Monday, January 14, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Amelia Fay Researching Labrador Inuit-European Contact

Amelia Fay, Taking Notes
This is the first Plans and Profiles interview.  Amelia Fay, a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, volunteered to answer nine questions about her research into Labrador's past.  I think you'll find her answers honest and informative and her research and photos fascinating.  Thank you, Amelia!

Plans and Profiles #1. Amelia Fay, Labrador Inuit-European Contact
1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

My research focuses on Labrador Inuit-European contact during the 18th century. My initial research questions were quite basic and centred around this relationship: what were the effects of a European presence in Labrador?; did they affect women and men differently? These questions remain part of the project but it has evolved to consider them not just within the 18th century as an isolated period of time, but rather as part of long-term historical process.

Excavating on Black Island
A lot of what we consider the defining characteristics of this century, the long-distance Inuit coastal trade network and permanent European settlement, were actually long-term developments that gradually came to the foreground. Taking this into account, my research takes a multiscalar approach that looks at these developments over time (from 16th through 19th centuries) and at various locations along the coast. By broadening my research scope and focussing on long-term history, the complexities of the 18th century will emerge in a more contextualized manner and will provide me with a much better understanding of Inuit-European relations.

I began my research by excavating a sod house on Black Island that was mentioned in a 1776 Moravian census. According to this census, an Inuit woman named Mikak lived in this dwelling and her life story is significant as she was both heavily involved in the coastal trade network and influential in the granting of British land to the Moravian missionaries who established their first mission in Nain in 1771. Now I’m taking this data and comparing it to other sod house collections from various time periods and locations to see if Mikak’s significance is at all recognizable archaeologically and to investigate my initial research questions along with two more: did the effects of a European presence change over time?; what was the Inuit response to an increasing European presence?

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Sod Houses Before 2011 Excavation
Mikak’s story is really what sparked my interest in the contact period. I was in Nain doing oral history research for my masters degree when I was offered an opportunity to go on a Parks Canada survey of some sites from Nain to Okak. It was during this survey that we stopped on Black Island and Gary Baikie told me Mikak’s fascinating story. The more I read about her and the events of the 18th century the more interested I became and it just spiraled from there into a PhD project.

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

It has changed in a lot of little ways, largely through the process of our PhD program. As awful as the comprehensive exams were (in terms of stress and anxiety) they really did help shape and define my project. I have added more sites for my comparison to Black Island, and my selection of these sites was guided by my theoretical approach that went from something fairly basic to this whole multiscalar idea of thinking about long-term historical processes to provide context for short-term events.

4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site one question
what would it be?

That’s a really good question because I’ve often thought about what I would say or ask if I could go back in time. I suppose if I could only ask one thing it might be ‘why did you leave?’. To me the site is an ideal location but it doesn’t seem to have been occupied for many winters. Can I add that my initial response to this question was ‘what’s with the mussels?’, my 2011 field crew will understand what that’s all about!

2011 Crew on the boat back to Nain

5) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

Amelia and Crew at work
Hmmm I feel like it has yet when I try to pin-point exactly I’m drawing a blank. I guess the main thing that I’ve learned is that I will never fully understand Inuit-European contact. I can come up with some good ideas based on the data available to me, but without a time machine I’ll never have it fully figured out. I’ve learned to accept this and be (somewhat) okay with it. The more I learn the more questions I have, and I guess that what makes research so addicting. I think this research project has taught me that I’m actually a pretty decent researcher (a bold statement coming from someone with cripling self-doubt!) and that I should be proud of what I can accomplish and not focus or stress about the rest.

6) Why did you choose MUN (Memorial University of Newfoundland)?

I came to MUN in 2005 for my MA. There were a number of reasons that led me here: shared interests with faculty members; cheap tuition; the desire for an adventure (leaving Winnipeg to move to an island in the North Atlantic seemed like a pretty good one); and MUN was highly recommended by a stamp-collecting archaeologist friend of my grandfather. He told me that I had to go to MUN and that I had to tell Jim Tuck that Sid Kroeker said hi (which I did, one beer-filled night at Ben’s).

Old Seal Shack on Black Island
I stayed for my PhD because if you’re interested in Labrador MUN really is the place to be and I knew I wanted to work with Lisa Rankin. Not only is MUN logistically convenient for research in Labrador, but there are amazing library and archival documents that you can’t find anywhere but the QEII library. We’re also fortunate to have a number of faculty with interests in Labrador in various departments so I’ve received help from Dr. Hans Rollmann in religious studies (he’s an expert on the Moravian missionaries), help from biology grad students and postdocs regarding tree samples from my site, as well as some great feedback through the Aboriginal Seminar Series (multi-disciplinary). MUN just has a really great research community and people are always willing to help one another in any way that they can. I sound like a spokesperson…but I wouldn’t have stayed for another degree if it didn’t have these things going for it!

Ooh and I could also mention how awesome it is to have people at the PAO (Provincial Archaeology  Office) and The Rooms who are always willing to help out too, give information and advice, and share their expertise!

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

I watch really bad tv. I mean really bad…the kind of tv shows you wouldn’t think a PhD Candidate would watch (Teen Mom, Real Housewives of <insert any of the locations here>, Say Yes to the Dress…the list goes on). I find that watching tv helps me turn my brain off since it’s constantly whirring otherwise. These awful shows serve a secondary purpose in that they often make me feel a little bit better about myself too (something that every stressed-out/anxiety-riddled PhD student needs).

8) What is one thing that you can’t imagine doing fieldwork without?

Tent City
This is another good one, there are so many things but I’m assuming this is something that’s not mandatory for fieldwork (ie a trowel or a tent). For me I think it’s something I lovingly call my Labrador catsuit…which is the most amazing long-underwear that I own. I often run cold and working up north you need something cozy! They are all black, expedition-weight from MEC and when worn together with a pair of rubber boots I feel like it’s the height of fieldwork fashion. It’s also my stage outfit for when our all-lady metal band ‘Dorset Witch’ goes on tour…which would require that we actually learn how to play instruments (but these are the things you come up with when you’re in the field!).

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

Almost Done
Well since I only eluded to her story I think people should read up on Mikak because she was a cool lady and in 2012 she was designated a Person of National Historical Significance. Start with Taylor’s two-part series in The Beaver, then read two great articles by Marianne Stopp in Arctic (full reference info included below). Taylor and Stopp are the Mikak experts, they’ve analyzed the primary documents and published these great articles that really give a good summary of her life history (well, what was recorded by Europeans anyway).

I’ve got some of my own publications in the works but nothing printed yet so if people are interested in my project specifically they should email me: aemfay @ mun . ca


Stopp, Marianne
2009 Eighteenth Century Labrador Inuit in England. Arctic 62(1):45-64.

Stopp, Marianne and Greg Mitchell
2010 “Our Amazing Visitors”: Catherine Cartwright’s Account of Labrador Inuit in England. Arctic 63(4)

Taylor, J. Garth
1983 The Two Worlds of Mikak, Part I. The Beaver 31(3):4-13.
1984 The Two Worlds of Mikak, Part II. The Beaver 31(4):18-25.


If you, or someone you know, would like to be profiled on this blog in a future Plans and Profile post, please drop me a note at

Photo Credits
1,3,6) M. Merkuratsuk
2,10) Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White
4,5,7-9) Amelia Fay


  1. Well done Tim & Amy - excellent start to this series and I'm not just saying that because the PAO was mentioned.

    1. It was fun. I kind of knew what Amy was studying, but it was great to learn a bit more about the origin and evolution of her Labrador work. I love when archaeology can help flesh out the life and times of an historical figure, like Mikak.


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