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.

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