Monday, December 3, 2018

Paying our respects at Inuit Graves in Groton

IHT President Pam Gross at Tookoolito's Grave
I've just come back from the magnificent opening weekend of Mystic Seaport Museum's "Death in the Ice" exhibition this past weekend -- it was a truly memorable occasion, from the evening reception prior to the opening to the welcome ceremony the next morning, hosted by the chiefs of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, to Marc-André Bernier's marvelous lecture that afternoon updating us on Parks Canada's archaeological team's latest work on the wreck of HMS "Erebus." But for me, the highlight of the weekend was the visit many of us paid to the Inuit graves at the Starr Burying Ground in nearby Groton, These stones recall the names of six Inuit, although only three of them rest there. Two -- "Cudlargo" and "Oosecong" -- had been brought down from the Arctic by local whaling captain Sidney O. Budington, but had died at sea; these names are memorial to their memory. But it's the family of "Hannah" (Tookoolito) and "Joe" (Ebierbing whose presence is most felt here. They, too, had worked for Budington -- indeed, years before, they had been taken to England and had tea with Queen Victoria! -- but their subsequent careers were far more significant.  The two of them worked as translator (Hannah) and guide (Joe) for Charles Francis Hall, the American Franklin searcher who collected more Inuit testimony about his fate than any other man. And, as historian Kenn Harper -- who gave an interpretative lecture for us all at the site -- notes, if Hall was the most significant searcher, then Hannah was the most significant translator and interpreter, whose work enabled the accurate preservation of testimony that would otherwise have been lost forever. Hannah's son and daughter are buried nearby, but her husband -- "Joe" -- is not; he returned to the Arctic as a guide, and his bones lie somewhere in or near Hudson Bay.
Group photo courtesy Logan Zachary
Those of us who came represented many different peoples and perspectives, but it was the delegation from Nunavut for whom this moment was especially meaningful. Pam Gross, the mayor of Cambridge Bay and head of the Inuit Heritage Trust, along with Ed Devereux, an administrator from Gjoa Haven, represented the two northern communities closest to the Franklin wreck sites, as well as the Kitikmeot region generally; with them was Alex Stubbing, head of heritage for the Government of Nunavut. Marc André also came with us, as did Steve White, president of the Museum, and Nicholas Bell, Vice President for Curatorial affairs. Karen Ryan, the lead curator for the "Death in the Ice" exhibit at all its locations, Franklin researcher Russ Taichman, and myself rounded out the group. We are all of us indebted to Kenn Harper for his moving talk about the graves and their history, and to the staff of the Mystic Seaport Museum for bringing us all together at a place where all our histories so richly resonate.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Death in the Ice" Comes to Mystic

Inkstand from HMS "Resolute," courtesy Mystic Seaport Musem
It's been a long voyage. "Death in the Ice," which combines relics of the Franklin expedition recovered in the 19th century with new finds from HMS Erebus brought back and conserved by Parks Canada since her discovery in 2014, first set sail, (as it were) at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the summer of 2017. Its second stop, at the Canadian Museum of History, began in March of this year, and ran through September. And now it comes into port at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in a stop that is both a fresh step on its voyage and also a sort of homecoming. For it's not far from here, in New London, where HMS "Resolute" first docked after being found adrift at sea, and -- even closer -- at the Starr Burying Ground, a fifteen-minute drive away in Groton, where Tookoolito, Charles Francis Hall's translator and guide during his nearly decade-long search for Franklin, lies at rest along with two of her children. The extraordinary roles played by Americans in that search have never been more evident, even as -- for the most part -- the story of the Franklin expedition is less well-known here than in Canada or Britain. There have been harbingers of change, though -- beginning with AMC's extraordinary television series "The Terror," and continuing with the warm reception given here to Michael Palin and his book Erebus: The Story of a Ship -- that this is about to change, and the exhibit in Mystic is about to launch a fresh cannonade.

Mortar shell fired by HMS Terror on the town of Stonington
And, appropriately enough, one of the items unique to this version of the exhibition is a mortar bomb, fired from the 13-inch mortar mounted amidships on HMS "Terror" on the people of Stonington, Connecticut, scarcely ten miles distant, in the War of 1812. Similar shells were "bursting in air" during that same vessel's bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, and are the very same that are sung of in our national anthem. That a ship of war could later become a vessel of discovery is but one of the many revelations that await those who come to visit this magnificent show. Here, nearly all the extraordinary relics of the previous exhibits are joined by this ball, an inkstand, chairs, and china ware from HMS Resolute -- along with a fiddle perhaps played there in the presence of Captain Kellett -- and the Grinnell Desk (on loan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum), one of four "Resolute" desks made by command of Queen Victoria from the timbers of that storied vessel. It is a show not to be missed! -- and opens, appropriately enough, on the first day of the wintry month of December. More information, and tickets, can be found on the Mystic Seaport website here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A bone to pick ...

Skeletal remains uncovered by the 1RCR in 1973
The question of the dispersal of the Franklin expedition over land has always been a difficult one; it's even been hard to say exactly how many individuals are represented by the known skeletal remains. When possible, DNA studies have been of extraordinary importance, telling us for instance that the human remains at Erebus Bay -- previously thought to represent only 11-13 individuals -- in fact include bones from at least 21. This study and others like it have been spearheaded by Doug Stenton, who since his retirement from the Government of Nunavut's Heritage office, has redoubled his efforts to check every known site. One welcome result of this has just appeared in The Polar Record, and it's the most comprehensive one by far. Stenton's study accounts for nearly every known site, and he's followed up by conducting digs whenever a site can be positively identified, and adding the bones and artifacts at those sites into his ever-growing record.

Very sensibly, Stenton strives in this article to classify finds into "confirmed" (sites where the remains can be attributed to Franklin's men with a high degree of confidence), "unconfirmed" (sites where the remains were most probably Franklin-era, but circumstances -- often the fact that the remains are unavailable for study -- prevent confirmation), and "questionable," where he feels that the evidence tends rather toward the sites being unrelated to Franklin. In nearly all cases, his reasoning is sound, but there are some instances where I feel a site has been misclassified. It's no easy task -- one of the hurdles is that historical researchers such as myself have some pieces of the evidence, while archaeologists have hold of others -- and so I think it's germane to go over the evidence on these cases in a more public forum, where all our wisdoms can be collectively applied. There may not be a definitive answer -- but in these few cases a reclassification may be in order.

