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Murders in the Arctic: Alikomiak and Tatimagana

Yukon Peace Officer Honour Roll

Crime & Policing in the North

Dateline: November 18, 2019.

    On February 1, 1924, Alikomiak and Tatimagana became the first Inuit to be condemned and executed for murder under Canadian law. They had been charged with the murders of Pugana, RCMP Cpl. William Doak, and HBC trader Otto Binder. This page begins with a lengthy article from November 1923 about the complicated series of events, then contines with links to modern interpretations of what happened and why.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, November 18, 1923

The Louisville Courier-Journal, November 18, 1923

Sensational Affray Among Tribesmen of Ice Wastes Takes Many Lives. WHOLE FAMILY WIPED OUT. Great Desire For More Wives Prompted Him to First Slayings

Special to The Courier-Journal.

    Herschel Island, Arctic Circle, Canada, Oct. 30.

    Journeying northward literally as a courier of death, Serg. Hubert Thorne of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, is hurrying here from Vancouver, British Columbia, bearing with him the warrant of the Federal Department of Justice, Ottawa, without which, in their possession, police officials of this northwestern post cannot execute, December 7, two Eskimos sentenced to death for murder. Whether they are hanged on that date or not depends on the speed with which the officer can complete his arduous journey.

    First stages of the trip are easy, by boat to Seward, then by rail to Kamchatka, from which point there is a small mail stage to Circle City. It is at that point that the real hardship begins. Five hundred miles and more, between Circle City and Rampart House, by dog team, and then more hundreds of weary miles, still by dog team, down the frozen reaches of the Mackenzie River, to this post, just a mere trip of 5,000 miles by boat, train, horse and dog sied. The stage between Circle City and Rampart House will tax every ounce of strength of both man and dogs unless there has been an early freeze-up. There is only one stopping place between those two places, Fort Yukon, in Alaska, and except for this break the trip lies through a territory which spells the last word in utter desolation. From Rampart House northward the intrepid traveler will have no company.

    Here is the story of the Arctic's worst tragedy which has led to this spectacular journey.

Crime Wave Spreading.

    Slowly, civilization's hectic romances are penetrating the icy regions of the Arctic Circle, and a crime wave has spread among the hitherto placid Eskimos. To deal with certain of these incarnadined occurrences in the vast Northland there have ridden many of Canada's beloved "Mounties," and some have ridden forth never to return. Death, in violent form, has overtaken them, and their epitaph is simply the cold, formal entry in the records of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: "Dead, in discharge of duty."

    Only five words, but they constitute a solemn requiem over the body of him of whom they are written, though that body may be thousands of miles away from headquarters. Just before he was murdered by Alicomiak, whom he had arrested on a charge of murder, Corporal Doak sent to his headquarters a statement of his intention to go farther afield and of his investigations into a sensational affray between several Eskimos, members of a tribe which killed Radford and Street away back in 1912.

Killed Their Husbands.

    The cause of all the trouble was Hanak, whose main object in life, said Corporal Doak, in his report, seemed to be the acquisition of an extra wife or two, and he was not particular how he obtained them. Indeed, the most speedy way was to kill off some of the married men whose wives he coveted. He threatened to do this, and he also stated his intention of similarly disposing of Pugana and Tatamigana on the grounds that they were altogether too friendy with his wife for his peace of mind and domestic comfort.

    No half measure suited Hanak, so he issued a challenge to the other two to fight him with guns, but they declined the honor, and, consulting together, decided the better course would be to eliminate Hanak if he showed any propensity toward starting hostilities. Hanak had some friends, and two of them, Ikpahohoak and his son, Ikialgina, sided with him in the dispute, and that's how the trouble began. The description of Ikialgina is that he was a useless troublemaker, who could not keep a wife when he had one, and Hanak promised to get him a wife.

    Other members of the tribe, scenting the probable outcome of this lurid commencement, deeming discretion the better part of valor, decided to move away and leave the bloodthirsty quintette to its own devices. The day before the intended departure, however, Hanak began to put his threats into execution by an unprovoked attack on Anagavik, another Eskimo, though just how this individual comes into the picture is not shown.

    Anagavik was walking from some fish traps toward camp when Nanak shot at and wounded him. Pugana and Tatamigana, hearing the shots, rushed from their tents with rifles and knives. Tatamigana shot Hanak through the chest and Pugana shot and killed Ikialgina. Pugana then killed Hanak's wife with his knife, and then, finding Hanak still alive, finished him off with the same weapon.

