A new exhibit in Iqaluit sheds light on the role Inuit oral history played in the search for Sir John Franklin's lost ships — and the relevance of traditional knowledge in everyday life in the territory.

The exhibit, "Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) and Franklin," opened last night at Iqaluit's Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum. The exhibit features replicas of items found on board the Franklin's HMS Erebus after its discovery in 2014, including the ship's bell and a dinner plate.

However, much of the exhibit is dedicated to Inuit oral history and place names, which "tell a story," says Louie Kamookak, an Inuit historian from Gjoa Haven who served as the keynote speaker for Thursday's opening

"There's a story behind every Inuit place name. There's not one single place name that is named after a person. The Europeans came, and start naming places after people. Like King William Island. That's the difference. Inuit place names is one way of passing down history to the next generation," he said.

"There's some place names that are related to legends," said Kamookak, adding that other names signify things that happened in that place.

Kamookak was instrumental in the discovery of the HMS Erebus, collecting an oral history of the Franklin Expedition over 30 years which eventually helped lead explorers to the long-lost ship. 

Kamookak collected an oral history of the expedition by listening to stories passed down from one generation to the next. By comparing those stories to the journals of other expeditions, he was able to come up with a theory of the ship's location.

Franklin exhibit replica plate

A replica plate from the HMS Erebus is one of the artifacts on display at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit. (Mike Salomonie/CBC)

"I listened to those stories as absolute truth," he said. "I had no reason to question them, but [instead]

to understand them. As soon as I was able, I began recording."

"Louie is really the heart of the story," said museum society vice-chair Cathy McGregor, who helped organize the exhibit. "His work over 30 years, to gather the stories, to get the information and bring it together. We're very excited to have Louie here."

McGregor said that before the opening, Kamookak visited schools in Iqaluit, explaining the importance of Inuit oral history and place names to eager students.

"Oral history, Inuit place names, and Inuit ability to survive in the Arctic... isn't just important in the past," she said. "It's also important for today."

The exhibit will be displayed at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum until March 4.

with files from Mike Salomonie