A perfect instance of this is the skeleton located by the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment in 1973 as part of their "Operation Northern Quest," which I've discussed previously here. Stenton tags this as a "questionable" find, arguing that the presence of faunal bones (caribou) in a period photograph of the remains supports the view that they are more probably Inuit. The case is complicated, because although the 1RCR stated at the time that the bones and other artifacts were sent to the Museum of Man (now the CMH), no record of them there has been found; indeed, by some accounts they were reburied rather than sent to the museum. I've spent quite some time researching this find, and working closely with the 1RCR's regimental historian -- I wish that Stenton had contacted me before making his assessment. In the diaries of expedition members, and articles published in service magazines of the day, the evidence is quite compelling for it being a Franklin site.

First, in an 1974 article in the Sentinel, it's stated by Sergeant R.T. Walsh that "an almost intact skeleton was uncovered among the rocks. Along with it were several shirt buttons and larger jacket buttons ... the skeleton, buttons, and many other relics and artifacts may now be seen at the Museum of Man in Ottawa." Such buttons may be similar to those found by Stenton himself at Two Grave Bay, and used to authenticate that site, but he discounts them here -- and unfortunately, they are unavailable for examination. Secondly, in one of the expedition's diaries, a much more detailed account of the find exists:
"Ingraham and Eddy found the bones of a human forearm and hand on the beach. This seemed recent as the bones were still connected by ligaments. Immediately after this, Willard found bones protruding from the ground by a large rock. A quick check showed this to be an almost complete skeleton in a shallow grave. We thought it to be the bones of a large man; too large for an Eskimo. We uncovered as much of the skeleton as we could without disturbing things. We planned on returning tomorrow morning with the metal detector and shovel. Eddy said he knew where a sheet of plywood could be located on the beach to put the bones on. The skeleton had been covered by several inches of moss and rocks. The skull was not visible to us but the jawbone was there. The armbone found on shore does not appear to have anything to do with the buried skeleton."
In addition to these accounts, I have two higher-resolution photos of the skeleton (Stenton apparently made use of a reproduction from a printed article). The one of the skeleton on the plywood plank is quite clear -- it may well be that what the 1RCR men thought was a human hand was in fact  the bones of a seal flipper -- bear in mind that these men had no archaeological training whatsoever -- which would explain the presence of the same in the photo. The faunal bones may well have also been picked up by them and heaped up, unknowingly, with the human ones. Interestingly, at the Schwatka reburial site earlier studied by Stenton, faunal remains are also present, and probably for the same reason.

This evidence strongly suggests that the skeleton in question here should be reclassified -- at least as "unconfirmed." There's also a ray of hope, as in another reference in the Sentinel, it's stated that the skeleton was reburied rather than brought back to the museum. I think it would be worth checking the area in case it can be relocated -- and then, of course, we'd have much firmer grounds, one way or the other.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two Grave Bay

Detail of map by Heinrich Klutschak
It was one of the more poignant finds of the expedition led by Frederick Schwatka from 1878 ti 1880. In the words of journalist William Gilder, who accompanied the searchers, "we found the graves of two white men, near one of which was lying the upper part of a skull; within the pile of stones we found the upper maxilla, with two teeth, and a piece of the cheekbone. No other human bones were found; but these were laid together for burial on our return." The find was apparently the cause for the name "Two Grave Bay," which isn't mentioned as such in Gilder's text, but appears quite clearly on Klutschak's map as "Zwei Gräber Bai." Klutschack noted that “the builders of this grave no longer had the strength to build an above-ground grave out of large rocks” and that “a few stones were all that they used to cover the corpse."
Gilder waxed a bit more poetic: 
"Near Point le Vesconte some scattered human bones led to the discovery of the tomb of an officer who had received most careful sepulture at the hands of his surviving friends. A little hillock of sand and gravel - a most rare occurrence upon that forbidding island of clay-stones - afforded an opportunity for Christian-like interment. The dirt had been neatly rounded up, as could be plainly seen, and everywhere, amid the debris and mould of the grave, the little wild flowers were thickly spread ... The fine texture of the cloth and linen and several gilt buttons showed the deceased to have been an officer, but there was nothing to be seen anywhere that would identify the remains to a stranger. Every stone that marked the outline of the tomb was closely scrutinized for a name or initials, but nothing was found."
And now, with thanks to a number of searchers, this reburial site has had a proper archaeological examination. First relocated in modern times by veteran Franklin searcher Tom Gross, the area was visited this summer by the team from Adventure Science, who observed grave-like features, as well as a cairn, in this same vicinity. They alerted officials in Ottawa and Iqaluit, but were unable to do more than photograph the site, as they only had a Class I permit. Doug Stenton, however, has apparently had this spot on his list for some time, and already had the necessary Class II permit in hand; news of his work at the site this summer shows that the material there still matches very closely with what Schwatka and Gilder reported. According to the CP24 website,
"Stenton and his team recovered three metal buckles, 10 gilt buttons and remnants of an 11th made of mother of pearl. Stenton said such accoutrements were likely only worn by officers or senior-ranking members of Franklin's crew. Stenton said his team then found human bones some distance away, including an intact skull and jawbone, as well as a partial calf bone."
It should be noted that this particular site, roughly that of #6 on Klutschak's map, is some distance out on an island out in the bay; the team reached it via a lift from helicopter pilot Alexander Stirling, whom many will recall as the man who first spotted the davit part that led the Parks Canada team to "Erebus."

Dr. Stenton has been in the process of accumulating a database of DNA from recovered remains, as well as obtaining samples from known direct or collateral descendants of Franklin crewmembers, so there's a chance that, once the laboratory work is done, the remains might be identified. Even if not, we are sure to learn more about the life -- and the death -- of one of Franklin's officers, and in the long run this kind of work offers us the best chance of reconstructing what happened to these men once they left the shelter of their ships, and set out on what was to be their last, desperate journey by land.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Michael Palin awarded first Louie Kamookak Medal

