Friday, April 21, 2017

From the Tundra to the Trenches

From the Tundra to the Trenches

By Eddy Weetaltuk

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016
$24.95 Canadian/ $27.95 US

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

To say that Eddy Weetaltuk lived an eventful life, unlike the lives of his fellow Inuit, is an understatement. He was born in 1932 on Strutton Island in James Bay, one of twelve children. His surname, he points out, means “innocent eyes” (and should really be spelled Uitaaluttuq). His grandfather, George Weetaltuk, was a guide for the film-maker Robert Flaherty in the making of his ground-breaking documentary, Nanook of the North. Eddy’s childhood was what one would expect for an Inuk boy growing up in the 1930s and 40s at the southern limit of traditional Inuit land, in James Bay and on the Quebec coast – periods of joy and hunger in the comfort of a large family.  He went to school in Fort George, and finished the eighth grade at boarding school. By the time he reached adulthood, he was multi-lingual, speaking English, Inuktitut, French and Cree.

Although he describes the loneliness he experienced at school in Fort George because of his absence from family, Eddy focuses on the inter-racial friendships he made there, and the camaraderie he had with the religious brothers who were his teachers.  It is perhaps worth noting that, at a time when Canadian media is obsessed with the subject of abuse encountered by indigenous students at residential schools, and indigenous authors are documenting their own experiences of abuse, this book is not of that genre.

Always curious about the world outside his small community, and encouraged by a Catholic priest, in 1951 Eddy made a fateful decision – to go south. His friend, Brother Martin, told him “Edward, my dear son, do not stay in the North. Do whatever it takes but go south. Your real place is there… you will be able to succeed there… Our laws are foolish; we should not be preventing Eskimos from going anywhere.” This seems to be the genesis of Eddy’s belief that Inuit were not allowed to leave the north; although technically mistaken – there was no such law - in practical terms few Inuit at the time had the language and other skills needed to make the transition to a southern life.

Fearing the discrimination he thought would confront him outside his comfort zone, Eddy changed his name – he would no longer be Eddy Weetaltuk E9-422, but rather Eddy Vital, and he would pass as a French-Canadian. He made up a cover story that his father was a French-Canadian from Winnipeg, with the surname Vital, and his mother an Inuk “which made me not Eskimo but Canadian.” (Those were the days when people of mixed race often denied their indigenous ancestry, rather than embracing it.)

Eddy joined the Army and was sent to Korea. He saw battle there, and sought his solace, like many young soldiers, in alcohol and in the brothels of Japan and Korea. Following his Korean service, he trained as a parachutist in Manitoba, then was stationed for many years in Germany before finally leaving the Army in 1967 and returning to northern Quebec.

The story of how Eddy’s life experiences finally made it into print is almost as interesting as his story itself. He first wrote down his tale in 1974. With the help of a friend, he sent the handwritten manuscript of about 200 pages, along with twenty drawings – for Eddy was an artist as well as a writer - to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History). And there it languished. In 2002 a curator came across the forgotten manuscript and drawings, and arranged for them to be transferred to the Canadian War Museum. Eddy agreed to the transfer, believing that the war museum might take more of an interest in his story and finally publish it.  But again it languished. Then, with the help of a lawyer, he recovered the manuscript from the war museum, and submitted it to a southern publisher. They considered it, but wanted major revisions. And so it went unpublished once more.

Then, by chance, the lawyer met an academic, Thibault Martin, at a conference and told him the story of Eddy’s manuscript. Martin had previously met Eddy while doing research for his doctorate, and the two began a collaborative editing process. Eddy died at his home in Umiujaq in 2005, when the editing was almost complete. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his work published.

Eddy’s book was published first in French in 2009, in Paris, by a publisher which specialized in exceptional life stories. In 2015, a German language edition was produced. Finally, it has appeared in English, in the University of Manitoba series, First Voices, First Texts. 

Thibault Martin is not reticent to acknowledge the role he played in shaping the manuscript for a non-Inuit audience. Eddy had been “adamant in his refusal to write an academic text that would cater to an audience of anthropologists and ethnographers.” Yet the museums had treated his work as an archival document that would appeal to just those interests, and even when it reached a mainstream Canadian publisher for consideration, Eddy’s story did not make the grade – it didn’t satisfy what the publisher thought Canadian readers wanted in a book from an Inuit author, namely “traditional Inuit tales and children’s literature.”

Martin asked Eddy to expand on some aspects of his life story and to cut back his narration of other parts.  He felt that the early part of the story needed more childhood memories, and that the parts dealing with the author’s military service needed paring to avoid repetitive descriptions of inebriation, imprisonment, disgrace and discrimination.  Martin described the “revised life story” that resulted as “a compensatory autobiography “

Thibault Martin’s foreword is followed by an introduction by Isabelle St-Amand, a specialist in Canadian native literature, who places Eddy’s work in the context of other Inuit biographies. Inuit and First Nations authors have, in recent years, broken the boundaries of what was once considered “acceptable” indigenous literature. A thirty-five-page appendix by Martin, with the mind-numbing title, “The Experience of Eddy Weetaltuk in the Context of Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Wars,” is far too long and detailed and detracts from the book. It should have been condensed into a paragraph or two and imbedded in the editor’s foreword, or treated in footnotes.

