Franklin find proves 'Inuit oral history is strong:' Louie Kamookak

Some in Nunavut are welcoming the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships off King William Island as proof of the reliability of Inuit oral history, and a potential boost for tourism.

Inuit saw 2 ships near King William Island; 1 was crushed in ice, 1 drifted further south

A sea floor scan reveals one of the missing ships from the Franklin Expedition in an image released in Ottawa on Tuesday September 9, 2014. (Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

Some in Nunavut are welcoming the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships off King William Island as proof of the reliability of Inuit oral history, and a potential boost for tourism.

Louie Kamookak, a historian in Gjoa Haven, the community closest to the discovery, has spent more than 30 years interviewing elders to collect the stories passed down about the Franklin expedition. 

He sat down with Parks Canada in 2008 before the current search began and provided them with information as to where the ships would likely be found.

"It's proving the Inuit oral history is very strong," he said.

Gjoa Haven historian Louie Kamookak (Louie Kamookak/Facebook)

The two ships of the Franklin expedition — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — and their crews disappeared during an ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage in 1846.

Inuit oral tradition said the two ships appeared on the northwest side of King William Island, said Kamookak. One was crushed in ice and the other drifted further south.

It was afloat for two winters before it sank. Elders said there may have been people living on it during the first winter, but there were no signs of people during the second winter. 

"For us Inuit it means that oral history is very strong in knowledge, not only for searching for Franklin's ships but also for environment and other issues," Kamookak said.

Archeologist Dr. Doug Stenton, director of heritage for the Government of Nunavut, was aboard the vessel that made the discovery on Sunday. He says the team may not have found the ship 11 metres underwater without Inuit knowledge.

"It's very satisfying to see that testimony of Inuit who shared their knowledge of what happened to the wreck has been validated quite clearly," he said.

Author David Woodman agrees. His book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery drew on more than a century of Inuit oral testimony.

"The Inuit are validated more than anything else," he said. "All that really happened was it took 200 years for our technology to get good enough to tell us that Inuit were telling us the truth."

Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna says the search was worth the money spent by the federal government, as it is also providing details of the longest and least-explored coastline in Canada, and may help put Nunavut on the map in other ways with a possible boom in tourism

"It will be great for tourism, especially in that area," he said. "A lot of books have been written, a lot of history. I'm sure once there's further exploration of the wreck, there will be a lot more exciting things coming out."

Norse artifacts on Baffin Island more important

Not everyone in Nunavut is equally thrilled with the find.

"A lot of people would've been happy if these ships were never found and I think I fall into that camp," says Kenn Harper, a well known northern historian and author. "I think some mysteries are better off unsolved."

Harper says tourism is unlikely to benefit, because of the expense of traveling to the Central Arctic. He guesses they won't find any bodies on the ship, and says the "Holy Grail" — Franklin's grave — will likely never be found.

"As far as I'm concerned, a greater and much older archeological mystery is the presence of the ancient Norse from Greenland in Nunavut many, many, many centuries before the Franklin ship disappearance.

"For my money, of special interest is the groundbreaking work of Dr. Patricia Sutherland on the Norse sites near Kimmirut, but the government in power has chosen to discredit her — fire her, indeed — and ensure that that research doesn't go ahead.

"I think that's far more important than two decaying ships in the water."