Dorothy Harley Eber’s fellow travellers to Arctic communities seldom asked “Where’s Dorothy?” because they were accustomed to seeing her sitting quietly in a corner interviewing an Inuk elder, her tape recorder whirring. While other Qallunaat examined the masterworks of Inuit carvers or explored the surrounding landscape, Eber often recorded history through accounts of the past as handed down by generations of Nunamiut. Her previous books on the Canadian North, also based heavily on interviews, include When the Whalers Were Up North and Images of Justice.
For a people without a written language until roughly a hundred years ago, Inuit history was oral throughout the period covered in Encounters on the Passage, which, except for chapters on Martin Frobisher and Roald Amundsen, concerns itself mainly with 19th-century exploration. Consequently, Eber set out to determine how, two or more generations later, selected Inuit “remembered” contact with European explorers. In other words, what did the interviewees and their forebears know about—and think about—the big ships and strangely clothed men who broke the isolation of their frigid land, and how was that memory handed down?
Most of the testimony is based on Eber’s interviews conducted across Nunavut from Cambridge Bay to Iqaluit during the past 15 years, but she also mined transcripts at the Igloolik Research Centre. The result adds less to history as fact than to history as “stories […] blended together” in Inuit memory (p. xix). Complicating the task is the fact that some of the interviewees had been exposed to accounts published by outside historians. Not surprisingly, few of the accounts exhibit the richness of pre-contact storytelling that gave a special validity to Inuit oral tradition. For example, if Eber had been early enough to hear directly the late Patsy Topilikton’s story about the claimed sighting of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships at Imnguyaaluk west of King William Island, she would have been nearer to an eyewitness testimony. Instead, she was left with what others remembered of the elder’s account, no doubt coloured by their separate interpretations of the original version. After reviewing various opinions from both Inuit and Qallunaat on the fate of Franklin’s expedition, Eber sighs, “There are no shortages of possible resting places for Franklin’s wrecks” (p. 107).
If Encounters provides little startling new information on the age of Arctic exploration, it offers pleasurable and profitable reading. The limitations of oral history are recognised; and Inuit culture, including shamanism, is sensitively treated. Interesting modern Inuit drawings and historic illustrations supplement the text. Among the latter is John Sackheouse’s informative and amusing depiction of the meeting of John Ross and Edward Parry with surprised natives at Prince Regents Bay in 1818. In it the Greenlandic artist/interpreter is assured of visual immortality by representing himself, attired in European jacket and derby, vigorously trading with his fellow natives. Entrepreneurship and vanity were not limited to the English.