L-R Michael Palin, Gavin Fitch, and John Geiger at medal presentation
(Credit: Credit Ben Powless/Canadian Geographic)
Last week, I was delighted and honored to host Michael Palin at Providence's historic Columbus Theatre, where we enjoyed lunch together, followed by the evening's delightful "in-conversation" style talk about all things Erebus. Among the many subjects we turned to, that of Louie Kamookak was one of particular poignancy to us both. I recalled how, the last time I saw Louie in Gjoa Haven in the summer of 2017, he'd seemed in such good health and spirits, though that turned out to have been only a couple of months before his cancer was diagnosed. From him, I learned that Louie had planned to guide him a land excursion to some of the Franklin sites on King William Island -- a collaboration that, alas, is now never to be. In the Acknowledgements section of his book, Michael offers this moving tribute:
"Though, to my great regret, I never met him, the name of Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian who died in March 2018 at the age of fifty-eight, came up again and again in my research for the book. He wanted, above all, to find Franklin's grave, and it is a huge sadness that time ran out for him. But he won't be forgotten. Everyone who has ever been curious about the fate of the Franklin expedition owes a huge debt of thanks to him for his dogged and thorough research."
Michael with Chris Cran's portrait of Louie
And now those thanks come full circle, as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has presented Mr. Palin with its first Louie Kamookak medal. It was a surprise honor, given on the occasion of the book event at the new RCGS headquarters at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, and although Michael was characteristically modest in saying he felt he didn't deserve it, to my mind it's entirely apropos. I feel sure that Louie, from wherever he journeys now, would feel the same. No book in many years has commanded the audience of Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, and none has brought home the human elements of its dramas -- both in the Antarctic and the Arctic -- as eloquently.  It's those aspects -- both the courage and resourcefulness of Franklin's men, and the curiosity and 'doggedness' of those who have searched for him and his ships for all these years -- that both Louie and Michael embody.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lost and Found: The Beechey Island Anvil Block

Courtesy Glenbow Museum
Just in the wake of this year's round of dives by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists, here's a powerful reminder that, sometimes, the most significant finds can be made right at home. Over the years, relics of the Franklin expedition -- the vast majority of which are in storage at various museums -- have sometimes gone missing -- not stolen, only misplaced, or perhaps imperfectly catalogued when paper records have given way to digital ones. One of the most intriguing of these items has long been the "anvil block" recovered from Beechey Island in 1850; although it was depicted in the newspapers and exhibited alongside other Franklin materials, it hasn't been seen in public since the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, and efforts to trace it at the National Maritime Museum had -- up until quite recently -- led to a dead end.

But now -- mirabile dictu! -- it has been found in the collection of the Glenbow Museum. The story of its loss and discovery now forms a fresh chapter of the renewed interest in the Franklin story. Back in the early 1960's the Royal United Services Institute -- which had charge of the majority of the Franklin relics -- was understaffed and underfunded, and a decision was made to refocus its mission, with the closure of the museum one of the consequences. The vast majority of its collections of Naval interest were transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but -- for reasons that are still unknown -- some of the items were made available to other institutions.

From Smucker (1857)
Some forward-looking curator at the Glenbow must have realized the significance of the return of such an object to the nation in which it was first found, and thus the anvil block -- which, in the interim of time, had become festooned with various metal items also found at Beechey -- was duly shipped to Calgary. It's a fascinating artifact -- not only because of its association with the discovery of Franklin's winter quarters at Beechey Island in 1850, but because of the still-unfolding mystery of the "metals" it wears. Early depictions of the anvil block -- such as the one at right from Samuel Smucker's 1857 compilation of Arctic narratives -- show it was unadorned when first retrieved. And yet, by some point in the late 1870's, someone -- presumably at the RUSI Museum -- had decided to fasten all manner of metal items to it, including a large eyebolt. The new photographs taken by the Glenbow show these items to be still very firmly in place, though some seem to have shifted a bit, and one (the horizontal metal strip shaped like a crenelated wall) has gone missing.

As depicted in 1878
The collections at the Glenbow are renowned for their depth as well as breadth -- but of course this has meant, in practice, that the proportion of materials is storage is high compared to the space for their display. Happily, the occasion of the rediscovery and conservation of the anvil block is also that of the opening of a new exhibition, curated in part by Travis Lutley, The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century.  The images and artifacts displayed are meant to show the  "contrast the cultural and technological differences between Arctic inhabitants and Arctic visitors." In this remarkable array of materials, the anvil block will be joined by Inuit tools and decorative items, a miniature Bible book-dummy carved from the wood of HMS "Terror," colored plates from the expedition narratives of Parry, Franklin, Back, and McClintock, and even an original tin of the notorious "Ox Cheek Soup." Among the highlights of the two-dimensional materials are some pencil sketches and watercolors made by Elisha Kent Kane, chromolithographs of Samuel Gurney Creswell's Arctic scenes, and William Bradford's striking "The English Arctic Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin." It's a dazzling array of visual and cultural materials, and one which brings back into the light many scenes and objects that have lingered too long in storage. With the "Death in the Ice" exhibit closing and heading to Mystic Seaport, it also offers Canadians as well as visitors from abroad a fresh opportunity to see significant materials relating to the Franklin expedition -- materials that happily are part of a permanent collection.

THE ENGLISH ARCTIC EXPEDITION IN SEARCH OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN (Courtesy Glenbow Museum)


The finding and identification of the anvil block is a story all its own. Starting with a copy of an engraving posted to the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page (the same one from which the detail above was taken) by Kristina Gehrmann in 2015, it led to a lively discussion involving William Battersby, Kat Stoetzel Andrés Paredes, and Randall Osczevski, but it was Regina Koellner who finally made the connection to a captioned illustration indicating that the mystery object was the anvil block. I then wrote to Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum, and she checked the records of the original transfer of items from the RUSI Museum to the NMM; the anvil block was not among them. It was a nearly two years later when I heard from Travis Lutley at the Glenbow; seeking to confirm the identity an object in their collections, he'd consulted Garth Walpole's book (which reproduces the illustrations above) and gotten in touch with Claire Warrior to confirm -- and the anvil block was found!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

2018 Discoveries from HMS Erebus

Images © Parks Canada
It had the makings of an ideal search season: the RV David Thompson was renovated and raring to go; the dedicated barge Qiniqtiryuaq (the "Big Searcher") was at the ready, and all the varied legal and cultural issues affecting the recovered items had been resolved after years of patient negotiation. But of course, there remains that most implacable opposing force, an essential part of the Arctic from Franklin's day to our own: the ice.

The ice significantly delayed the voyage of the David Thompson to the wreck site, and posed a challenge to getting the Parks Canada team safely in and out; in the end, there were scarcely two days available for diving on the Erebus, and none for the Terror. And yet the modest group of items recovered is only the more remarkable for that: they range from the generic and common, such as a belaying pin or a nail, to the specific and personal: a stoneware pitcher and part of an artificial horizon recovered from one of the officers' cabins (no word yet on whose). There are also two metal blocks, part of the mechanism for managing the rigging, and a piece of "fearnought," a sort of tarred felt that was wedged between the planking of the upper deck to make it waterproof.

