Arctic Odyssey: The Diary of Diamond Jenness, 1913-1916


859 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-660-12905-1
DDC 917.19




Edited by Stuart E. Jenness
Reviewed by William A. Waiser

William A. Waiser is an associate professor of history at the University
of Saskatchewan.


One of the most ambitious government-sponsored surveys of northern
Canada in the twentieth century was the Canadian Arctic Expedition
(1913-16). Originally devised by famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur
Stefansson, the project was taken over by the Canadian government and
organized into two groups with separate though complementary duties: a
northern party (under Stefansson) would conduct a general reconnaissance
survey of the Beaufort Sea region in search of new territory, while a
southern party (made up mostly of members of the Geological Survey of
Canada) would attend to various scientific matters on land. Although the
expedition acquired a good deal of knowledge about the region, even
discovering new islands, it is generally remembered today for the
discord and feuding between Stefansson and the southern-party
scientists; in fact, there still needs to be a history of the expedition
and its scientific accomplishments. Arctic Odyssey, the three-volume
diary of southern-party member Diamond Jenness, helps fill this void.

The New Zealand-born Jenness was invited to join the expedition as one
of the southern party’s two ethnologists, who would study the Copper
Inuit of the Coronation Gulf region. Lacking any Arctic experience, the
27-year-old Jenness soon found himself playing a much greater role: the
southern party’s senior ethnologist perished when the expedition’s
ship, the Karluk, sank. Jenness tackled his assignment with a singleness
of purpose: for three years, he made copious notes on the Inuit and
their culture, made crude sketches and took photographs, and even
recorded traditional songs on wax cylinders. These various activities
and observations are faithfully recorded in his expedition diary, which
has here been painstakingly transcribed and annotated by his son,
Stuart. The diary has been divided into chapters, each with a helpful
summary introduction; there are also 100 two-column pages of detailed
editor’s notes to the diary, which unfortunately have been placed at
the back of the book rather than at the bottom of the appropriate page.
The diary itself is sprinkled with copies of Jenness’s photographs and
sketches and rounded out with seven appendixes, which include a list of
his natural-history collections and the names of people encountered
during the expedition.

Arctic Odyssey is a valuable reference source on the Inuit of the
western Arctic before World War I and the coming of the fur trade to the
region. It also provides insight into the young Diamond Jenness and
helps explain why he went on to become Canada’s foremost


“Arctic Odyssey: The Diary of Diamond Jenness, 1913-1916,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,