Entrevue avec Louie Kamookak (en anglais)

                Louie Kamookak

Louie Kamookak, a senior hunter of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, participated in a series of expeditions in search of evidence of Franklin in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and is considered to have been more involved in the search than any other individual.

Ken Beardsall - Interview with Louie Kamookak relating to his knowledge and interpretations of the missing last expedition of Sir John Franklin

1) When and how did you first hear of the missing last expedition of Sir John Franklin?

The first ten years of my life we lived out on the land, we didn’t live in the community. When I turned nine that’s when we moved into the community. Before that, from the age of 6 to 9 I spent most of my time with my grandparents and my great-grandparents. There was my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents.

My great grandparents would tell stories…She would tell stories…I have a picture of my great grandmother; if you guys want to pass it around…it’s the beautiful lady in the red. Her name was Uman, and the story was that she was very young, maybe about six or seven. They were travelling. The story was that they were on King William Island, they were travelling to the north part of the island to cut some wood and when they got kind of close to the shore there, it was in this area, they came across a ridge. Because when you go up here it’s all gravel and gravel ridge, so this area has fine rocks. They came to one and they started finding some artifacts: they didn’t know what they were. They were picking up brown things, dark things…then she noticed they were from a musket, a rifle. And there were spoons and forks: they didn’t know what they were. His father had taken ….they didn’t want to grab too much because they were afraid because also in that area there was a mount and there was a stone with what she thought were strange markings on there, at the end of the mount. Because it was the length of a human and that’s why they were afraid of him, they didn’t go near. Going back to her time, they didn’t bury their dead, nobody got buried. They wrapped them in skins and they put them on a hill, or if there were out on the ice, they’d put them on an ice ridge and leave them there. And that’s how she got buried when she died when I was nine years old. We were still on land when she died so they wrapped her in skins and put her on a little hill and this is where she wanted to be, before she died. And that’s the way they buried them. Only, when the missionaries came everybody started getting buried, that was in the early forties. Before that, nobody got buried. Today we have young people who go out on the land and some people from the south, they find a skull or a human skeleton, and they get all excited: “oh my God, it’s Franklin!” They have to know that our people didn’t get buried, way after Franklin was here, only after the forties did they start getting buried.

So they went there and collected a few items there. They went first to the shore to look for some drift wood, and on the shore they started finding some more artifacts and they saw this big rope or a big chain going to the ocean, in Erebus Bay, in the corner of this bay. She said there was a big chain going to the ocean and they had a word for the chain, they call it […], like this, two fingers attaching, and it was going right into the ocean. From there, the story….I heard the story when I was maybe about six, seven, eight, nine, and it always stayed in my head. I used to say “one day, I’m going to go see that spot”. And then I went to school, in school another was telling us when I was about twelve or thirteen, one my teacher starts telling me about the Franklin men dying off on the island, not far from King William Island and that’s when it clicked: that was the story my great-grandmother told me.

After that, in school I got very interesting in readings. I was trying to read, but when I got out of school I was still interested and I started going to the areas, on snow machine or ATV, just going to the sites that…even where the people that went searching later went to. Because there’s a lot of people who came down Hay’s River, at least Schwatka came through Hay’s River, and there was a story where he met some people in the mouth of Hay’s River. The Inuit side of the story, the *** guide interview, it was his grandfather that had met Schwatka and they had left, a little further, they had left a cylinder, a message. Because they had a translator from the Churchill area, and he was instructed, you know, do not open it, if we don’t come back and they come looking for us, you give it to them. So it was a message that if Schwatka didn’t make it back he wanted them to know how far he went, that he continued.

So his grandfather and his grandmother had to hold on to this message, just in case Schwatka didn’t go back, and they were going to give it to the other guy that came looking for him. They told him not to open it, it was something to speak, ******. That was his interpretation of what they said was that if he opened it, it would speak. The old man tried to open it but his wife would tell him, you know, “you’re not supposed to open it”. But I guess he tackled with it, because when Schwatka came back, he gave everything to…he gave gifts to everybody, except the old man. Because he had tampered with that, with the message. So that’s the story about Schwatka.

There’s another story where, more up around that island where during the summer people came down by canoe, the white men came down by canoe and they were very aggressive. They came to the tents and, back then they didn’t have much wood, so they started to pull out their cutting knives and try to take out the wood from the tent poles. And they were peeking into the tents to see if they got anything that’s related to Franklin. They were really aggressive. That was Anderson’s crew that went down at the time.

