Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers.


192 pages
Contains Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-8020-9275-5
DDC 910.9163'27




Reviewed by Amanda Fehr


Drawing on personal interviews that she conducted with elders across Nunavut from 1994–2008, Dorothy Harley Eber sets out to engage with recent Inuit oral traditions of 19th and early 20th century European quests for the Northwest Passage. Where possible, these accounts are triangulated with the written records of the explorers themselves. Following a prologue on Martin Frobisher, Eber provides accounts of sea expeditions from that of Sir Edward Parry (1819–20) to Roald Amundsen’s discovery of the Passage (1903–6), with significant space devoted to the Franklin expedition (1845–7). Unlike earlier scholarship, Eber’s narrative uses Inuit accounts to draw attention to the role of shamans in what is depicted as Inuit/Qallunaat relations. The book concludes with a chapter on changing modern times, highlighting Inuit interest in both the mysteries of the Franklin tragedy and the Discovery Channel.


It is therefore surprising that Eber’s use of oral histories seem to elaborate on familiar narratives rather than really engage with Indigenous cosmology or perceptions of the past. Such an engagement might have been accomplished through more analysis of these oral histories that hint at Inuit attitudes towards gender relations, outsiders, and trade. More significantly, this book could have benefited from an engagement with recent theoretical discussions about the use of oral history in scholarship, such as how oral histories relate to both the past and present, or issues around translating such stories and writing them down. Though Eber notes the possibility of Inuit informants blending stories and changing them over time, this is not a focus of her narrative. Especially in the four chapters devoted to aspects of the Franklin expedition and resultant searching expeditions, Inuit oral histories primarily serve to provide hitherto unknown details about the tragedy. Still, Encounters on the Passage is an important contribution to the history of northern exploration during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and these Inuit accounts should be incorporated into introductory level history or northern studies courses. This well-written, often fascinating book is highly recommended for readers interested in the exploration of the Northwest Passage.


Eber, Dorothy Harley., “Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/25173.