Indigenous Knowledge Propped Up One of Canada’s Greatest Expeditions, and Today We’re Celebrating It

To celebrate Canada Day this year, we’re doing something different—remembering the greatest Canadian expedition for what it was—a partnership of Indigenous peoples and Canadians of European origin. 

The Canadian Arctic Expedition took place from 1913-1918 and employed over one hundred explorers, sailors, scientists, and Indigenous peoples to explore the upper reaches of what is now Canada’s international boundary. Photo :: Canadian Museum of Civilization

words :: Ben Osborne.

153 years ago today, the British Colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick became federally recognized as one entity.  This laid the groundwork for what is now the country of Canada, and today, July 1st is a day to celebrate the diverse history of the nation.

But to only celebrate the history and knowledge of the past 153 years would be short-sighted—before Europeans stepped onto the land and claimed it as their own, humans had inhabited the land we call Canada for thousands of years.

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Without these people, the country we call Canada wouldn’t be possible. With their knowledge of how to live off the land and navigate an unwelcoming landscape, explorers were able to push from east to west and discover regions rich with resources, culture and unique, stunning geography.

Perhaps no better example of that is in the largest Arctic expedition ever funded by the Canadian government, the Canadian Arctic Expedition. It was comprised of over 100 scientists, sailors, photographers, and perhaps most important, Inuit hunters, seamstresses, navigators, translators, and workers of every type that made the Expedition possible.

To only celebrate the history and knowledge of the past 153 years would be short-sighted.

The Expedition had two parties—one to undertake the surveying of the Arctic coast, and another to search for previously unexplored land in the Beaufort Sea. The Expedition resulted in the claiming of three new islands for the country of Canada, and the crew made it up to 80˚ north.

But most importantly, a partnership between the Inuit people and the newcomers to the land is what made this expedition possible. Without the local knowledge, the expedition would have been doomed to failure.

In a virtual exhibit by the Canadian Museum of History, 24 “local assistants” are listed as part of the Expedition—almost a quarter of the personnel.

The Expedition was not only a landmark moment due to the mapping of lands previously unknown to colonists—it was a prime example of the rich history of Indigenous peoples and their invaluable knowledge of the land they had inhabited for thousands of years.

The Expedition included people of the Iñupiat (Alaskan Inuit), Inuvialuit (Western Arctic Inuit) and Innuinnait (Copper Inuit). To celebrate Canada Day this year, we’re highlighting a few of the Indigenous explorers who made this, and countless other expeditions of this type, possible. In Canada, we’re lucky to recreate in the beautiful land that is of utmost historical and cultural importance to a number of groups of Indigenous peoples. This is one way we would like to honour them and their immeasurable contributions.

Minnie Guninana

Originally hired as a seamstress, Guninana undertook an essential role as a cultural interpreter on the Canadian Arctic Expedition from September 1915 to May 1917. The leader of the Expedition, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, said she was “one of the best informants he ever had” and that some of the “chief ethnological results of the expedition were based on her information.”

Minnie (Guninana) (L) and Uttaktuak, Banks Island, N.W.T., February 21, 1916. Photo :: Canadian Museum of Civilization

“Guninana ….told me of how diseases were controlled, how famines were averted, how people were killed or cured by magic, how the future could be foretold and the secrets of the past uncovered,” recalled Steffanson. “Guninana alone could have told me stories, she said (and I suppose it to be true), that it would have taken me years to write down,” he added.

The cultural findings of the Expedition set the stage for our modern-day connection with the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and Canada’s subsequent control of the Arctic territories.

Natkusiak (Billy Banksland)

Billy Natkusiak and his dog Mike, M’Clure Strait south of Melville Island, N.W.T. April 10, 1916 Photo :: Canadian Museum of Civilization

Well known for his endeavours in the trapping and exploration world after the Expedition, Natkusiak got his start as a hunter and navigator for Vilhjalmur Steffanson.

Natkusiak’s knowledge and patience became undeniably valuable when Steffanson hurt his ankle on an expedition to the Coronation Gulf, and Natkusiak took over hunting for the entire crew. “Natkusiak was one of the best hunters I have ever known, and he was a tireless walker,” recounted Canadian Arctic Expedition crewmember Harold Noice.

Natkusiak went on to become a hunter and trapper on Banks Island. Eventually, he moved his family to nearby Holman Island, where some of his family members still live today.

Patsy Klengenburg

A student of anthropologist and explorer Diamond Jenness, Patsy was at 16 one of the youngest Expedition members on the southern faction. Jenness recounted that “probably no better interpreter could have been found anywhere along the Arctic Coast.” High praise for a 16-year-old.

A man of many talents, Klengenburg helped the southern faction of the Expedition with everything from translation to mapping. Photo :: Canadian Museum of Civilization

Along with his work interpreting, Patsy collected birds and mammals and taught members of the Expedition how to prepare skins with techniques still used today. After the Expedition, Patsy continued his work as an interpreter and translator on Wilmot Island, where he lived until his death in 1946. The uninhabited Patsy Klengenberg Island, Kitikmeot Region, Nunavut, is named for him.

Without Indigenous knowledge, we aren’t here today—plain and simple. And without cooperation with Indigenous peoples across Canada, we can’t move forward in the best way possible.

These explorers are just a few of the many on the Canadian Arctic Expedition, and a small fraction of the countless Indigenous peoples who have sacrificed to make Canada the country it is today. When you’re celebrating Canada Day—today and from here on out—don’t forget that. —ML

For more information on the Canadian Arctic Expedition, visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization.