In the 1800s, tens of thousands of indigenous people from all over the world were “recruited” for “human zoos.” Human zoos were places spectators could come and see other cultures on display, in the flesh, like a live museum. These people would be lumped together in parks that also showcased exotic animals like tigers and polar bears.

Trapped in a Human Zoo is a documentary about 8 Inuit people from Labrador who were taken to such a zoo in Germany (it was a German who popularized the entrapment of people and animals from outside of Europe for the amusement of Europeans).

The Inuit were promised a chance to see Europe, and attain wealth, in exchange for “exhibiting their Eskimo lifestyle,” to an audiences. This meant showing off some rituals, clothing, and other “lifestyle novelties.” But when they arrived, they were outright put on display like animals in a zoo.

Abraham and his family

Within four months, all 8 of them were dead with Small Pox. And as the family died of Small Pox, they were still on display. At one point, a father, fatally ill himself, had to leave his dying 3 year old daughter to go “perform” for a crowd.

This dark piece of Labrador history might have been lost to time, were it not for a single, one hundred-year-old diary, by a man named Abraham Ulrikab.

Abraham was literate and captured his experience in words. Over a century later, those words found their way to author France Rivet. She, and Inuit Elder Johannes Lampe, began uncovering the mystery of their disappearance.

In Rivet’s words, “the story was shocking and fascination, and there was a piece missing.” The diary she found was the missing piece. Over 70,000 people would come on weekends to visit human zoos. “One of the first things Abraham wrote,” Rivet says, was “What are we doing here? It was a mistake.” He realized it very quickly.

Rivet and Lampe retraced Abraham’s journey, and the documentary follows Abraham’s voyage through Germany and France, including footage from zoos in Berlin where the Inuit were displayed as “Eskimos,”  and museums in Paris where the skeletons of five of the Inuit were put on display until the 1930s (before they were moved to the basement vault).

Lampe since enacted a series of events to have those bodies repatriated to Labrador for proper Inuit burial. Upon watching the documentary with his family, he said, “I thought I could do all this without being resentful or angry.”

France Rivet can be credited with uncovering this story, and how she came to do so is a story in itself. She was an IT consultant turned culture-fanatic photographer, on a cruise through Northern Labrador, where she had a chance meeting with another photographer. A German who just so happened to randomly share a poorly understood story of 2 local Labrador families who had been taken to Europe in the 1880s. She couldn’t shake the story.

“I had never heard of regular people being exhibited beside animals,” she said, “just because they came from far away lands. To me it was shocking.”

The documentary is up for 2 Canadian Screen Awards: Best Science or Nature Documentary, and the Barbara Sears Award for Best Editorial Research. You can watch the whole thing online: