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The Middle of Everywhere

This article was originally published in Up Here Magazine.

By Samia Madwar

When Alesrine Andre flies from Norman Wells to Inuvik, NWT, she looks out the window to watch the hills, valleys, rivers, and lakes below her. To most passengers, the features appear as little more than a sprawling, natural canvas. To Andre, it’s like looking at a familiar cityscape from above. She can point out specific spots and tell stories about each of them.

“I know exactly where those places are,” she says. “I’ll remember crossing a creek there and having to cut down 10 trees so we could make a bridge to cross.” And that might be a 20-year-old memory.

Since 1993, Andre, a heritage researcher at the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI), has been working with research director Ingrid Kritsch to record and preserve Gwich’in place names in the First Nation’s settlement region.

The work actually began a few years earlier, when Kritsch was conducting archeological research for the Northern Oil and Gas Action Plan, which the federal government launched in the 80s to determine the location of sacred Gwich’in burial sites. Her research would inform the territorial government as it considered potential oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea area. The elders Kritsch interviewed asked her to broaden and continue the work, to preserve Gwich’in place names—and the information and stories those names capture—for future generations. That’s when Andre joined the team.

To date, they’ve interviewed more than 70 elders and documented more than 900 place names. Of those, the Northwest Territories and Yukon governments have recognized more than 500. The GSCI has produced 22 paper maps at a close enough scale that hunters can take them out on the land, as well as an online interactive atlas identifying place names, with recordings of elders pronouncing the names, and transcriptions of the stories behind them. Their work has contributed to the establishment of national and territorial historic sites, to history books published on the Gwich’in settlement area, and also to help inform companies looking to work on Gwich’in lands.

For Andre, it’s an intensely personal project. As a child, she recalls, “my parents would get visitors … and this old man always came to our house and was always telling moose hunting stories. That kind of stuck. [He and my dad would] be telling names of all these places. Because I went away to residential school, I really didn’t know any of the names. Through working with the GSCI, I have that same mental picture. So people can talk about any of these places and I know exactly where they mean now. I’m in the exact same place my father was decades ago.”

Andre and Kritsch started out capturing stories on tape recorders and storing data on floppy disks; they switched from old Macs in the early 90s to PCs and graduated to CD-ROMs. In recent years, they’ve begun working with the Nunaliit Atlas Framework, an online tool developed out of Carleton University that allows users to map data and incorporate multimedia elements such as videos, sound files, and photos.

They’ve also seen similar projects emerge as more community organizations turn to Nunaliit to document indigenous place names, environmental observations, and other forms of traditional knowledge. Some projects are even taking advantage of social media platforms like Facebook. The Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook page, for instance, encourages Alaska Native hunters to post photos and observations about the sea ice and walrus sightings as part of an environmental monitoring program. Yet as the digital options grow, the number of knowledge-holders—those who were born, travelled, hunted, and raised families on the land—shrinks. Community-based mapping projects are part of an urgent pan-Northern attempt to capture that knowledge, most of it previously recorded only in oral histories, before it is all forgotten.

The “All American route to the Yukon,” 1899. From the Cook Inlet Military Exploring Expedition of 1898.

Fraser Taylor started working with cybercartography (digital atlases) in the late 90s. He’d been doing work in rural Kenya as an education officer, and quickly realized that while locals weren’t educated in a Western sense, they had an intimate knowledge of their surroundings. To record their observations, he began overlaying maps with plastic sheets and inviting locals to mark up what they knew about each area. The floodgates opened. “Within three iterations you can’t see a damn thing,” he says.

Realizing this local knowledge was sorely lacking in contemporary cartography, he turned to computer programming as a way to let people map community observations in an accessible format. His work took him to Canada’s North, where he began collaborating with Inuit communities to map traditional knowledge. Nunaliit, the name of his cybercartography platform, means “community” in Inuktitut.

Taylor, now the director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University, has received awards for his work, which has been used around the world. Today, users can access digital atlases built on the Nunaliit platform and upload videos, sound files, and photos.

Despite their complexity, the maps are meant to take up little bandwidth—which, in the North, is crucial. “These days, everybody does everything through the cloud,” says Taylor. “For some people in small communities, the cloud is not very useful. So we try to put local servers in local communities to serve local needs.”

Researchers in the North have used the platform to document various types of sea ice, traditional Inuit travel routes, and interviews between Inuit youth and elders about the moments and stories captured in historical photographs. More and more communities are approaching Taylor to request their own projects: in the NWT, the Sahtu Dene, inspired by the Gwich’in place names atlas, are working on their own version. In Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, the Kitikmeot Heritage Society is working on a project to digitize the artifacts collected by Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen during an expedition across the Arctic in 1921-1924. The reports and artifacts are currently housed in Copenhagen, Denmark, but by presenting photos of them in an online atlas, descendants of the Inuit Rasmussen met can access a bit of their history.

