Norwegian Explorers, the Franklin Expedition and Traditional Inuit Knowledge.

Our Nunavut Study Group GGCLC 2017

We landed in the Nunavut hamlet called Gjøa Haven. The town was named after the Norwegian polar exploration ship that got iced-in one winter, leaving the crew stranded for two years. The captain of Gjøa was Roald Amundsen who wrote “This place is the finest little harbour in the world”. Amundsen and his crew created a critical relationship with the Netsilik Inuit who taught them skills to live off the land in the harsh arctic conditions which they later put in practice as they explored the South Pole in another expedition.

My team from the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference and I were invited to learn from some Inuit leaders and hunters who in 2014 and 2016 were critical helping Canadian researchers find the missing HMS Terror. This iconic sunken ship that Sir John Franklin himself sailed on his failed North West Passage expedition has been a symbol of arctic sovereignty for ages, so it was widely celebrated when the discovery was made.

Scientists have been looking for this ship for a very long time, and without traditional Inuit knowledge it probably would not have been found. In fact, the Inuit always knew generally where the sunken ship was through oral history. The small island that the Terror was found beside is called Umiaqtalik, which translates to “There is a boat there”. The Inuit knew where it was all along! This made us laugh and shake my head thinking about how many other valuable things we could learn if we just asked our indigenous people.

There are two themes of ‘story’ to take away from here:

  1. If Amundsen and his crew did not end up getting stranded in a harbour where their just happened to be Inuit, there is a good chance they would not have made it through the winter. The Inuit did not speak Norwegian, and the Norwegians did not speak Inuvialuktun. I suspect there was a lot of compassionate visual story-telling that the Inuit gifted to the explorers so they could learn and survive the harsh Canadian arctic winter.
  2. Traditional knowledge that is passed down generation to generation through stories so often holds profound truths that shouldn’t be ignored when trying to solve modern problems. The fact that there is an island that translates to ‘There is a boat there’ hilariously demonstrates that the Inuit storytellers knew where HMS Terror was without scientific equipment and years of theory and speculation.
  3. We build stories around epic discoveries. These stories often give a lot of credit to the ‘hero’ on the journey; the protagonist. For the sake of story, it’s more powerful to simplify the giving of credit to the protagonist even if there are teams of support or generations of effort behind that character and their defining moment. In the story of the Franklin ship discovery, the Canadian research team was the protagonist. After a number of Google searches, I did not find many reference to the Inuit who were critical in helping the scientists find HMS Terror. When we tell stories, it is important to keep it simple and to the point, but great storytellers are able to weave in a more complete picture with a more complete cast of characters.

These are lessons I am learning as I enjoy my adventure in a life of storytelling.

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