The Kitikmeot Place Name Atlas
Digitizing Inuit Knowledge and Experience of Landscape
WORDS DARREN KEITH AND BRENDAN GRIEBEL
PHOTOS BRENDAN GRIEBEL
The identity and heritage of Inuit is tightly interwoven with the expanse of Arctic land and sea once regularly travelled by their ancestors. As such, traditional Inuktitut place names remain invaluable sources of knowledge, from both their literal meanings—which often reference the resources, events and stories associated with geographical locations—and from their role as sources of cultural identity that continue to anchor generations of Inuit in place. A person’s knowledge of place names and the physical spaces they represent cements their relationship to the Nunavut territory.
In Recent Years
Recent decades have seen a sharp decline in local awareness and maintenance of place names in Nunavut. The expanse of territory that was once regularly travelled by Inuit is vast. Due to the changing social and economic realities of modern settlement life, many of these distant areas are no longer sought out for resources or traversed en route to other destinations. Modern land travel is often via noisy snow machines, in isolation from knowledgeable elders and the stories they tell about the surrounding environment.
While the Nunavut education system increasingly acknowledges the importance of bringing land-based knowledge and cultural values into the classroom, many feel that it does not compensate for an actual experience of place. As Cambridge Bay elder Tommy Kilaodluk once put it: “We must be on the land year-round to feel what it is like. If you are in class all day your vision is vague. The school system now is all right, but you cannot learn about the land.”
Finding a Solution
Recognizing both the need and challenge of maintaining Inuit awareness of place names in a modern world, the Kitikmeot Heritage Society (KHS) has been working to map and document the Kitikmeot region’s traditional place names and preserve them through digital means. In partnership with the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (GCRC) at Carleton University, they have developed an innovative web-based application to ensure that this place name knowledge remains available to Inuit. The resulting digital database, known as the Kitikmeot Place Name Atlas, provides an opportunity for Inuit to virtually visit their historical territory and to access oral traditions related to distant named sites.
The KHS is an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the history, culture, and language of Inuinnait. To meet this mandate, they run a variety of workshop-based programs designed to bring local elders and youth together on the land to teach and learn traditional stories and activities associated with a given area. In the year 2000, the KHS began systematically collecting Inuktitut place names through such workshops, as well as at elders meetings designed to review and identify Inuktitut place names on topographic maps. As these mapping initiatives became more widely known, individuals from adjacent communities expressed interest, and the recording of traditional place names extended to other communities in the Kitikmeot region. By 2005, the project had sufficient momentum as to require the use of a more comprehensive digital database to manage the large amount of information.
Challenges of the Project
The challenges of translating long-standing Inuit traditions of toponymy into digital format are multitude. One of the primary issues has been language. When the KHS first approached the GCRC in 2006, it was with a concern that the oral tradition of place names might become “corrupted” by their transfer to a text-centric database. Inuit culture is traditionally one of spoken words and stories; its ideas are sometimes altered by translation into script.
While Inuktitut writing systems have existed since the mid-eighteenth century, the various dialects and orthographies
continue to evolve across the Inuktitut speaking territories. Recognizing that the oral pronunciation of place names by fluent Inuktitut speakers are the most authoritative and enduring form for their communication, the Place Name Atlas provides Atlas users with sound recordings of place name pronunciations whenever the locations are selected or engaged.
The second significant challenge to digitizing place names has been capturing the cultural meaning which surrounds a location. The wealth of knowledge associated with a place name can be found in the name’s literal reference (such as the lake name Iqaluktuuttiaq, or ‘place of good fishing’) but also in stories and songs that are attributed to that location. While this information can be communicated in the form of text retrieved from interview transcripts, it loses many of the subtleties inherent to oral performance. The Atlas provides users with access to video of these oral performances, allowing them to visually engage with meaningful details such as facial expressions and gestures.
Can an online geographic application like the Place Name Atlas realistically play a role in maintaining traditional Inuit geographical knowledge? This is a question that has ultimately guided both the design and development of the Atlas. A distinct strength of the Atlas lies in its potential to be constantly updated and improved. The Atlas allows for user submissions to its database, encouraging local elders and land users to upload and share their knowledge about the land.
The Place Name Atlas
The database currently contains over 1,400 named places, many of which have associated stories and historical details. A recent addition to the Atlas enables it to integrate photosphere images taken at named sites, allowing Atlas users an immersive 360-degree perspective of the landscape that surrounds the place of interest. The KHS is currently working on the creation of virtual ‘walk-throughs’ to enhance the remote experience of navigating a site, and aspires to create GPS applications to provide actual land travellers with the names and knowledge surrounding their physical location.
While the KHS recognizes that the Place Name Atlas will never replace the firsthand experience of visiting traditional places, they see the Atlas as a valuable tool for recording and documenting place name knowledge for future generations in a manner that remains true to Inuit understandings of how and why their landscape is important. As they continue to expand the user interface of the Atlas, they hope that it serves as a catalyst for bringing more young Inuit back to the land that remains such an integral part of their cultural identity.
The Kitikmeot Place Name Atlas can be accessed on the Kitikmeot Heritage Society’s website (kitikmeotheritage.ca) or at (atlas.kitikmeot.ca).