David Woodman – Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony

Citation:  Woodman, David C. Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Unit Testimony. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.
_________________________________________________________________ Argument   Inuit knowledge has long shown what “really” happened to the Franklin expedition. Hence, using Inuit knowledge as a tool for understanding the Arctic is necessary for attaining an entire – or at least nearly so – picture of history in the North.

Scope/Organization/Main Points:

In the preface, Woodman states, “For those who require demonstration of the value of Inuit history the recent discover of Erebus is undoubtedly the most visible and tangible confirmation. This book, which brings together in one place most of the Inuit testimony concerning the lost Franklin expedition, may therefore receive closer scrutiny, hopefully to reveal even more details concerning this fascinating story” (xvi).

Later, he notes that he seeks to subvert the historical assumptions “that all Inuit descriptions, as varied as they are, are of one broken ship,” and instead he “tries to tease out the details to show that the Inuit were aware of two wrecks in quite different locations and at different times” (xvii).

Evidently proud of not allowing his vision to be stymied by cultural chauvinisms, Woodman writes, “To elicit the ‘true’ story we must therefore weigh the untutored and often hearsay traditions of the Inuit” (6). He uses the successes of his own project as evidence that Inuit knowledge has value, having “managed to discover a scenario which allowed use of all of the native recollections, solved some troubling discrepancies in the physical evidence, and led to some significant new conclusions as to the fate of the beleaguered sailors” (6).

Woodman describes the Franklin disaster as “an event that resonated throughout both European and Inuit history, and was a central narrative to the European opening of the Arctic” (xx), and later contends that its significance was the reason that Inuit “faithfully and vividly remembered and retold all of the details” (262). Elsewhere, he notes, “The Inuit stories remain important in their own right – just as important as ensuring that history is told from many perspectives. In this case the history of the exploration of Canada’s Arctic is not solely a narrative of European voyagers, but of the Inuit people who interacted with them and their cultural artifacts, and the ongoing story of how that interaction affected each group” (xxiii). Inuit testimony, of course, still has to stand up to Western empiricism in order to prove trustworthy. In fact, Woodman’s book is essentially a demonstration that Inuit knowledge does (!) accord with material reality as observed by explorers and historians alike.

Points of Importance/Interest:

Despite claims to the contrary by many Inuit, Canada does not seem particularly reluctant to acknowledge the value of Inuit knowledge. Is this enough reason for suspicion? ·         Again, what is with the pleasure with which we acknowledge our shortcomings? What does this pleasure obscure? It seems like certain material evidence is sufficient to confirm Inuit knowledge (ie. accrues legitimacy in support of Canadian sovereignty, but also to the degree that it humbles us, invites our apologies, allows us to perform a new enlightenment).

It’s important to note that Woodman stands to accrue a great deal of cultural capital with his project. Not only did he believe Inuit accounts before Parks Canada or others took them seriously, but he declares that he has “handled Franklin relics and even discovered a campsite at Cape Maria Louisa – again predicted by Inuit testimony” (xxi).

This project was rewarded in many ways after the 2014 discovery of Erebus, not the least of which has meant interviews with CBC, the reprint of his book. Project Utjulik, which Parks Canada took over in 2008, is particularly interesting, and Woodman had some involvement (I need to look into this more).

On March 6 2015, McGill-Queen’s posted an announcement on their website: “A huge congratulations goes out to David C. Woodman, author of Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, who is one of 220 recipients of the Erebus Medal. This special and well-deserved honour, announced this week by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, commemorates and recognizes those who contributed to the find of one of the lost ships of the British Arctic Expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin.

From the RCGS Press Release: “This new medal is a recognition of the importance the Society places on the discovery of HMS Erebus, one of the most significant underwater archaeological discoveries in history. It also speaks to the impact Erebus, and the search for that ship, had on the map of Canada,” said John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

In April 2016, Woodman led a talk in Ottawa on the connection between Inuit knowledge and Franklin. http://www.rcgs.org/programs/speaker_series/2016_spring_woodman.asp




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