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People & Culture

Louie Kamookak, oral history and the Franklin expedition

Alanna Mitchell, co-author of Franklin's Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus, reflects on the renowned historian

  • Mar 23, 2018
  • 677 words
  • 3 minutes
Louie Kamookak, Nunavut, Gjoa Haven, obituary, tribute, RCGS, explorer, Franklin Expand Image

When he was about seven, Louie Kamookak’s father took him to see his first human skeleton, half-hidden in a makeshift coffin set on the wild mosses of King William Island, Nunavut, near the edge of the Northwest Passage. It was the remains of one of the early fur traders, a fellow known as Russian Mike.

The story was that Mike had made a lot of moonshine, done a lot of fighting, fallen into terrible trouble and finally shot his dogs and himself.

But the seven-year-old, though terrified, took a good look at the bullet’s entry wound in the bleached skull and eventually concluded that it had gone in from the top, not the bottom. So this was more likely a murder than a suicide.

It was the start of a five-decade career in self-taught forensic archeology, a field largely shunned by Inuit, most of whom dislike being around dead bodies, Kamookak told me a couple of years ago. At the time, he was showing me and a group of teens what was left of Russian Mike, by then turned out of his wooden bed-frame-cum-coffin, bones scattered by the foxes.

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Kamookak, one of Canada’s finest Inuit oral historians, lived in the right place for someone who loved solving forensic mysteries. King William Island was where the lost sailors of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition, having abandoned HMS Erebus and Terror, walked to their deaths, ill, starving and eventually cannibalistic.

For decades, Kamookak scoured his home island and the surrounding areas, carefully tracking evidence about where the Franklin sailors had been. He catalogued the placement of artifacts such as china and spoons, then graves and even skeletons. I always thought he coaxed Franklin’s secrets out of the barrens themselves.

He coaxed them out of his relatives on King William Island, too. Patiently, year after year, he would listen to the oral history the Elders told of the Franklin horrors, passed down over the generations. This was testimony that had originally come from people who had seen Franklin’s men alive, then dead and butchered.

Kamookak was convinced that these stories needed to be taken into account if Franklin’s ships were ever to be found, if the record were ever to be put to rights. He painstakingly matched the ancient Inuit geographical names of his region with the ones the non-Inuit had replaced them with, the better to figure out what the old stories said. He helped Parks Canada decide where to search for Franklin’s ships in 2014 and his advice proved instrumental in finding Erebus that year.

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I remember walking with him across the southern edge of his island during that multi-day expedition with the Inuit teens, following, as he said, in the footsteps of Franklin’s dead men. It was as if he could still feel their spirits, restless on the land and maybe malevolent.

We were staying in unbleached canvas tents, sleeping on muskox skins. A lot of what we ate was country food — wind-dried fish, fresh-caught fish, caribou. But Kamookak’s pride and joy was a massive jar of Cheez Whiz, which he slathered over homemade fried bannock, carefully handing the jar around so others could share in the unaccustomed treat.

He was fiercely, shyly proud of the fact that the students were interested enough to spend time with him on the land. He would recount the tales in a nearly incantatory tone, word for word, the same every time, offering up his wisdom as a gift to the next generation, but never forcing it on people. A born teacher.

It was that gentleness that I’ll remember best. And the wit. A short while after our expedition I saw him at a Royal Canadian Geographical Society event in Ottawa. I was to introduce him and I asked him, nervously, whether he had brought any notes. He looked at me carefully for a moment, resplendent in his seal skin vest, then said, slyly: “Alanna, I’m an oral historian,” while a huge grin spread across his face.


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