One of the more intriguing items is the "roof" for an "artificial horizon." which would have consisted of a pan of liquid mercury. By means of this device, a mariner could obtain an elevation on a celestial object even if the horizon were obscured by fog or blocked by looming icebergs; its principle is known as a "double altitude." It would probably have been employed by one of the lieutenants aboard the Erebus, and evokes -- as did navigational tools found by earlier searchers -- a sense of the limits of science. Here were these men, equipped with every technological apparatus to steer themselves safely through the unknown -- and yet none of them were able to find their way safely home.

The pitcher is another poignant item; it's said to be of English brown salt glaze, and have been found in an officer's cabin. It's rather plain -- comparable examples of such jugs often feature decorative motifs -- and must have been employed in some humble use, such as with a washbasin. It was found near a stack of plates, which were not -- alas -- retrieved, as these might well have shed some light on the proximate pitcher. Doubtless many photographs were made, even in such limited circumstances, but these have yet to be shared. At last year's press conference, Parks's divers spoke of the ornamental woodwork on the drawers built in to the base of the officers' bunks; it would be lovely to see images of these! This year's search has been, in other respects, one of the more fully shared, with nearly-live photos and information along the way; it's to be hoped that a new set of photographs will soon be forthcoming.

2018 was a difficult ice year all 'round -- none of the expedition cruise vessels that had planned to navigate the Northwest Passage made it through -- we will just have to hope that the next season will be more favorable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

This year's Franklin search underway

Image courtesy Parks Canada
It's already been a remarkable year on land, what with two search expeditions -- that of Adventure Science, and Tom Gross and Russ Taichman's Bayne/Coleman expedition each having made extensive surveys of both old and new sites and land features. Both of them have done yeoman service, co-ordinating and connecting GPS-tagged features and identifying sites for further investigation. Each group had a Class I permit, which allows image-making, mapping, and tagging but no digging; next year, it's hoped, a return with a Class II permit may yet yield great things. Sites near "Two Grave Bay" up at the northern end of King William Island, as well as near the cairn on the southern coast erected by Charles Francis Hall, both show promise.

And, though the season is soon closing for work on land, it's just that time of year when the underwater archaologists from Parks Canada are doing new dives, in water that -- both literally and legally -- is much clearer than last year's. The final agreement between the UK government and Canada has been signed, making it clear that the British government waives any further claim to the ships and their contents, while at the same time, joint administration over the recovered relics with Inuit organizations -- the Franklin Advisory Group, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, and the Inuit Heritage Trust -- is now firmly in place.

Justin Sigluk Milton
For HMS Erebus, planned work includes stabilizing the hull so that artifacts can be retrieved by divers, as well as additional work using ROV's; for HMS Terror, additional photography and mapping, and perhaps also a proper look inside with a ROV. Parks has been sharing many images of the preparation for the search, such as the one above showing the barge Qiniqtiryuaq about to cast off from the Sir Wilfred Laurier. "Qiniqtiryuaq," which means "the big searcher," was named after a contest was held last year, with the winning suggestion made by Justin Sigluk Milton of Pond Inlet. The Qiniqtiryuaq carries several containers which serve as mobile labs and storage for the Parks archaeologists, and makes it possible to stabilize and properly prepare any artifacts that may be brought up from the ships.

We've yet to see any new imagery from Franklin's ships, but the new generation of ROV's being used is said to have the capability to stream live video! -- a prospect which, understandably, makes any true "Franklinite" tremble with anticipation. I'll do my best here on my blog to give updates and offer some initial interpretation of any imagery we do see! -- nothing now, it seems, would be too much to hope for.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

A rough year for ice ...

Ice in Resolute Bay
2018 will go down as a rough year for ice in the eastern Canadian Arcric, particularly along the classic route of the Northwest Passage that so many who sign up for adventure cruises seek most keenly. It's been both an obstacle -- forcing the re-routing of numerous ships -- and an active threat; in the worst instance crushing and sinking a yacht (the French-flagged "Anahita") near Fort Ross on the eastern end of the Bellot Strait. And, as in previous years, a very large and heavy plug of it has rendered the area around the Victoria Strait impassable by nearly any vessel short of a heavy icebreaker, cutting off the legendary "last link" and preventing completion of any planned transits of the Passage. Indirectly, by forcing the re-routing of larger vessels such as One Ocean's Akademik Ioffe, the ice also may have played a role in her running aground on what was apparently an uncharted shoal or submerged rock.

Canadian Ice Service chart for 27 August 2018
Is it an unusually bad year? Or were the past few seasons unusually favorable? It's hard to say with absolute certainly, even though the Canadian Ice Service regularly provides a chart showing where the concentrations of ice are higher or lower than historical conditions. Their estimate requires 30 years of data to make, and thus doesn't stretch back very far, as comparable data is unavailable much further back than that. Still, the most recent chart offers some insight into the overall trend; just as it was last summer, this year's ice concentration in the eastern Arctic was higher than the historical norms, while in the western Arctic it was significantly lower. The areas of higher concentration were also problematic; at Resolute, ice in the bay prevented the zodiac landings needed for passenger/staff turnover aboard larger vessels; in the Bellot Strait, even ships with an icebreaker escort ended up turning around; in the Victoria Strait, neither the hoped-for pilgrimage to Victory Point nor a visit to Gjoa Haven seemed likely for any vessels entering from the east -- the ice was simply too dense.

Some who misunderstand the way ice forms and melts, or don't realize how complex a system it forms with land, winds, waves, and currents, may scoff at warnings about climate change and a warming Arctic -- not realizing that, even as warming puts more thermodynamic eneregy into the north, such energy can readily propel ice -- by speeding the calving of bergs off glaciers, increasing winds and currents, and pushing ice more densely together -- making conditions worse rather than better.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Croker's Consolation

John Ross's chart of the Croker Mountains
Just two hundred years ago today, on August 31st 1818, John Ross -- in command of the Isabella and Alexander -- sailed deep into Lancaster Sound, searching -- as his sailing orders commanded -- for a possible inlet into the fabled Northwest Passage. Ross, aboard Isabella, described what he saw -- or thought he saw -- thus:

"At half past two, (when I went off deck to dinner), there were some hopes of its clearing, and I left orders to be called on the appearance of land or ice a-head. At three, the officer of the watch, who was relieved to his dinner by Mr. Lewis, reported, on his coming into the cabin, that there was some appearance of its clearing at the bottom of the bay; I immediately, therefore, went on deck, and soon after it completely cleared for about ten minutes, and I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a connected chain of mountains with those which extended along the north and south sides. "

John Wilson Croker
These seeming-mountains were vivid enough that Ross both mapped and sketched them, even adding small details, such as naming a small bay at the southwestern edge after Sir John Barrow, though the honor of the principal name was reserved for the First Secretary of the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker. Curiously, William Edward Parry, aboard the Alexander, could see nothing of such mountains, and was completely taken aback when his commander ordered a retreat to the eastward. Though he didn't publicly contradict Ross, Parry communicated his doubts to the Admiralty, and, now placed in command of his own two ships Hecla and Griper, returned in 1819 and promptly sailed through the illusory peaks, eventually reaching Winter Harbor on Melville Island -- the furthest west any British vessel had ever sailed through the north (and in fact, further than any vessel coming from the east would ever manage priot to Amundsen's victorious transit in 1903-06).  Maps were quickly revised, and Croker -- who must have been disappointed at the loss of so impressive a range of snowy peaks -- was left with the consolation of a bay, named after him by Parry, on the southern coast of Devon Island.

