Digital Atlas Project Reconnects Inuit with History

Prof. Fraser Taylor's digital atlas reveals a new perspective on Inuit history and culture in northern Canada. (Chris Roussakis Photo)

A Carleton professor is contributing to the repatriation of Inuit knowledge with an interactive digital atlas that will soon make its way through northern Canadian communities.

Fraser Taylor, a distinguished research professor and director of Carleton’s Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre, was commissioned by Nunavut’s Kitikmeot Heritage Society to map Inuit-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition across the Canadian Arctic from 1921 to 1924.

Rasmussen was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage and recorded some of the most extensive information about traditional semi-nomadic Inuit societies in Canada before they began living in permanent settlements.

The purpose of the digital atlas is to return “a slice of their own history and their own artifacts in a way that will help them understand even more deeply the reality of Inuit life,” Taylor says.

Most of the artifacts and documents from Rasmussen’s expedition are held in museums in Denmark and have never been seen in Canada.

Inuit elders who met Rasmussen during his expedition are no longer alive to pass down stories about the experience. As a result, important historical knowledge is disappearing in Nunavut, says Brendan Griebel, executive director of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

“Inuit don’t really have many resources that they can access about traditional Inuit culture,” Griebel says. “It’s not creating an atlas about the expedition that’s so important, but about the Inuit knowledge that was collected as part of that expedition.”

The digital atlas Taylor is creating will map Rasmussen’s trek from Greenland through Nunavut, all the way to Alaska, allowing users to interact with historical photos, videos, journal entries and maps as they virtually navigate the expedition route.

The framework of the atlas is already complete, but still needs to be populated with more information, Taylor says.

He and the Kitikmeot Heritage Society have completed the first section of the map with artifacts related to the Copper Inuit of the Central Arctic and are now waiting for artifacts from Denmark to be digitized.

Once the atlas is finalized, a distributed data network will be used to share the project with northern communities who will then add their own historical knowledge of the expedition to the map.

“We want to take this material back to communities in the North and recreate the Inuit perception of seeing these things for the first time,” Taylor says.

Griebel has already shared it with a handful of elders working with the heritage society.

“Most of them have no pictures of their grandparents. A lot of them have no pictures of their parents,” he says. “To be able to see their faces clearly again is just such a moving thing.”

One society member has already discovered a photo of someone she believes is her great-grandfather, according to Griebel.

A great deal of the archival information from Rasmussen’s expedition — which reveals clues about hunting patterns, food, clothing and the Inuit economy — has never even been opened, not in Denmark or anywhere else in the world, Griebel says.

He says the project has helped stress the importance of making this information accessible not just to Inuit communities, but to the general public.

“In a sense, it’s a repatriation of information,” says Taylor, who cites the importance of having the project driven from the ground up by Inuit communities.

“We’re trying to capture the essence of the Inuit way of looking at things,” Taylor says. “It’s a different form of knowledge, but a very important form.”

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