Wiped Out Family.

    In the meantime Tatamigana was having his work cut out with Ikpahohoak, both men taking cover and exchanging shots. After an artistic completion of the task of killing Hanak, Pugana went to the aid of his partner and carefully and methodically disposed of Ikpahohoak by shooting him. In order to make it unanimous Pugana then went to Hanak's tent and killed Okilitama, Hanak's 4-year-old daughter, thus obliterating the whole family. Thi last fiendish act was considered by the natives to be quite au fait, an act of kindness.

    After the fighting was ended, Pugana and Tatamigana carried the corpses to a large lake close by, and threw them in. Pugana had not long to rejoice in his victory, for retribution soon overtook him and he fell before the rifle of Aliomiak, who was urged to the killing by his former comrade, Tatamigana.

    The last-named character in this crimson tragedy, in relating the shooting of Pugana, said after the shooting affair at Kent Peninsula, Pugana and he went cariboo hunting. Pugana, still excited over the former shooting, was evidently as pugilistic as ever and asked Tatamigana if he would help kill some more persons. Not quite so bloodthirsty as his companion, Tatamigana tried to talk Pugana out of the idea and to get him to change his mind, but "Pug" said he was bound to do some more persons, as other people were against him.

    On their return to camp, Tatamigana decided that the best way to avoid further trouble was to kill Pugana, and so "Pug's" days were numbered. Tatamigana was afraid to do the retributive deed alone, so he called into consultation Alicomiak. the man who subsequently murdered Corporal Doak, and they decided to persuade Pugana to go shooting next day.

Took Victim Hunting.

    They went shooting, but, unknown to himself, Pugana was to be the "shootee." The other two were going to shoot him the first chance they got, Alicomiak agreeing to commit the fatal deed. Soon after leaving camp the chance came. Pugana was a little ahead of the other two, and, after receiving a sign from Tatamigana, Alicomiak shot Pugana in the back and he fell dead.

    "I had nothing against Pugana," aid Tatamigana, "He was my cousin and we were good friends, but I did not want to see him kill any more natives."

    A very effective way of preventing him from so doing, it would seem. Alicomiak made a similar statement.

    In December, 1921, Corporal Doak arrested Tatamigana and Alicomiak and returned to Tree River with them, also bringing as witnesses the wounded Anagavik. hie wife and Pugana's crippled widow, Agnahiak. Corporal Doak then sent all the Eskimos under escort to an Eskimo seal camp seven miles from Tree River and dispatched other members of the Mounted Police to other places, leaving himself and Alicomiak at the post. The Eskimo was placed under open arrest and put on light fatigue duty.

Shot In Sleep.

    On the morning of April 1, 1922, Alicomiak rose while Corporal Doak was still asleep and shot him as he lay in bed. Doak was not killed outright, but lived about two hours, his murdered staying in the room with him. Otto Binder, from the Hudson's Bay post at Tree River, paying his usual morning call on Doak, was shot through the head by Alicomiak while still about fifty yards from the house. According to his account, Alicomiak had some idea of shooting Constable Woolams, but other natives disarmed him and he was arrested by the constable.

    The reason Alicomiak was under open arrest was that there was no cell accommodation at Tree River, on account of the difficulty of transporting a small dwelling house and a storehouse in the sub-Arctic.

    These crimson crimes happened quite a time ago. but things move siowly up here beneath the Northern Lights. British justice moves slowly but it generally gets there. Life in these high latitudes, amid the vast reaches of blinding whiteness, is very simple, very insipid, nothing happening, as it were, most of the time; but when things do start - well, here's one story.

'A grotesque travesty'
An attempt by the Canadian government to establish control in the North, by staging a court case where "the goal was simply to execute some Inuit," according to an author and forensic anthropologist Debra Komar in this 2019 article.

An Arctic Kangaroo Court
The spectacle of Canada's first trial in the Far North was little more than a show of force, says Daniel Campbell in this 2015 article in Up Here.

Lonely gravesite stands as a reminder of an old Arctic tragedy
This 2016 article by Thomas Rohner includes a photo of the graves of Cpl. Doak and Otto Binder.

Archival photos
The Glenbow Museum has posted 6 photos of people involved in the case.

"To Make These Tribes Understand"
This article by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison was published in the September 1998 issue of Arctic (pdf, 785 Kb).

The mystery of the nearby buried Mr. Binder
In 2008, J. J. Healy looked at the reasons why Otto Binder was buried beside Cpl. Doak, leading many to believe that he was also an RCMP officer.