Cruising the face of the Croker Glacier
But what a consolation it is! The Croker Glacier, which feeds the bay with its blue-green silted meltwater, has a face more than two miles wide, and is up to three thousand feet deep at its thickest, near where it branches out from the massive Devon Ice Cap, itself nearly 6,000 square miles in extent. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to have a first-hand look at the glacier's face, along with passengers and fellow staff from One Ocean Expeditions. We spent nearly three hours going back and forth along the entire length of the face aboard our zodiacs, and later that day, celebrated the experience with a shipboard barbecue on the stern deck of our ship, the Akademik Ioffe. I thought then -- and think now -- that the sight would have been a magnificent consolation to Croker; had he only seen it in person, his mountains would never have been missed.

[With thanks to Jeff W. Higdon for pointing out the anniversary of the date!]

Friday, August 24, 2018

New studies on lead poisoning and Franklin's men

Tin of Ox Cheek Soup (Photo by Jeff Dickie)
It's one of the first things that many people still ask about the demise of the Franklin expedition -- wasn't it the lead in the tins that caused it? But now, after several recent studies shed some doubt on whether the "lead hypothesis" was the catch-all explanation of the tragedy, comes a broad and significant study -- whose co-authors include veteran Franklin researchers Anne Keenleyside and Doug Stenton -- that demonstrates that, in the end, this hypothesis turns out not to hold. However, there are still instances where lead exposure may have played a role, and as the picture clarifies it grows more complex. It's my personal view that, although the earlier lead hypothesis -- originally advanced in Owen Beattie and John Geiger's classic Frozen in Time -- no longer explains everything, it has led to some of the most fascinating and significant research on the health -- and thus the ultimate disposition -- of Franklin's men.

This new study, whose lead authors are Treena Swanton and  Tamara L. Varney, does what no other study has done before -- compare lead levels in the three individuals buried at Beechey (who died in the first winter) to remains from King William Island, which -- assuming that they date from after the desertion of "Erebus" and "Terror" -- date from at least two years further along in the expediton. If, as had been conjectured, these later remains showed signs of continued exposure and absorption of lead, then that would have demonstrated that the source of such exposure must have come during the expedition, and thus from sources on board ship, presumably the provisions consumed in this interval. And yet, using imagery that reveals the deep cortical microarchitecture within which lead would have been absorbed and stored, this new study shows that the patterns within the bone are very similar between individuals who died in both timeframes. There were, indeed, elevated levels of lead, but these were in parts of the bone that would have been formed prior to the expedition's departure in May of 1845.

And yet lead remains a factor, at least for some. By an interesting coincidence, another study appeared scarcely a week prior to this one; conducted by Lori D'Ortenzio, Michael Inskip, William Manton, and Simon Mays (Dr. Mays, it should be noted, was a co-author in two earlier and significant studies, both of which included William Battersby's work), looked at a strand of hair from the Greenwich skeleton, widely now believed to by that of Henry Duncan Spens ("Harry") Goodsir. Since this skeleton, brought back by Charles Francis Hall, was found on the southern coast of King William Island, it can safely be assumed to be part of the later timeline, and since the hair, even more so than bone, could show the changes in absorption over time, it was hoped that new insights might be gained from it. And yet, in many ways, it confirms the larger study; the lead isotope ratios were nearly identical to the bodies exhumed at Beechey, and although there was evidence of more recent absorption of lead, in this case it did not reach levels likely to cause clinical symptoms. It should be noted, though, that from the earlier studies of Keenleyside, Bertulli et. al. we know that at least some of the individuals whose skeletal remains were represented at NgLj-2 (the "Boat Place" at Erebus Bay) had lead levels as high as 223 micrograms per gram of dry bone. Further studies by Keenleyside suggested that blood levels as high as 1500 mcg per decilter of blood could be inferred; these individuals would almost certainly have been suffering from acute lead toxicity, and it may indeed have been the primary cause of death.

Why these few men -- just two to four of the estimated 11-13 skeletons in Keenleyside's study -- would have had such high levels of lead remains unexplained. Recent DNA analysis, which shows that the number 13 is the most accurate, and that Erebus Bay sites collectively represent at least 21 individuals, may make these few even more "outliers" from the rest -- but they still remind us that lead was a factor for some. For the rest, it now seems clear, background levels of exposure from before they sailed with Franklin were simply much higher than we'd realized, and despite some continued exposure -- variable, certainly -- during the expedition, the original lead hypothesis no longer explains the eventual demise of the expedition as a whole.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Louie Kamookak's spirit lives on

James Qitsualik with elders, Guardians  (photo courtesy Barbara Okpik/Parks Canada)
When I first heard the news of the death of my friend Louie Kamookak, my first reaction -- beyond sorrow -- was a concern that his vital work collecting and recording the Inuit oral histories of his family and friends in Gjoa Haven might not go on, and that the work he'd already done over many years might be lost. Today, thanks to the support of Parks Canada, the Know History group, along with the Inuit elders and Guardians in whose care this history lies, have been able to make a special, focused effort to make sure that Louie's work is both preserved and extended. It's been a community-wide effort, assisted by people such as James Qitsualik (shown here pointing out sites on a map of Terror Bay), working with former Nunavut commissioner Edna Elias as well as indigenous partner organizations NVision Insight Group and Konek Productions, all working to bring the Franklin Expedition Oral History Project to fruition.

