Louie Kamookak spent 30 years collecting oral histories from Inuit elders about the lost ships of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the Canadian north. He cross-referenced stories with the journals of those who, over the years, searched for the team’s remains. He eventually whittled down a theory about the ships’ possible locations. In the summer of 2014, one of the ships, the Erebus, was found in the area he’d identified.
Now the Inuit oral historian is being awarded with a Lawrence J. Burpee Medal from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his outstanding achievement which enhanced the Society’s ability to make Canada better known.
How did you react to the news that you won the award?
My thoughts always go first to the elders that I’ve interviewed in the past, and the knowledge that they give to me to pass on to other people. I always try to honour the oral history and Inuit culture.
Why is it important to study oral history?
It’s very important to keep the history alive within our region, and preserve how we live. It’s part of our identity to say our ancestors were here.
What advice would you give to students wanting to follow in your footsteps?
You have to listen to the elders. Listen to the stories that they give.
What got you hooked on the field?
When I was seven years old my parents and grandparents and great grandparents would tell us stories at bedtime. And one night my great-grandmother told me a story about how artifacts and evidence had been left behind by the white man. That was my introduction to Franklin’s lost expedition.
You recently took a bunch of students on a four-day expedition to key Franklin sites in the north. How was that?
Going up north, it’s very isolating. There’s no ‘places to go,’ no museums. Last summer’s expedition kind of opened doors for students that needed to get out of town, who didn’t have a place to go to learn about the history.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
I want to continue showing the kids the sites that are out in the field. Lots of students don’t have the opportunity that I had in those early days to really explore the land and learn about the history out in the field. Also to continue to help search for the other ship.
Name the geographical frontier you’d like to experience.
I think about the South Pole. It’s almost like here, but also quite different. There’s no people there, so to see something that untouched would be interesting.
This interview has been edited for clarity.