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Gjoa Haven historian and educator ‘left indelible mark’

Gjoa Haven historian Louie Kamookak, 58, who led a world-wide audience to witness the value and impact of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, succumbed to illness March 22. 

photo courtesy Louie Kamookak
Louie Kamookak poses next to a cairn in the summer of 1998. The cairn was built by British Royal Navy Lieutenant William Hobson, one of many who searched for Sir John Franklin's lost expedition, between 1852 and 1854 at Cape Jane Franklin point.

"I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Louie Kamookak. Louie has left an indelible mark in our nation's history through his work on collecting and preserving Inuit oral history and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, and through the contributions he made to the discovery of Franklin’s lost ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror," said Premier Paul Quassa.
"On behalf of all Nunavummiut, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to Louie's family and loved ones."

A member of the Order of Nunavut and the Order of Canada, Kamookak received much recognition, and many accolades, such as the Governor General's Polar Medal, Royal Canadian Geographical Society's Erebus Medal, and the Lawrence J. Burpee Medal for his contribution to making Canada better known on the international stage.

His path as a historian began in his childhood. Living in a tent with his great-grandparents, he grew up listening to his great-grandmother's stories.

"I was very young, maybe about nine, I used to be out in the camp with her. I'd give them a hand, because they were pretty old now, and each night she would tell stories. There was one story that she told of what they saw on the north part of King William Island," Kamookak told Nunavut News in early 2015.

That story dated back to when his great-grandmother was herself a young child.

However, the defining moment for the self-made historian – who would play an integral role in the discovery of Sir John Franklin's lost ship – was when he attended school at the age of 12 and heard the Franklin story.

"My mind clicked back to my great-grandmother's stories of what they saw down there. I started getting the picture that these two stories were matching," said Kamookak.

For decades he avidly read the written works of Arctic explorers and collected stories from elders by recording, writing and, sometimes, simply listening, merging the information. He started travelling specifically to locations explorers might have visited, based on what information he had available at the time.

photo courtesy Eleanor Cipriano
Gjoa Haven historian Louie Kamookak visits Quqshuun Ilihakvik intermediate students to share his knowledge in April 2016. The students, in no particular order, are: Zachary Pugignak, Keagan Qitsualik, Eva Kaloon, Alia Aglukkak, EJ Porter, Melaina Qingnaqtuq, Kadence Kikoak and Keira Qitsualik.

Kamookak was also an educator at Qiqirtaq Ilihakvik in Gjoa Haven, and after the excitement of the Erebus find settled, he shared his stories with students in the schools. He was a firm believer in taking the learning experience outside the classroom.

The Malirualik Expedition in 2015, sponsored by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, allowed him to do that.

"I actually always had the idea to get some students out on the land and learn about the place names. Our students don't go out. When we were younger we used to go out with our parents camping and our parents and grandparents would tell us history about what happened out there," said Kamookak.

Along the way, the expedition stopped at Todd Island, Peddle Point and Douglas Bay, where other historic happenings took place. For example, on Todd Island there is unmarked grave of what Inuit elders have said is a Franklin crew member. Kamookak said some of the skeleton is exposed, untouched.

He said the experience was far more engaging for young Inuit than looking at a map on a wall in a classroom.

photo courtesy Louie Kamookak
Gjoa Haven historian and educator Louie Kamookak, second from right, is seen leading four Gjoa Haven students, along with his wife Josephine Kamookak and elder Jimmy Qirqqut on the Malirualik Expedition Sept. 5 to 9, 2015. Participants, from left: Josephine Kamookak, Shaunya Ullulaq, James Takkiruq, Jade Rose Kamookak, Michael Eleehetook, Louie Kamookak and elder Jimmy Qirqqut. Robbie Eleehetook drove the boat.

Kamookak's dedication to his life's work continued by serving on the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, a committee devised to handle all matters to do with the Erebus and Franklin sites. One such matter was the ownership of artifacts.

He believed such a battle over ownership was disrespectful.

"I had no thought that it was us Inuit who found it (the wreck). We may feel it was our part, our contribution, our knowledge, that helped play a part of the find. All the groups and individuals that put their time on the project feel they were part of the find, and we all are, now," Kamookak told Nunavut News in 2016.

"After the big catch, problems arise … political claim and fight of ownership between find groups and people that never ever had interest on the history of what ever happened to the ships. It's now a pie on the table and everyone wants a slice of pie. Some want a bigger slice. This is not the Inuit way. This is not being respectful to the men that tried so hard to survive their journey to get home, to their family and home."

Co-chair of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee Fred Pederson notes Kamookak's wisdom.

"Louie’s involvement in the discussions of the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee were always engaging. He spent much of his life recording Inuit oral history on the Franklin expedition and personally searching for the remains of Franklin himself. His wisdom will definitely be missed. Condolences to his family. May he rest in peace."