Louie and me in Gjoa Haven, August 2017
It's no easy task. Many of the threads of that tradition have grown frayed in the light of modern changes that have affected the community of Gjoa Haven, and stories that were once distinct and clear have become a bit fainter. As Louie himself noted, the oral tradition often mixed together elements of accounts of different explorers, including Sir John and James Clark Ross's ship the Victory, which spent three seasons alongside the winter camps of the Netslingmiut in 1829-31. Which is all the more reason to work now to collect all that can be recovered, and seek to connect this knowledge with the body of materials already gathered by Louie, as well as by other historians such as Dorothy Eber. Together with the large body of written records of earlier Inuit testimony, this tradition -- when carefully collated -- continues to offer our best source of information about the final days of Franklin's ships and men. Modern-day Inuit hunters are also vital, as they know the land better than anyone else, and may well have seen physical evidence missed by other searchers; James Qitsualik, the chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Association, has been co-ordinating this effort.

It's my hope that the results of this project will be widely shared, first and foremost with the Inuit community in whose traditional lands this history took place, but also with the wider world of Franklin researchers in Canada and around the world.  That was what Louie worked to do, and it's a touching tribute to his persistence that this project is taking place this summer. I know he would be very pleased and proud to know that his work, and his spirit, are being carried forward with such vigor.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A tale of two settlements ...

Moravian Mission House, Hopedale Labrador
Two of the most remarkable places I've visited in the north are bound together both with parallel and broken lines: founded as settlements by Moravian missionaries, one still has and active congregation and community, while the other is connected mainly by memory, a memory of exile and loss.

We first visited the community of Hopedale, the place from which 16-year-old Esther Eneutseak departed in 1893 on her way to the World’s Columbian Exposition’s “Esquimaux Village,” where her daughter Nancy would be born. Her story is still remembered here; David Igluiorte, the keeper of the town’s museum tells me they always call her “Columbia,” not Nancy, which was true even in her own family. The museum also showcases the cultural history of this heterogeneous community, one of the few where Inuit were taught to play brass instruments; a community band’s recordings are on offer in the gift shop. Within the enormous mission house, more traces of history distant and recent: the roof of the house, erected by the first Moravian missionaries in 1782, is patched in places with shipping containers bearing the names of companies such as Frigidaire and Zenith. The local lay  minister still holds weekly services in the original church, and the replica schoolroom, — now used as the town’s Sunday School — sports children’s colored drawings of the twelve Apostles, and a large rainbow beneath which a cartoon Noah proclaims, “God keeps his promises.”

Partly restored chapel at Hebron
How different the building — structurally almost identical — at the former Moravian settlement of Hebron, a day’s journey by ship further north. Although recently repaired and given a fresh coat of white paint by the Parks Canada staff who are here seasonally, its inhabitants are long gone — forcibly removed and relocated by the provincial government in 1959. Hebron had always been hard to maintain — the mission house required enormous amounts of wood to heat, and the nearest trees were 60 kilometers to the south — and from the point of view of the government, it was expensive to maintain. But the people of Hebron, the “Hebronimiut” as they called themselves, were happy and prosperous; the runs of Arctic char, along with the hunting of sea and land mammals, offered more than enough food for everyone. And yet it was then, at Easter service, that the announcement was made: the people must go, the mission would be closed, the community’s lone nurse removed. That fall, a ship arrived, too small for the task, so that the families had to camp out in the cargo hold; government officials shot their dogs, save for a few who were towed behind in a skiff. The people were moved into outlying parts of more southerly settlements — “Hebron ghettos” — with poor living conditions and no access to traditional hunting areas. The provincial government apologized in 2005, and a few elderly exiles embraced one another — but no apology could undo the sorrow they’d endured.

Levi Nochasak
Our tour guide at Hebron was Levi Nochasak, who was among the Hebron exiles of 1959, when he was only two years old. His family was moved to Nain, where his father still lives, but Levi has come back every year for twelve years to work as a carpenter, carefully restoring the old church and mission building, and living in a temporary modular house parked next door to the ruined foundation of the house where he was born. He told his story proudly, giving us a full tour of the buildings, as well as both the cemeteries. The first was apparently reserved for the Moravian brethren and their families, but the second was where most Inuit were buried. More than 100 died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, their graves marked only with small wooden boards; among them was Zacharias Zad, who had appeared at numerous fairs and in half-a-dozen films alongside Nancy Columbia; he had returned home just a few years earlier.

Levi points out his name on the plaque
Today, this whole area of Labrador is embarking on a transition into a more independent, Inuit-run government, known as the Nunatsiavut region; in Hopedale, we visited their beautiful new assembly building, shaped like half an igloo; the legislator’s chairs are made of sealskin. After the betrayal and exile of the people of Hebron, and the economic and social isolation of the region, tt’s a hopeful beginning to a new era -- one in which Inuit will enjoy increased self-determination, and the ability to set their own policy in the land of their ancestors.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Back from the Arctic!

View of Croker Glacier, Devon Island
It's been, as ever, a voyage filled with surprises -- followed by a long series of airplane flights that took me from Pond Inlet via Igloolik to Iqaluit, and thence to Ottawa, Toronto, and home -- but I'm back at last from this year's trips aboard the Akademik Ioffe with my fantastic fellow staff from One Ocean. And, as I did last year, I met many fascinating passengers, each with his or her own story of what drew them northward, what sights they sought, and what they took away from the journey.

This year, I started further south, exploring the many islands and small ports in the area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including the strange sandy shores of Sable Island, the deep red sandstone cliffs of the Magdalen Islands, Bonaventure Island (home to the world's second-largest colony of Northern Gannets), and deligtful, tiny fishing towns such as Francois (prounounced Franzway), where we were invited to a foot-stomping "kitchen party." From there, we headed up the coast of Labrador, with stops at Battle Harbor, Hopedale, and the former mission settlement at Hebron, followed by two days among the fiords and slopes of the Torngat Mountains National Park. Then, on our third voyage, we started in Iqaluit, heading up the Baffin Island coast, spending some days among the fog and ice before emerging to the even more spectacular scenery of Buchan Bay and Bylot Island, and finally to the glacial coast of Devon Island, before our return.

In the next few weeks, I'll be posting periodic items about some of my favorites among these many wonders, along with news of the latest searches by land and sea for new evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition. I invite you to come along with me on this smaller, virtual version of those voyages!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Northward, Ho!

Image courtesy London Science Museum, cc-by-SA 4.0
It's that time of year again. Just when enormous heat waves have finished frying eggs on sidewalks from Sligo to San Francisco, I hear the call of the North -- which this year, comes once again in the form of a series of shipboard lectures for the adventure cruise line One Ocean Expeditions. I'm delighted to work with them again, now aboard the Akademik Ioffe, the sister ship of the Akademik Vavilov, on which I served last summer. There is something about the sight of ice through a porthole which energizes the soul, and makes a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting not seem early at all (and of course the sun is always up!).

