As you may know, June is National Aboriginal History Month and as usual MIA is preparing a slew of activities for visitors. This year, we’ve primarily focused on exploring the often-undiscussed tensions created by colonialism that manifest themselves in the art on display here. A special self-guided tour is available throughout June focusing on four specific pieces, and I will be lecturing on National Aboriginal Day (June 21) about this in more detail.
These discussions have seemed more and more urgent at the museum lately. Within the last month, our summer students and docent trainees have been learning about the power dynamics underpinning much of contemporary Inuit art. Meanwhile, the Makivik Corp and NFB have launched a new website tracing the histories of the two most famous forced relocations of Inuit. The story was also further explored recently on the CBC.
So, it was with interest that I opened a new informational poster produced by the Government of Canada and promoted as part of National Aboriginal History Month educational offerings dedicated to “Canadian Arctic Expedition: 1913-1918” this morning. The poster is a small portion of the text of their expanded webpage about the expedition on the Northern Strategy website.
The text emphasizes the contributions of non-Inuit explorers who visited the Arctic over a five year period in two primary fields: scientific discovery and establishing sovereignty for Canada. As a result, the language downplays or ignores important traditional knowledge of local Inuit. For example, the poster explains:
The Expedition discovered five major Arctic islands as well as a number of smaller ones, established the outer edge of the Continental shelf and mapped Arctic coastlines.
I’m quite certain local Inuit were aware of these islands prior to their “discovery” in the twentieth century. Further, the poster insists on the importance of the expedition for establishing Canadian sovereignty and “control” repeatedly, while painting Inuit as helpers at best and props at worst. None of the Inuit pictured are named, though all southern explorers are, and their involvement is described tellingly:
The Canadian Arctic Expedition had a significant impact on the knowledge and understanding of Northern people, particularly the lesser known Copper Inuit. Diamond Jenness’ extensive anthropological studies and collection of artifacts provided great insight into the daily life and culture of Inuit. A large number of Inuit men and women made invaluable contributions to the Canadian Arctic Expedition, acting as guides, seamstresses and cooks, as well as assisting with a number of physical tasks around camp. The relationships established and the knowledge exchanged during the Expedition had lasting impacts on the North and provided a basis for future relations between the Canadian government and Northern peoples.
It seems significant that the anthropologist Diamond Jenness’ studies are noted specifically as expanding southern knowledge of Inuit culture, while the Inuit themselves are relegated to background players. They assist with menial tasks around camp or guide the explorers (presumably to the places they “discovered”) but these “invaluable contributions” serve only to assist with the “real” discoveries made by the explorers and scientists.
National Aboriginal History Month seems like an appropriate time to examine the way we talk about the relationship Canada has with Aboriginal peoples, and this is as good a place to start as any. Thinking critically about historical events is important, especially when their consequences continue to be felt today. If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities around Inuit art specifically, I invite you to come visit the museum this month and explore more. There’s quite a lot to talk about.
– Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Curator