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Reviewed by:
  • Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers
  • Lyle Dick (bio)
Dorothy Harley Eber . Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers. University of Toronto Press. xxiv. 168. $45.00

This book is a continuation of the author's notable explorations of Arctic history through reliance on Inuit oral testimony. While the book's objectives are not concisely articulated in the introduction or preface, it appears that the principal justification for this compilation is to demonstrate the value of Inuit storytelling to Arctic historical research, above and beyond its importance to Inuit society and culture. In this objective the author largely succeeds, although the book raises more questions about the historical events it references than it is able to answer.

Eber's publication of newly recorded stories adds many details to the existing knowledge of major events of Arctic history. Some of the most interesting stories relate to less well-known encounters, such as the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in 1903-05. She brings out aspects of these events that are often omitted in the literature, such as the material culture of women, including the trading of beads and reliance on tattoos. The author usefully connects Inuit stories of events with European versions, such as Charles Francis Hall's account of a woman's version of the flogging of an Inuit shaman ordered by William Edward Parry in 1823. When recounted in oral tradition, the story modulated from the supposed approbation of this man's punishment into a heroic account of his defiance of the British explorers.

Eber has also compiled new accounts of the perennially fascinating missing expedition of Sir John Franklin. While these passages do not constitute a major revision of the literature on this event, they do provide access to observations of Inuit on the sad, protracted fate of the expedition's members, periodically observed by their ancestors throughout the course of their 'death marches.' Eber does not comprehensively reference the existing literature to show systematically how oral history with descendants of Inuit witnesses complements, supports, or negates other current interpretations. For example, her account might usefully have more fully drawn upon David Woodman's compilations of [End Page 562] nineteenth-century Inuit testimony on the Franklin saga as revealed in written sources. Nevertheless, Eber offers alternative possibilities regarding the route and ultimate fate of members of Franklin's party that are not prominent in the current literature. The oral accounts of these encounters, as passed down through the generations, afford insights into the ways in which Inuit regarded these interlopers. The interviewees' discussion of cross-cultural impediments such as language barriers also helps answer the question of why Inuit were aware of the presence of Franklin's men over an extended period but unable to help them survive their ordeal. In other cases, the evidence is too fragmentary to permit more than speculative inferences regarding the movements of Franklin's party while stranded in the Arctic archipelago.

Encounters on the Passage is most compelling in its author's documentation and discussion of the persistence of Inuit oral tradition bearing on these early encounters. She effectively demonstrates that Inuit oral history today can illuminate the contact experience in ways that text-bound approaches are unwilling or unable to do. Whether or not this book brings us closer to unravelling the mysteries of the Franklin expedition or the search for the Northwest Passage, it does reveal the continuing importance of storytelling to the Inuit, and the vitality of direct, experiential engagements with Arctic history. Eber herself is an excellent storyteller and she manages to craft these disparate fragments into an interesting and useful series of reflections on these early exchanges. Her quotation of the words and perspectives of Inuit regarding the explorers is a welcome alternative to the prevalence of univocal narration by Arctic historians based largely on written sources.

The book is well illustrated with a mix of European and Inuit art from the nineteenth century, as well as more recent Inuit works. Also included are maps of the Search for the Northwest Passage in the early nineteenth century and the Franklin Search in the late 1840s...


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