Nfld. & Labrador·LOOKING NORTH

Arctic explorers, Indigenous knowledge

In the third and final podcast of the series with CBC's Ted Blades examining aspects of the Arctic, an author discusses the relationship, and attitudes, between explorers and Inuit.

Author delves into the expeditions and Inuit interactions of Newfoundland and Labrador's Capt. Bob Bartlett

Capt. Bob Bartlett's family had a fishing station close to Makkovik and he was familiar with the Inuit, according to one author/researcher. (Ice Man: Captain Bob Bartlett)

Arctic explorers, such as Newfoundland and Labrador's Captain Bob Bartlett, had different attitudes as they interacted with the Inuit during their ventures into frigid, unknown territory a century ago.

Bartlett believed he could learn from Indigenous people — which was self-benefiting since it ultimately helped his attempts to reach the North Pole in the early 1900s, according to Maura Hanrahan, the board of governors research chair in Indigenous Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

She is also the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett which will be published next spring.

"I think he would have been introduced to their knowledge as a child," she told CBC's Ted Blades, host of On the Go

Hanrahan said Bartlett's family had a fishing station close to Makkovik, in Labrador, and he would have gone there in the summers with his father. 

"They were familiar with the Inuit, the Inuit would not have been exotic — to use the language of the time — to them as they would have been to other people," she said. 

Maura Hanrahan talks about Capt. Bob Bartlett and American explorer Robert Peary and their encounters with Indigenous people. (Lee Pike-Hollett)

American explorer Robert Peary was another North Pole adventurer who felt the same way as Bartlett, as the duo made several trips together. 

"He was extremely pragmatic ... so he adopted those pieces of Inuit technology and used the knowledge that would help advance his cause to get to the Pole," Hanrahan said, describing how Peary modified a sled that was commonly used by the Inuit in order to make it faster.

She said that contrasts sharply with others who believed they could learn nothing from the Inuit because they were inferior.

Relationships not always rosy

Traditional knowledge and skills were sought out on the Karluk where Hanrahan said six Inuit accompanied Bartlett on the doomed voyage, said Hanrahan. 

But certain attitudes by others persisted then and — many would argue — still do today.

Members of the expedition led by US naval commander Robert Peary, at the North Pole; (from left, Oogueah, Ootah, Henson, Equinquah and Seegloo). Peary made 8 Arctic expeditions in total. (Robert Peary/Hulton Archive/Getty)

"Differences of race would have been seen through this kind of lens. They would have believed as white people that they were a higher race. You had Canadian judges at the time writing about Indigengous people as 'lower races' and of course people wouldn't question that," she said.

"It was just normal, it was characteristic of the society."

Listen to the full Looking North: Arctic explorers, Indigenous knowledge podcast here.

For more On the Go podcasts, click here. 

With files from On the Go