The next stage, hopes Darren Keith, senior researcher at the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, would give locals the ability to make contributions to that map. “There’s the ability to have conversations around places or any entries in the atlas, so people in the communities could log on and add their own comments, or add a route, add a place, add a photo or video … and hopefully, our understanding will improve about the knowledge that’s discussed, or new knowledge can be generated.”

Sahtu Dene and Métis traditional trail network. From the 2005 Sahtu Dene and Métis trails mapping project by the Sahtu GIS Project, the Sahtu Land Use Planning Board, the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board, and the GNWT Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development.

With so many different online atlases being produced, all on the same Nunaliit platform, researchers are working to combine them. An atlas of Arctic sea ice could, for instance, be added to atlases that track the movement of wildlife, or historical atlases that show past ice thicknesses. This could help communities monitor the effects of climate change.

Yet despite the growing call for online, interactive atlases, paper maps are still a big draw. For Nunavut Day—that’s July 9—in 2015, the Inuit Heritage Trust mailed copies of a giant map of the territory, labelled with Inuktitut place names, to all Nunavut PO boxes. “It’s meant to be an evocative map,” explains Lynn Peplinski, the Trust’s traditional place names manager. Most official place names in the North commemorate European explorers or their benefactors—M’Clintock Channel, the Mackenzie River, Baffin Island. “[This map] is where you see the Inuit footprint.”

The Inuit Heritage Trust hasn’t eschewed digital maps entirely. With the organization’s digital database, Peplinski can use free Google mapping tools to visualize data the organization has collected. In advance of a Nunavut Wildlife Management Board meeting last September to discuss caribou hunting quotas, for instance, Peplinski gathered all the information she had on caribou-related place names in the Kivalliq region and built a digital map of it to post on Facebook.

Medium aside, producing maps alone isn’t enough: Peplinski wants to see more place names officially recognized by the Government of Nunavut. She speaks wistfully of Nunavik, the Inuit land claim in northern Quebec, where around 5,000 names were officially recognized within a three-year period in the 80s. But there were several toponymists—geographers who focus on place names—at work there. The Government of Nunavut has only recently hired a toponymist, who’ll have to review the roughly 3,700 place names the Inuit Heritage Trust has so far submitted for consideration.

“Making [Inuit place names] official just means that they’ll never be lost,” says Peplinski. “Right now, you’d have to know me to get [the IHT’s unofficial place names] map.” Software can change quickly, she points out, making data harder to access and work with. Servers can fail. The IHT building could burn down. It would be a great shame if decades of hard work and hundreds of place names were to disappear because the government was slow to adopt and preserve them.

Officially recognizing indigenous place names, says Peplinski, is part of ensuring governments recognize the North’s former and contemporary indigenous presence. For a country with a history of forcing Inuit to settle in communities, and relocating some groups to places in the High Arctic to establish Canadian sovereignty, that’s a substantial, if symbolic, step towards reclaiming indigenous sovereignty over the land.

Inuktitut place names. From a map of the region around Kimmirut, Nunavut, published by the Inuit Heritage Trust. The map series is available to download on the IHT website.

For decades, traditional knowledge has been seen as a footnote to Western scientific research. Yet the methodology for gathering and recording traditional knowledge is no less rigorous. Elders will only provide a place name if they’re absolutely sure. Only rarely do they provide conflicting names, and even then, the process of settling a disagreement over a place name is, as Peplinski puts it, “very respectful.”

“This is true in general for languages that don’t have a long written history: people really tend to know this stuff,” says Gary Holton, a linguist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “If they don’t know, they just don’t say it. They don’t make a claim. If they say, ‘This is the name,’ they tend to be correct and they tend to agree with each other. I think that’s more true in a language that has less of a literate history than say English, where I may not know something, but it doesn’t matter because I can go look it up.”

Together with Peter Pulsifer, a researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, Holton is heading up the ever-so-succinctly-named “Linking Maps, Manuscripts, and Place Names Data to Improve Environmental Knowledge in Alaska” project, which aims to gather archival information on Alaska Native place names and present it in one Nunaliit-built atlas. They are also exploring ways to overlay various digital maps, so that a place names atlas could be paired with, for instance, a sea ice atlas, to see what new insights might emerge.

Still, no multimedia, multisensory map could replace the rich context and wisdom that being on the land provides. For Alestine Andre, some of the best moments over the past 22 years have involved watching elders gather around maps mounted on walls to trace with their fingers the routes they remember. “They know the land like the back of their hand. They know every creek and side of the hill, what’s here, what’s there,” she says. “It would be good to do a brain scan on them, eh?”

*****

*****

Samia Madwar is a contributing editor at Up Here Magazine.

[Photo courtesy of Christopher Cotrell]

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