someone’s life, that I may have lit
a flame that will get that person to take a step further than he/she would have normally
My most memorable speaking engagement has to be the one I did on April 15, 2015, at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris. How could I not feel privileged to be in such a highly prestigious building, facing the Eiffel Tower, and talking in front of a crowd of about 70 people many of them being the museum curators, the librarians, the archivists, the diplomats who had helped me either for my research or for paving the way for the eventual repatriation of the remains.
5) The airing of the documentary Trapped in a Human Zoo must have brought some attention to your book. How do you feel about the documentary?
Word about Abraham’s story and the book had been slowly spreading in Arctic Canada
since fall 2014. But, indeed, the airing of the documentary on The Nature of Things (click for link), the
interview Johannes Lampe and I gave to Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC’s The Current (click for link) ,
and the article in Canada’s History (February-March 2016 issue) (click for link) were the three main
events that allowed English-speaking Canada to finally discover Abraham’s story and the book. They not only gave exposure, they also brought so much credibility to my research. The book being the first one I have ever authored, and the fact that it is self-published, it’s been very difficult to get the attention of the media in Southern Canada. So that credibility is priceless!
As for the documentary, I am very proud of the end result. It was a most difficult
challenge to figure out how to intertwine three distinct stories into one (Abraham’s,
Johannes Lampe’s and mine) and ensure people would clearly understand all three of
them. The film director, the script writer and the script editor did an awesome job. The
way the 19th century photos came to life, as well as the look and feel of the re-
enactment scenes are above what I thought would be feasible.
6) Your biographies list the fact that you gave up your career in information technology in order to better explore and explain the Arctic. Are there any books and or writers that you admire that talk about the Arctic that you would recommend?
You shouldn’t be surprised if I tell you that the books that inspire me most are non-
fiction historical books. The first one that comes to mind, which I read back in 2010 as I as I was starting my research on Abraham’s story, is Give Me my Father’s Body: The Life of Minik The New York Eskimo by Kenn Harper. After Trapped in a Human Zoo aired, I received several emails from people asking if I had read it. This story shares points in common with Abraham’s story as Minik, a young Inuk from Greenland, was taken to New York in the early 1900 with his father and a few other Greenlanders. After all adults died shortly after their arrival, Minik was adopted by an employee of the Natural History Museum. A few years later, he came face to face with his father’s skeleton in the museum’s gallery. It is through Kenn Harper’s efforts that the remains of the Inuit wererepatriated from New York to Greenland in the 1990s
.I’m currently trying to read more books where Inuit are telling their own stories such as: Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, The World of Tivi Etok: the Life and Art of an Inuit Elder, Kuujjuaq: Memories and Musings by Dorothy Mesher, and From the Tundra to theTrenches by Eddie Weetaltuk (which I read in French but looks like the English version will be coming out in November 2016).
7) You seem to have an active presence on several social-media platforms (Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest). How do you feel about using these applications in relation to your work? Do they help or hinder your work?
Of the three platforms you mention I must admit that Facebook is the one I am most
present on. After the airing of the documentary, that is how 90% of the people contacted
me (Inuit and non-Inuit). The most important benefits I get from it are in building and
maintaining my relationships with members of the Inuit community. That is definitely
their platform of choice. Whenever I share a news item, Facebook provides the most
reactions. So, it gives me the impression that it is worth investing time in it even though
it may not translate into book sales. At least, I can see that the word about Abraham’s
story is indeed spreading. That’s the important thing. The story will be in the news again
when the Nunatsiavut government announces that they are officially asking for the
remains to be repatriated, and when the bones do come home.
Pinterest I discovered recently and I think it is an awesome tool to visually document the
many different aspects of Abraham’s story. I work on it for my own pleasure.
8) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I am still very much involved in making Abraham’s story better known (through talks,
film screenings, etc.), and I cannot yet see the day when I will move on to something
totally different. At least, this is unlikely before the human remains are back in Labrador.
That said, within the bigger Abraham project, there are always new endeavours coming
up. The main one is a musical theatre project. We are still in the early stages, but it is
most exciting to know that the story will be told through music, including Moravian songs
and chorals which were an important part of Abraham’s life (he played several
instruments including the violin). That’s an aspect which could not be covered by the
documentary. I am also collaborating with the development of an exhibit planned for
summer 2017 that will include Abraham’s story. Ideas have started brewing about
making a feature film. There is definitely sufficient material to make a 90-minute film!
Wouldn’t you agree? Last but not least, even though the book In the Footsteps of
Abraham Ulrikab has been published, the research continues. In 2015, I finally had the
opportunity to look through Johan Adrian Jacobsen’s archives in Hamburg and to go to
Prague where I did uncover lots of new material about the Inuit’s stay in that city. So,
there could be a second edition of the book to share these new findings, but it most
likely won’t happen before the remains have returned, so that we can include that final