Long before our present-day global thaw would make it feasible, western nations dreamed of trading with the Far East via a nice, direct polar route over the Americas. There are a great many books on the search for the Northwest Passage, including published accounts by the intrepid explorers themselves. During the 19th century the British and North American public watched with bated breath as expeditions braved death by slow freezing, sickness, and starvation in what seemed to be an impossible – and impassable – environment.
The Freedom in American Songs
The Freedom in American Songs
But what say the people who were already there? What say the Inuit, who were watching from the sea ice?
Dorothy Harley Eber helps answer this question with her important book Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers. Eber is a Montreal-based writer who has already written many books on the Inuit, with particular attention to the oral histories still told in Arctic communities.
Drawn from her own interviews as well as from archived collections of oral history in communities of the Arctic archipelago, the stories in Eber’s book offer readers a glimpse into another side of the “encounter”: the discovery of a pale-looking people, rich with wood and metal. Inuit stories of these new people describe conflict, deceit, and occasional murderous intent on both sides. They also recount times of mutual aid, sympathy, and even affection.
Encounters on the Passage draws extensively from a wealth of explorers’ first-hand accounts, providing contexts for Inuit oral histories that go back as far as when Martin Frobisher sailed under orders from Queen Elizabeth I. Subsequent voyages are covered, under historic figures such as John Ross, William Edward Parry, Sir John Franklin – whose expedition is famously mysterious and tragic – right through to the first successful passage by Roald Amundsen in 1906.
The explorers’ stories are essential to the narrative; Eber has selected relevant, engaging, and often witty excerpts from original sources. Even so, readers might find themselves wanting a greater emphasis on the Inuit perspective. Oral history, however, is like other dwindling resources: we must make do with what remains. As the author puts it in her introduction, “When I arrive in a community, I often wish I had been in time to talk to storytellers of a frustratingly recent past.” In the chapter “New Franklin Stories,” informant Lena Kingmiatook of Taloyoak finishes her tale in the same spirit: “Sadly the story ends here. We would like to know more about it, too.”
Eber’s writing is vivid and she is usually crystal clear in the service of her selected passages. Frequently, however, the author does not give her dense thoughts the space they deserve: “The colours of the Arctic today are blue and dove grey, like a Tony Onley watercolour, and on this brilliant clean morning John Macdonald, director of the Igloolik Research Centre, is driving us over the road that leads to the point off which William Edward Parry of the Royal Navy – whom Inuit call Paarii – anchored his expedition in the winter of 1822-3.” Crammed and confusing, assemblages such as these are a shame because they are so easily fixed.
The book is generously illustrated with reproductions of Inuit artwork and art inspired by exploration voyages. Maps and a chronological list of the voyages are also provided.
The author is scrupulous about presenting the contradictions between oral accounts, and acknowledges those which have perhaps been blended from earlier stories about separate events. But in Encounters on the Passage, Eber demonstrates that oral histories offer us a viewpoint which historic documents cannot, and provide further answers to our many questions about Canada’s past. mRb