Eddy’s narrative ends with his return to Great Whale River in 1967 and the very beginning of his re-integration into a much-changed north. “A new life was ahead of me,” he wrote in his final paragraph. “The life of an Inuk in his village.” And there it ends. But it shouldn’t have. This reader wants to know some details of that life, of how Eddy Weetaltuk reconciled his unique experiences in the south and abroad with his new-old life-of-an-Inuk in the years after 1974. How did he spend his time? What were his interests? How did his community accept him?  Eddy’s own narrative ends too soon and he never had the chance to write his own version of the epilogue that his story deserves. The book would have been greatly enhanced had someone done the research to include an appendix on Eddy’s life post-1974. Eddy deserved that, and we, the readers, deserve it too. As it stands very little other material has been written about Eddy’s life back home. Bob Mesher wrote an interesting article, “A Closer Look at Eddy Weetaltuk’s Painting” for the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Makivik Magazine, but those paintings too were done before 1974.

Eddy had made no bones about the fact that he wanted to write a best-seller. He wanted his work to serve as an encouragement to Inuit youth to achieve their potential. “I wish to tell them,” he wrote in the book’s last chapter, “your life belongs to you. You are the ultimate master of your destiny, so don’t let despair, alcohol, or drugs control you. Be yourself, be proud. Be proud of being Inuit and always remember that your ancestors had to fight every single day of their lives to survive. It is now your turn to be strong and courageous.” 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Relics of the Franklin Expedition

Relics of the Franklin Expedition: Discovering Artifacts from the Doomed Arctic Voyage of 1845

By Garth Walpole

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017, $39.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Dore

Garth Walpole was an Australian archaeologist who early on became fascinated with Franklin’s final expedition, and who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the relics recovered from it by various searchers and held in the National Maritime Museum, London.  In later life he decided to expand this research and publish the results as a book, and had completed most of this work before he sadly succumbed to cancer in 2015. Before his death he had asked Russell Potter to edit the work for publication, and it has now been published by McFarland (who also brought out Glenn Stein’s Discovering the North West Passage). With the first major exhibition of the relics in more than a century due to open this summer, publication could not have been better timed, despite the poignant reminder that the author did not live to see the exhibition or garner the well-deserved attention his book would have engendered in its wake.

Although the first chapter is titled “The material biography of relics: A physical and spiritual relationship”, only the first couple of its 45 pages address the question of the spiritual meaning that individuals and cultures invest in historical artifacts. After that uneasy theoretical throat-clearing (perhaps a requirement of the original thesis), we are straight into a chronological account of the years after Franklin set sail in 1845, starting with the first tentative search expeditions by land and sea in 1848 and the first breakthrough – the earliest discovery of actual artifacts – in August 1850, on Beechey Island. At this point the chapter loses its chronological structure, and it is hard to see what organizing principle replaces it, though the complexity of events in that month, with several British and American ships operating around Beechey simultaneously, would always be hard to capture. Accounts of the reconnoitring of the various sites by different officers overlap, each one discovering not only the remains of Franklin’s first wintering but having to disentangle them from the traces of each other, as each party visited the same sites in turn. The action then moves on to Belcher’s expedition in 1852, then confusingly back again to 1850, and the chapter ends with Kennedy’s expedition in 1851. Only with the description of Franklin’s main camp at Beechey does the discussion become more clearly structured, with a focus on each site (garden, storehouse, cairn), and the artifacts found in them, as seen by each searcher in turn. Late in the day we come to the three graves, most iconic of the Beechey remains, though Walpole perhaps wisely limits his discussion to the discoveries made by the first searchers rather than trying to summarize the wealth of knowledge gained by Beattie and Geiger’s exhumation of the bodies in the 1980s.

Chapter 2’s title is similarly misleading (“The continued search for relics, 1851–1854”, though in fact it covers 1851–2010), again perhaps a relic of the original thesis. It is, however, a much better-organized narrative than chapter 1, benefiting from the historical accident that it relates a series of successive, rather than simultaneous, expeditions. In terms of the quantity of artifacts and information retrieved, the most important of these were the first four: Rae in 1854, McClintock in 1857–59, Hall in 1864–69 and Schwatka in 1878–79, all of whom, exploring within living memory of the expedition, also interviewed many Inuit who had been eyewitnesses of Franklin’s expedition, or had heard stories directly from those who were  – narratives that became cultural artifacts of as great a value as the many objects of repurposed wood and metal that the searchers traded from the Inuit.