But today I want to talk about my theory on where Franklin’s body is. That’s what I’ve been working on for a long time, before I started working with Parks Canada on looking for the ships. That’s another long story, but we won’t be getting into that. But today I’ll do a story on my theory…on Franklin

(distribution of oral history interview excerpts, discussion of these excerpts, playing of oral history interviews in Inuktitut)

The John Ross story was known by a lot of elders, it happened many years ahead of Franklin and George Back who went down in 1922, almost twenty years ahead of time…the story was very strong. When you get to Franklin’s story, it’s a lot weaker, it’s bits and pieces. A lot of times, an elder will be talking about John Ross and then will go into the Franklin men, when they start dying off and starving…a lot of people died here and there. John Ross went into the Boothia when he left two ships, he only lost one man. So there’s a little bit of interaction with the different explorers because the story was passed down in oral history.

I was going to go back to the maps… the maps are…the place names are also one way of passing down history. Here there’s a place called Umiaqtalik, that was where a lot of people from the south thought that’s where the ship sank. But Umiaqtalik was where one of the ships was still afloat and a lot of people visit. Lots of stories about elders telling stories about a ship or about Inuit missing. So Umiaqtalik is one, then there’s Starvation Cove, Richardson Point. Starvation Cove is where they found over 40 skeletons of Franklin’s men, and the Inuit also said there’s a white man grave at Richardson Point, so there’s a place called Iluviit, it’s called “graves”…There’s some places that are named related to Europeans. Lots of place names are based on the landscape, good fishing spots. Even the straits, like this one is *****, Simpson Strait, it’s got an ancient name, King William Island is *****. They all have ancient names, like the areas, even the waters, the rivers…they got Inuktitut name. But in Inuktitut, not one name is named after a person. It’s all….Europeans came and named all the places. Cape John Franklin, Cape James, Cape Phillips…it’s all related to a person. But the Inuit never name a place after a person. So that’s something very cultural.

So I’m going to go to the theory, the theory I have with Franklin. When my grandmother told me the story, when I started searching for the last twenty plus years, my idea was to find Franklin’s grave. Because he died on June 11, 1847, not too far from Cape Felix, maybe just out here. The ship was stuck up here, the ship was moored to the west, and the Inuit sight story, the Inuit stories say that they did visit the ship when Franklin was alive. Maybe two stories have actual…the people from the mentioned area, which is in this area, going up and they met with the ship and they said the leader of the ship was friendly and they could kind of communicate with him, they gave the Inuit some gifts, and they didn’t know what some stuff was, I think someone gave them some tea and they just threw it on the ground.

And then there was another story about the burial. Franklin died and…they didn’t know who died. They didn’t know about Franklin. The Inuit were in a distance and the story is that the great leader of the ship, the white man, died and they put him into the ground and the spot turned to stone. Because they refer to him as a shaman. The shamans were always leaders of the Inuit so the leaders of the white men were also seen as the shamans. They said the burial… there was big bangs, like gun shots, and the man was buried, the white men left, they were right there because they stayed away, they were afraid. The white men left, so they went to go see and it was turned to stone. So that’s the story about the burial.

I believe that he was buried somewhere… My theory was, you know, he was buried out there. Or he was buried…there was another story about a man and his uncle, he came across a big structure of wood, big really high wood. And there was a cross piece on the wood, on the big wood, so they managed to take down that smaller piece and they turned it into a sled. They couldn’t take the bigger piece that was stuck into the ground, so they didn’t get it, but another group of Inuit came and they took the remaining stick that was standing, they had a really hard time taking it out. But they got it off. And used it for wood and used it for sleds and that was it. At the time when the uncle and his nephew got the cross-piece, they said there was stones, and one of the stone had been lifted, was lifting. And they could see that it was dark and hollow inside, and that where I got the theory that Franklin was buried, he was put in a vault. He died….because when he died in June, there probably was ice and probably wasn’t a whole lot of water . A lot of people had a theory that he died and had a sailor burial into the ocean but I don’t believe that happened because, you know, it would be….when they go back to England, and they say “Where’s Franklin?” , “Oh, he died and we dumped him in the ocean”. They could be considered as, what do you call it, a mutiny. I don’t think he was buried, he was put in a vault and then…

So I started searching for Franklin, where he might be buried in a vault. But in 1980 I had a map, it was at a hunter and trapper’s office where I was a chairperson. I was sitting in my office and an old elder came around. I was looking at the map and then he said he’d seen some muskox in that area, down in this area, and he thought he saw muskox or caribou on the shores. So he stopped to grab his binocular, exactly where he stopped he said he saw big copper rocks, sticking out of the ground, bended. When he said that, I said, because he told me the area, I said “There was some big flat stones there?” And he goes, “yes, there was, You seen it?” And I said “No, only up here.” So I believe Franklin died, he was buried and…or he was put in a vault, so I’ve been looking up there for any ideal…because I know he wasn’t buried on Cape Felix, I know one of the ships, the ship that he died on probably moved further to the west at the time. Maybe there were plans to take his remains back to England. But they were stuck out there so I think the theory is…my theory is that they brought him ashore and put him in a vault. They had the man power, they had 129 men. But they didn’t reach the island so they brought all the rocks to the shore. They had no problem of moving the flat stones up to the area where the vault would be. I was looking in this area, because this is an ideal landing spot. One winter, I’ve not been there in the summer, but one winter I drove my skidoo and I went into this little bay, the only possible shelter that would be.

