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The 5th Thule Atlas

Bringing Inuit knowledge back

A team photo of the Fifth Thule Expedition’s members (Rasmussen is on the bottom row, second from the left). Photo by Leo hansen, 1924.

Between 1921 and 1924, a Danish anthropological expedition led by the Inuktitut speaking anthropologist Knud Rasmussen completed the first comprehensive recording of traditional Inuit societies in Canada. This journey — which would come to be known as the 5th Thule Expedition — occurred during an era when many Inuit still adhered to a pre-contact and pre-Christian worldview and material lifestyle.

As Rasmussen’s team travelled by dogsled between Greenland and Alaska, they collected vast amounts of oral traditions, place names, linguistic information, Inuit drawn maps, photographs, and ethnographic objects, using this information to theorize on the origins of Inuit and document what they recognized as a rapidly fading traditional lifestyle. While a select amount of the information gathered was published in a series of scientific reports, the bulk of ethnographic objects, field notes and expedition records remain stored in Danish archives and museum collections where they are not accessible to Inuit.

In 2014, the Kitikmeot heritage Society launched an initiative to return knowledge collected by the 5th Thule Expedition to descendant Inuit populations. Efforts to revitalize traditional language, skills and culture in Nunavut have become significantly challenged by the vacuum of knowledge created through the passing of elder generations possessing first hand experience of life on the land. These revitalization efforts have come to rely more heavily on historical ethnographic resources, most of which exist in distant institutions. The large-scale repatriation of physical artifacts and cultural resources to Nunavut is not feasible due to a lack of local heritage training and storage facilities. The Kitikmeot heritage Society is seeking to resolve these issues through the creation of the 5th thule Atlas, a digital database that allows historical knowledge to be returned in a form that is both accessible and usable by Inuit, without the original archival and physical collections being compromised. The 5th thule Atlas allows users to discover Inuit knowledge and materials by virtually re-navigating the expedition’s travel route. Expedition field notes, data and collections are geo-located and searchable according to mapped culture areas, regional groupings, and camp locations. Users can access various forms of archived knowledge linked to these places, including recorded oral traditions and songs, historical photos, modern photospheres of places visited by the Expedition, digitized field notes, Inuit-drawn illustrations and maps, 3D renderings of artifacts and descriptions of ethnographic objects.

KHS Director Pamela Gross locates some pictures of an ancestor in the Danish National Museum’s archive of Fifth Thule photographs. © Brendan Griebel
KHS Director Pamela Gross locates some pictures of an ancestor in the Danish National Museum’s archive of Fifth Thule photographs. © Brendan Griebel

In November of 2015, the Kitikmeot heritage Society and its project partners from Carleton university’s Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre were invited to Denmark to assess the materials relating to the expedition, and open discussions regarding the 3D scanning of roughly 4,000 ethnographic artifacts collected from Inuit. the project has opened exciting new diplomatic bridges between Canada and Denmark, in addition to strong working relationships between Inuit and National Museum of Denmark staff.

The 5th thule Atlas will eventually cover the entirety of the expedition’s travel route, which includes more than two-thirds of the
Nunavut territory. The Kitikmeot heritage Society is currently launching the pilot phase of its Atlas, which has been designed to geo-locate knowledge related to Copper Inuit of the Central Arctic. We encourage the public to visit our prototype Atlas at www.thuleatlas.org.

Brendan Griebel