This is a blog dedicated to a personal interpretation of political news of the day. I attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible before commenting and committing my thoughts to a day's communication.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Timeless Inuit Historian

"They were finding stuff that she [his great-grandmother] later realized were muskets, or a rifle; spoons and forks, ropes and chains."
"Then they noticed there was a mound the length of a human being, and there stood a stone with strange markings on it."
"She realized that was a grave. Going back to her time, the Inuit had never buried their dead under the ground; they just wrapped them in skins, and the animals would come and take the bodies away. That was the belief, that  you died, and you go back into the world."
Louie Kamookak, Inuit historian, Nunavut, Canada
Louie Kamookak was a champion of a long overlooked Inuit oral tradition that, in time, became a key component in the most significant archaeological find in contemporary Canadian history: the discovery of the lost Franklin ships. Courtesy Louie Kamookak

"Louie played a critical role in the successes we have seen in the last five years with the discovery of both of [Sir John] Franklin's lost vessels."
"I refer to Louie as the last great Franklin searcher -- he was devoted to this search for decades."
"There was a very long period where the Inuit accounts related to the expedition were ignored entirely. Louie was working methodically, and very much alone, for 30 years -- trying to compare the historical search accounts with contemporary stories from elders, to create a picture of what really happened [to the ill-fated Franklin expedition search for the Arctic North -West Passage]."
"But it wasn't until the latter part of his life that the Inuit tradition had begun to be taken as seriously as it always should have been."
"I find it unbelievable that Louie is gone. ...as recently as last November he was planning to go back into the field and pursue some leads in the search for Franklin's remains."
"He never lost  his interest. He never lost his great love -- as a teacher -- and as someone who had all the attributes of an elder."
John Geiger, chief executive officer, Royal Canadian Geographical Society
If it were not for this man's respect for his heritage, for his elders, for his insatiable curiosity and his urge to unveil mysteries based on his instinct for discovery, the two ships that Sir John Franklin sailed from Britain to the Arctic -- to finally find the elusive North-West Passage that had puzzled and evaded others before  him and to which enterprise he had committed himself to end his long career with distinction with the British Admiralty -- would never have been found.

The Franklin Expedition, like others that had preceded him on a similar mission -- and those that followed his absence in search of his whereabouts and that of his doomed crew, had some interaction on occasion with the people of that frozen land whose survival skills they did little to emulate. The presence of white Europeans in the Arctic and their strange occupations, ill-suited clothing and gear, caught the attention of the Inuit as curiosities; the oral history of their observations lived on long after the explorers and the Inuit of the time did.

Louie Kamookak was fascinated, listening to his great-grandparents near his own home of Fjoa Haven a community on King William Island, when he would visit with them. He was born in 1960 and his grandmother recounted her memory of herself as a child borne on her father's shoulders when they came across a remote ridge strewn with artefacts reflecting the presence in the late 1840s of foreigners on a mission.

He was so intrigued that as he become an adult he kept pursuing the history of that strange encounter, in the process  himself becoming an amateur historian, a teacher, and an obsessed collector of Inuit stories. He renewed the heritage tradition of Inuit oral history and in so doing preserved a history of immense interest to Canadians as an important part of the country's northern discoveries. And with the knowledge that he had amassed, he proved to be the missing link that guided researchers to the very area where Franklin's expedition unravelled.

Canadian history was changed forever, thanks to this man whose vital information made possible the archaeological discovery of the whereabouts of Franklin's two lost ships, the Terror and the Erebus, all that was left of his 1945 expedition. Expeditions were launched one after the other, in a determined search for Franklin and his crew, hoping they could be rescued; at the very least, the mystery of their disappearance solved, but it was not to be. His wife used her contacts in high places to launch one search after another, to no avail.
A 19th century painting by Francois Etienne shows the HMS Erebus in the ice. National Maritime Museum
But Louie Kamookak  undertook to accomplish what British determination could not. He gathered the stories of Inuit elders, cross-referencing them with contemporary accounts of British searchers and in so doing came to understand how and where the Franklin ships might conceivably be located, a discovery that only someone who understood the landscape as well as he did, in possession of vital clues, could arrive at. This priceless information he shared with archaeologists, making possible the discovery of the ships' location.

He spread  his knowledge far and wide, speaking to academics, school groups, journalists and bureaucrats, helping them to understand that sometimes answers to questions that elude the learned and the intelligent could be in the possession of those whose learning and intelligence they had historically spurned, feeling nothing of any value could arise from those sources; the typical reaction of people who feel themselves unaccountably superior to others.

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