But if the survival of these oral histories represents a triumph of individual and cultural memory, their tragic counterpart is the utter loss, apart from the single Victory Point document, of all written records from Franklin’s crews that might give more detailed information about their fate. A constant refrain throughout Walpole’s account of these expeditions is the raising – and then dashing – of hopes that written records might be discovered, as one cairn after another is hopefully dismantled, dug beneath and around, and then mournfully rebuilt when found to be empty. When Schwatka heard Inuit accounts of the strongbox carefully preserved by the men who had made it to the continental mainland at the place he dubbed Starvation Cove, he hoped that it might have contained the expedition’s records, but when he heard stories describing it being forced open, its contents discarded, and the box reused for its parts, he was shattered by the realization that the last best hope to recover any written account had gone. The barely intelligible gibberish of the Peglar papers, a few sheets of handwriting that happened to survive on or near a seaman’s body, seemed to mock the searchers with their pointless triviality.

Although the material objects collected by the search expeditions are thought of today as archaeological artifacts – part of a historical, public realm – for the first searchers many of them were intensely personal talismans. McClintock especially had known members of the lost crews, and made it his mission to restore as many personally identifiable relics as he could to their families, for whom they became treasured heirlooms of private grief. This is seen in the post-expedition histories of many objects that Walpole records, which show them re-emerging many decades later as a descendant, young enough or distantly related enough never to have known the crewmember personally, bequeathed them to a public collection. Engraved watches and cutlery, the most clearly identifiable items, were thus those McClintock made most effort to retrieve, though the sheer quantity and variety of material in the NMM collection originating in his expedition outstrips that from any others (they are all listed, grouped by expedition source, in the book’s Appendix B).

Uncertainty about the nature of many objects has caused problems in cataloguing and identification, however: is that piece of wood part of a doorframe or a hatchway? A table leg or a stanchion? Differences of opinion between searchers describing an object in a journal and conservators cataloguing them in a museum can lead to objects seeming to appear, disappear, and fluctuate in overall number. In addition, some objects seem to have been lost when collections changed hands from one institution to another. Walpole gives several examples of the kind of detailed worrying away at a description that is needed to resolve such nebulous uncertainties. It is not a task for those whose patience is easily tested.

The mostly keenly felt absence in the first two chapters is a modern map of the two search areas (Beechey and King William islands respectively) naming all of the places mentioned in the text (there are a handful of historical maps of both places, none comprehensive or easily legible). To those not already intimately familiar with the geography of these two remote islands, the descriptions of searchers moving from one place to another, and hearing of events in other places, will simply be impossible to picture or remember, since their relative positions will be unknown. This is a serious drawback.

After Schwatka there was a pause in the search of some fifty years, during which the Franklin expedition passed out of living memory. Since then other searchers – Burwash, Gibson, Larsen and others – mostly on shorter expeditions to smaller areas, have unearthed smaller quantities of material, bearing the steadily increasing signs of weathering as each decade passed. But in recent years aerial and satellite photography, the retreat of sea ice and cheaper travel have all made the remote search zone a more easily approached place, leading to the concerted effort that has now seen the discovery of both Erebus and Terror.

Chapter 5 is the most systematically organized, giving a chronological series of mostly 19th-century engravings and photographs of groupings of objects, with a key identifying each one with its modern NMM accession number. This chapter, when cross-referenced with the complementary listing in Appendix B mentioned above, provides the most permanent documentary and reference value of Walpole’s book.

Although beautifully typeset and printed, the book suffers from what seems to have been a mismatch of expectations between publisher and editor. Potter’s role, as he makes clear in his preface, has not been to rewrite or smooth out the author’s prose but to check the references and add information to fill the occasional lacuna. Unfortunately McFarland, perhaps unfamiliar with the role of an academic editor, seem to have misunderstood it as meaning that they did not need to have the text copy-edited or even, apparently, proofread, with the result that the number of typos, word substitutions, inconsistent spellings and ungrammatical sentences, which Potter must have assumed the publisher would deal with, reach sometimes distracting levels.

Now that Erebus and Terror have been located, we are on the cusp of a new era in the study of Franklin’s last expedition, in which the recovery of a host of new artifacts, apparently well preserved, unweathered, and unmodified by Inuit re-use, could potentially dwarf the number and quality of items collected with such pains over so many years by so many searchers on land. The holy grail – a trembling hope that we share with Hobson opening up the record tube at the Victory Point cairn – is that the ships may yet contain some written records, some crewmember’s journal, that will somehow be legible. The initial conditions seem good – the general state of preservation of the wood is exceptional, boding well for that of the organic material more generally – and we can only hope that the investigation planned by Parks Canada is not too slow or tentative to take advantage before further deterioration occurs.

Walpole’s book is thus published at a fitting moment. Like the exhibition due to open at the NMM in July 2017, it represents a summation of what is known and what has been recovered from Franklin’s last expedition in the first 165 years of searching. It is a memorial to the searchers, and a testament to the almost numinous presence that spoons, watches, and fragments of wood can acquire when these mute witnesses to a calamitous human drama are all that we have to go on.