I'll be on some different routes this time, working my way up the eastern seaboard of Canada from the Maritimes, through Newfoundland and Labrador, and then along the coast of Baffin Island, finishing my tour at the Franklin expedition graves on Beechey. I'm looking forward to talking about the stories of Labrador Inuit who found themselves on stage at World's Fairs and exhibitions in the late nineteenth century, some of whom actually appeared in early Hollywood films; to seeing the peaks of the Torngat Mountains National Park, and watching the southward drift of Greenland-calved icebergs. Then, as we head up the coast of Baffin, I look forward to visiting many places I've never been before (Sunshine Fjord, Auyuittuq National Park, and the Niginganiq Wildlife Area), as well as some I have, such as Pond Inlet, where I hope to meet up with old friends.

Knowing the limitations of shipboard Internet -- e-mail only, at the state it was around 1996, with no attachments larger than 256k! -- I'll have to wait to share my experiences unil my return in mid-August, but I plan to do so again in a series of posts here. At the same time, I'll be eager to hear news of the multiple expeditions that will be underway at the same time on King William Island, searching for signs of the storied vault or tomb which may contain records of the Franklin expedition -- or perhaps the bones of Sir John himself. One of these, the "Bayne/Coleman Expedition," is led by my friends Russ Taichman and Tom Gross, the latter the "Last Man Searching" of my book Finding Franklin. The other, organized by Adventure Science, will be searching from Cape Felix at the northern tip of KWI to Terror Bay on its southern coast. I wish both groups all the best of luck in their endeavors. And of course, this year's search by the underwater archaeology team at Parks Canada will  have everyone's attention; with the cooperation of Inuit organizations and the new Guardians program, as well as the dedicated support of the newly refurbished RV David Thompson, their work this summer on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror promises great things. I have a feeling it will be a year to remember.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sir John Franklin's Tomb

Drawing by Danny Aaluk for Louie Kamookak
For some, it's even more of an 'Arctic Grail' than Franklin's ships, and with Erebus and Terror found, it's the one thing that has evaded searchers the longest: the fabled tomb of Sir John Franklin. Like the ships, there are stories in the recorded Inuit testimony about such a place, a stone vault covered over with two layers of large flat stones, near which a tall pole had stood before it was bitten or broken off by a polar bear.

My late friend Louie Kamookak, whose work on Inuit traditional knowledge has been such a significant part of the many new discoveries made in the past few years, had hoped to make a fresh search for this storied vault in the summer of 2018 -- a search that, alas, is not to be -- but I know that others will take up the cause and carry on. Some years ago, he asked Gjoa Haven artist Danny Aaluk to draw an image of this vault as it was described; in Louie's version, the post may have been the vertical part of a wooden cross (see above), though in other reconstructions it's been imagined as a flagpole.

Tom Gross, who accompanied Dave Woodman on several of his "Project Supunger" searches (Supunger or See-pun-ger is the Inuk whose stories of a stone vault, told to Charles Francis Hall, started it all), has searched nearly every year, and hopes to return this summer as well, and several other parties will be in the area as well. Much depends on good planning (getting all the needed permits from the Government of Nunavut), good weather, and good luck -- but there's no reason that this might not be the year that the site is located. The short searching season, and the uniformity of the flat, rocky, barren land are obstacles -- but surely, with enough effort, the land can yield more of its secrets.

I wish Tom and everyone else all the best in their endeavors. And, knowing how widely the Franklin story is now known -- much more so in the wake of AMC's "The Terror" series -- I thought it might be useful to place some of the original testimony and accounts here. I've created a separate page for the Inuit testimony itself, and would also note the following frequently-asked questions/assumptions:
• Might not Sir John have been "buried at sea"? Other commanders were given this kind of burial, but given Franklin's importance -- and the fact that, just to get to the "sea" his crews would have had to blast a hole in the ice -- this seems to be unlikely. His men may at the time have cherished the idea of returning his remains to England, which also augurs for a land burial. 
• Might Franklin have been preserved on board, either in a keg of rum a là Nelson, or in a coffin? Might he even be the heavy man with the "long teeth"? Either of these seems to me very unlikely; the preservation of Nelson was an exigency demanded by the warm weather and length of journey home, which was both known and possible; Franklin's men faced a far longer and more uncertain haul. And, even with the cold, a body kept on board ship would have decomposed; two of the Beechey burials show signs of this, and their only wait was for coffin and grave -- it's hard to imagine Franklin's men keeping a moldering corpse on board for a year or more.
• Since Sir John Franklin died on June 11th, 1847, while his ships were still beset northwest of Cape Felix (the northern tip of King William Island), the assumption has generally been that his grave or tomb would be near here. There are signs of a camp in this area, one that was occupied for some time, or (perhaps) repeatedly over more than one summer; this would surely have been the most convenient place for a burial. 
• Some, however, regard Supunger's testimony as possibly misleading -- he was only 14 years old at the time, and may have mistaken the coast of Erebus Bay for the northern limit of King William -- if so, the argument goes, Franklin's tomb might be here instead. 
• While Franklin's body and his personal effects would certainly be of extraordinary interest, the story of a stone vault is also mixed up with that of a vault constructed with Inuit witnesses, and sealed with concrete (something wet that when it dried became "all the same stone." Both this vault, described in the so-called Peter Bayne story, and the tomb found by Supunger and his uncle, have been supposed to conatin written records or logs of the expedition, a prospect which -- for many -- is even more exciting than that of a corpse!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The man with chains attached to his ears ...

Many of those who  watched the final episode of AMC's "The Terror" were puzzled -- or horrified -- by the scene in which Captain Crozier finds Lieutenant Little -- or what's left of him -- his face festooned with tiny gold chains. This detail, so strange and haunting in the show, is in fact drawn directly from the testimony of Inuit who saw the bodies of Franklin's men. The sight of skeletons with gold chains about their necks was reported by multiple witnesses, both those who spoke with Charles Francis Hall in the 1860's, as well as others who spoke with Schwatka nearly twenty years later. What could this mean? Were these just decorative jewelry items worn by the men, or was there some more sinister explanation for them?

