Carleton Researcher Fraser Taylor Releases Interactive Online Arctic Atlas

Killam Award-winner, Fraser Taylor is shining a new light on the Inuit presence in the Canadian Arctic using an innovative mapping technology

This new online, interactive atlas, constructed from historical records, accounts, maps, trails and place names and visualized using innovative mapping technology, provides a unique window into the spatial extent and connectedness of Inuit occupancy, illustrating their historic sovereignty over a large area of Arctic land, sea and ice.

The Pan Arctic Inuit Trails Atlas was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and co-directed by Taylor, Claudio Aporta at Dalhousie University and Michael Bravo from the University of Cambridge. Amos Hayes, technical manager at the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (GCRC) at Carleton, managed the Nunaliit design and development for the team.

“The atlas is the latest example of the application of the innovative Nunaliit Cybercartographic Atlas Framework which is under continuing development by the team at the Geomatic and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University,” said Taylor. “The atlas illustrates in a compelling and interesting way the connectivity of Inuit peoples and their travel patterns over wide swaths of the Arctic which have been in existence for generations.”

This atlas is an exploration of how the Inuit have used the waters, and adjacent lands of the Northwest Passage. Historical material is not only relationally linked, but also referenced visually on a map. The documents that form its foundation consist of both published and unpublished accounts of encounters with Inuit by explorers, ethnographers and other visitors seeking geographical knowledge and assistance from Inuitin the 19th and 20th centuries. Because the maps were the product of encounters between Inuit and outsiders, the material represents not only Inuit occupancy patterns but also indirect patterns of non-Inuit exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

“The atlas connects accounts of Inuit travel on the land, sea and sea ice,” said Hayes. “Using the Nunaliit software developed by the GCRC at Carleton, researchers are able to digitize places and trails, upload scans of maps and metadata from historical documents, and interconnect them to present an evolving pictures of Inuit identity in the Arctic. This atlas joins several other atlases built over several years in collaboration with local experts. The open source development of Nunaliit permits all of our projects to contribute to its development and share in its evolution.”

“Most of the Inuit trails and place names recorded by explorers and other Arctic visitors are still used by Inuit today,” said Aporta. “Inuit have passed this knowledge from generation to generation for hundreds of years, indicating intensive and extensive use of land and marine areas across the North American Arctic. This atlas can be explored as evidence of such rich Inuit history in the Canadian Arctic, supplementing that offered by other sources such as archaeology and oral history. This atlas can be seen as a first step on a project that should also include Northern Quebec, Labrador, Alaska and Greenland.”

An intricate system of trails has long connected Inuit groups with resources and other Inuit. Routes are seasonal, ranging from open water boat routes and walking trails to sled trails. They are also seasonal in that they take people to places where animals can be found at certain times of the year. Inuit trails, like the ones depicted in the atlas, link Inuit groups with their neighbours, establishing connections that span the Arctic, from Greenland to Alaska. Understanding these routes is essential to appreciating Inuit history and occupancy of the Arctic.

“The new Pan Arctic Inuit Trails Atlas site and its electronic maps constitute an impressive piece of work and great scholarship,” said Igor Krupnik, curator of Arctic and Northern Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. “It will be of great value to everyone living and working in this portion of the Arctic. The Inuit presence has been overwhelmingly documented across these areas, including traditional place names, trade routes, meeting and trade fair sites. Now and for the first time ever, it can be matched against polar explorers, geographic knowledge and movements. As impressive as it is, the latter pales when compared to the Inuit knowledge of their Arctic homeland.”

The Canadian Arctic is gaining increasing importance in political debates due to economic prospects made available by climate change. This has made establishing Inuit historical presence in the Arctic essential. Inuit trails, in particular, reflect occupancy patterns over marine areas, along and across very significant parts of the Northwest Passage. Historical written sources like those found in the atlas are particularly well suited to be integrated in the debate, as they often reflect occupancy patterns of Inuit that were well-established and long used at the time of contact.

The atlas is a database where the material has been digitized and organized geo-spatially. The material can be accessed through clicking on features of the online interactive map, or through searching the database for keywords. Trails are represented as lines and place names as circles. All documents are available to the public through publications, libraries and archives.

Place names and trails are integral parts of Inuit culture and heritage, part of a traditional geographic knowledge repository that has been transmitted from generation to generation through oral means and, more recently, through maps in Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic.

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