A stunning archive of traditional Inuit knowledge has been preserved online, thanks to a new digital atlas. The Fifth Thule Expedition Atlas, launched today by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, highlights the ethnographic information collected by early anthropologists who visited the Canadian Arctic.
The atlas lays out important points from an early expedition by Danish anthropologist Knud Rasmussen, who explored the area between 1921 and 1924 in a journey known as “the Fifth Thule Expedition”—an expedition important enough that the atlas has carried on its name.
“The Fifth Thule Expedition collected vast amounts of Inuit knowledge in the form of oral traditions, traditional place names, linguistic information, Inuit drawn maps, photographs, and ethnographic objects,” the website announces upon first visit. “It is our hope that this information can be used to both educate about the past, and revitalize important cultural traditions and knowledge.”
The project was initiated by the Inuit community in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and supported by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, the Carleton University’s Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (GCRC), and the National Museum of Denmark (where many original artifacts are stored).
“I was just awestruck by everything that was there because their collection is so dense with objects,” said Pamela Gross, executive director of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society. “They have a lot of information that Inuit had never seen before across the arctic, so it’s very exciting to work with them and get this information digitized.”
The atlas is designed to display and disseminate knowledge in traditional ways, allowing users to navigate Inuit knowledge through intertwined approaches with physical space, written reports, and multimedia components. It was also designed to be accessible to everyone, so it runs on a low bandwidth that works well in the north.
“It’s amazing!” said Darren Keith, the project leader. “What this [information] covers is a time before any culture had eroded. Technology was just changing; it had only been about 10 years since guns came to the area.”
Right now the website only covers one of the four regional Inuit groups visited by the Fifth Thule Expedition—the Copper Inuit. The website team hopes to expand this to cover the other three, and include a wider range of media such as 3D artifact scans, photospheres and digitized drawings, maps and field notes, and even early films that are currently stored in archives of Denmark.
They also hope to make a family tree based on important cultural namesakes—something that carries genealogical history.
“I didn’t know what my mother’s maiden’s name meant, and I was able to look at that information and that of other family members,” said Gross. “It gives you a sense of identity and pride, and it teaches knowledge that’s not always taught today.”
The project hopes to expand with the support of the Canadian Government, and with the continued support of the National Museum of Denmark.