An Inuit woman who spoke with Hall told what Dave Woodman calls "one of the most powerful of all Inuit remembrances":
[An old woman] and her husband went to a big tent not very far from Neitchille, and among the frozen mass of human bones and bodies that were lying around in it she saw one Kob-lu-na body that had a bright white (probably silver) chain around the neck. She knew at once what the chain was for, as some of the other Neitchille Innuits had just come into possession of several watches and chains, which she saw.The body of this man was lying on one side, and was half imbedded in solid ice from head to feet. The way the chain was about the neck and running down one side of the body indicated that the watch was beneath it; and therefore, to get at the watch, she found a difficult and disagreeable task before her. Neither she nor her husband had any instrument with them that they would use for any such purpose as was desired; therefore, while the husband was seeking around, she procured a heavy sharp stone, and with this chipped away the ice from all round the body till it was released ... [The woman] could never forget the dreadful, fearful feelings she had all the time while engaged doing this; for, besides the tent being filled with frozen corpses - some entire and others mutilated by some of the starving companions, who had cut off much of the flesh with their knives and hatchets and eaten it - this man who had the watch she sought seemed to her to have been the last that died, and his face was just as though he was only asleep. All the while she was at work breaking the ice near the head, especially the ice about the face, she felt very bad, and for this reason had to stop several times. She was very careful not to touch any part of the body while pounding with the sharp stone. At last, after having pounded away the ice from around and under the body, her husband helped her to lift it out of its icy bed. Still she was troubled to get the watch from the frozen garments with which the body was completely dressed.
Those who have at times accused the Inuit of a want of feeling in recovering items from Franklin's men would do well to read that passage! Still, the idea of many men wearing watches around their necks sounds odd to us today: why wouldn't they be kept in pockets -- why around the neck? And why so many? And yet, if one sifts through all the testimony, it seems that watches were fairly ubiquitous; Hall heard multiple witnesses who echoed stories of of "watches found in the tent, found there in some of the clothes that covered some of the skeletons, some with chains knotted around the necks of the skeletons."

Frederick Schwatka heard such tales as well, in particular from a woman named “Ogzeuckjeuwock," who described the curious adornment one of one man who was found “with the flesh on.” This man “had a gold chain fastened to gold ear-rings, and a gold hunting-case watch with engine-turned engravings attached to the chain, and hanging down about the waist.[W]hen he pulled the chain it pulled the head up by the ears." Schwatka's companion Heinrich Klutschak similarly recorded “he wore ear-rings and a watch fastened to them (the ear rings) by means of a chain," though it seems that the nature of these adornments was the subject of some debate.

As my late friend Garth Walpole noted in his Relics of the Franklin Expedition:
It appears that that the [Inuit] statements had been forcibly challenged by Schwatka, Gilder and Klutschak. Gilder thought it particularly odd and tried to account for it. He believed that although the statement itself was peculiar, it was given in good faith and so concluded that either the chain had somehow become attached to the ears or he was just eccentric and liked to wear his watch in this fashion (Gilder 2006:73). The description given appears to be indicative of part of a pocket watch, but if the body was that of “Doktuk,” then the adornment may have been a stethoscope. If it was hanging around his neck, it may have looked as though it was attached to his ears. One could reasonably suppose that as a doctor, he may have felt it his duty to check the life signs of those with him; if not theirs then his own? All of the various accounts mention in association to the adornments a ring worn by the individual. While Klutschak’s account simply stated that the individual “wore a ring on his finger,” Schwatka and Gilder both recorded that it was a “gold ring found on the ring finger of the right hand” and, like the books, it too was given to the children and lost.
We may never know the precise significance of these golden accoutrements, but their presence is undeniable. The idea that the man with the "flesh on" may have been a doctor certainly adds pathos to possibility, and inevitably makes me think of Harry Goodsir, so memorably brought back to life by Paul Ready in the AMC series. The flexible-tube stethoscope had only been invented in 1840, but our progressive, forward-looking surgeon naturalist would, it seems, surely have been one of its early adopters. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Inuit cast of AMC's "The Terror"

Nive Nielsen and Johnny Issaluk on set
One of the best things about AMC's "The Terror" is that, unlike many other film and televisions productions, they made a very conscious decision to cast Inuit in Inuit roles. This might seem the obvious choice, but so many others have cast Japanese, Mongolian, or even Mexican-American actors in Inuit roles over the past decades, that it breaks away powerfully from a long Hollywood tradition.  Sadly enough, the last time all Inuit were cast in all Inuit roles by a major studio may well have been in 1911, when "The Way of the Eskimo" -- a film since lost -- was made, starring Nancy Columbia, her mother Esther Eneutseak and other Labrador Inuit (Nancy was also credited as the author of the film's scenario).

Great praise, and rightly so, has been heaped upon Nive Nielsen for her role as "Lady Silence." There was a broad and early effort to find and cast an Inuk in this role. Their search led them to Nielsen, who was at the time on tour with her band, Nive & the Deer Children; her preliminary auditions were conducted via Skype! Her role is arguably the most central one next to those of the ships' commanding officers, and stretches from the beginning to the end of the series. Her performance is all the more remarkable since from episode six onwards, she must be silent, not only in name, and convey all her thoughts and feelings solely through her face and gestures.

A newcomer to southerly audiences, Johnny Issaluk is well-known in Nunavut, not only for his previous acting roles in films such as Kajuktalik and Two Lovers and a Bear, but also for his appearance on widely-circulated posters advocating good health and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. He also serves as an advisor to the 2014-2018 Sedna Epic Expedition, as well as with the Students On Ice Foundation, which brings young people age 14-18 up to the Arctic. Although his character is not named -- he's listed in the credits simply as "Netsilik Hunter" -- his presence in both the opening and closing scenes of the series serves as a powerful bookend, a reminder that the men of the Franklin expedition were traveling through a land well-known to the Inuit, who had lived and hunted there for thousands of years, and live there still.

Kotierk as Kumaglak in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Inuit actors also appear in other smaller but significant roles: Igloolik resident Apayata Kotierk, known for playing the shaman Kumaglak in Zacharias Kunuk's award-winning 2001 film Atanarjuat, is cast in a similar role in The Terror as Lady Silence's father, the angakkuq who originally summons the "Tuunbaq" (more properly, tuurngaq) spirit that, disconnected from its master when the shaman dies, attacks Franklin's men. And Vinnie Karetak, known for both serious and comic work -- his comedy show Qanurli? is the first of its kind in Inuktitut -- plays "Koveyook," the leader of the small band of Inuit who give seal meat to the famished Lieutenant Irving.

Vinnie Karetak (2nd from left), with Ronan Raferty as Lieutenant John Irving


Taken together, the performances of these Inuit cast members give "The Terror" a degree of authenticity and drama that no other major-network television series has had, and prove that, the next time a major production comes calling, there will be no excuse not to hire Inuit actors for Inuit roles.