2) What happened to Franklin's party?

That was just a little bit of, you know, you see just a little piece of ice that they had to go through in order to get through the Northwest Passage. It was so small. It was not until 1906, Amundsen came to go through the Northwest Passage and they went down this way but I believe Franklin’s men already knew, it’s just that they didn’t realize it was the Northwest Passage. So that’s what I think happened, they…Franklin died, he was the most experienced, you know…at what he was doing, he died, and that’s a big loss, 50 percent of the loss. The record that was found, nine officers are dead, 20 others…you know, 9 officers, that’s a lot of officers that had died already, they made them leave them on the field. The officers were older, they tend to die more early than the young people back then. John Franklin was 61, I think, and that was very old for the time. The one who came closer was 54, that’s also old. A lot of people think that he might be one of the last people to live but…

The sickness, I think the sickness was there because of the ovens, or the stoves. They were trying to get rid of skin disease or other sickness, they were already very sick. The sickness was spreading to them. When they started their walk down, just not too far, there’s some graves, all the graves are in here. One of the life boats was found here, turned back. There’s an old Inuit story about forty men seen going down to what is Washington Bay. They met some Inuit, one family. The family…when you see forty white men, you’re going to retreat to save your family. So, there was not a lot of people, the population was pretty low in this area at the time. Even when Rasmussen came through in 1945 the population was very low. The biggest population was at Bathurst.

3) Why did they fail?

Yes, the leaders…The qualified, most experienced people were dead, that left the younger people…they break into groups as per the findings: the life boat, the forty men with another life boat, one of the lifeboat got as far as Starvation Cove. And there’s another story that I include…I think it’s *****, where he talked about a lifeboat in Simpson Strait, that’s this bay.

There’s stories about when Charles Francis Hall came, there’s stories about the Inuit going…and even Judas was talking about it, they make a hole on the ship. You know the ship is oak wood, it’s very hard wood. A hole big enough for a man to walk in with a rock: I don’t think they would have made a hole that big on a hull. So it might be a mixing of stories.

There’s a story about…this might be more ideal… that the Inuit to make a hole in the bottom of the lifeboat so they could get at the metal, the pieces of metal and wood. The elder would say, like, they could have had a nice boat, but they made a hole.

4) Where are the ships?

We’d be looking at this in some theories…on O’Reilly. There’s stories about the other one being crushed and there’s also other stories…there’s another place called Umiaqtalik, near King’s Island…down Montreal Island and right across there’s a place called King’s Island. And there’s some stories even recently, maybe twenty years, ten years, of a boat-shaped sighting under the ocean that was travelling down. Another elder I interviewed, in a place called Umiaqtalik, just on the shore: he said he was caribou hunting way above the tide line, the water line area…he thought he saw a big long mast and he’s 100 percent that it’s a mast. I had thought of going looking for it but I haven’t gone. So it’s possible it’s up here, it’s possible it’s here, it’s possible down here. There’s also a lot of other ships that were lost up there. The people that were searching and maybe the Vikings were there already.

5) How do you know?

The oral history I collected way before I had read most of the journals or most of the books that came out from the explorers. I did all the oral history and then later on over the years I tried to match what people were saying with the stories from the explorers.

6) Why do you care?

When I first started searching for Franklin I think…You know, I always say that if I find Franklin’s body, then he should go back to England, to rest besides his wife. That’s what his wife wished, for him to be there. And I think he should rest there. And the vault would be a tourist benefit for the community or for students to go see.

7) What is the significance of Franklin's last expedition?

I think it was important. On his first…on his second expedition, when they were down the Mackenzie River, he met a group of Inuit, a very aggressive bunch, they were over 300. They almost robbed them as he watched. He was ready to shoot but if he had shot he would be dead, all his men would have been killed because they outnumbered them. At that time, when he negotiated when they tried to take his stuff, he said: “In the future, boats will come, with a lot of stuff to trade with you.” So I’m pretty sure if he had made it, he would have brought them some gifts. And I think it would have been important for those people, you know, that he kept his promise. And the other thing is, you know, that the Northwest Passage which he was trying to do, which hasn’t happened today yet but maybe in the future.

Sunken ship