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Audacious mapping project to tell Nunavut’s story through its place names

Mapping expert Chris Kalluk hikes above Iqaluit with a Google camera strapped to his back.


There is an inlet on Baffin Island's Cumberland Sound where the Inuit are said to have devised an ingenious method for hunting the beluga whale. They would watch the creatures come through the entrance, then hurl down boulders to block their escape and simply wait for the tide to go out.

The technique was so effective that the spot became known as Millurialik, or Throwing Rock Place – a name that has appeared on maps at least since the late 1800s.

"This is not an empty wasteland up here," notes Lynn Peplinski, a researcher in Iqaluit with the Inuit Heritage Trust. "Any place of any significance, the Inuit had a name for it."

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But unlike Throwing Rock Place, few of these names were ever written down.

Mapping is a hot topic this week as Internet titan Google has begun to photograph Nunavut's capital for Street View, its popular digital service that lets users virtually walk the streets of the world by clicking through millions of 360-degree panoramas. The service is also a huge differentiator for Google, as it competes with other digital maps tools from the likes of Microsoft and Apple.

But a far more audacious and complex mapping project also under way is attracting much less attention: A small group of dedicated researchers, led by Ms. Peplinski, are travelling to the most remote parts of the territory to collect thousands of traditional Inuit place names. They hope to complete the work before it is too late.

The result already is an invaluable database of more than 8,000 terms for everything from locations – islands to hunting routes – to such things as cracks in the ice.

At first glance, what Google is doing has little in common with the Heritage Trust's traditional names survey. Street View teams usually focus on the biggest communities first, whereas the territorial researchers do the exact opposite.

But the two have one important thing in common: They depend utterly on the knowledge of the people of Nunavut. Together, the two teams are documenting Nunavut's cultural geography in a way that, just a decade ago, would have been impossible for one of the most remote regions on Earth.

For years, Nunavut's sense of place was dictated by outsiders – foreign explorers after whom much of the major features of the land are now named. Today, the territory is telling its own story.

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Oral tradition fading

Standard maps of Nunavut are littered with the personal names – more often than not, those of people like Martin Frobisher, the English explorer who arrived in 1576, looking for the Northwest Passage, and left his name on the bay at the foot of Iqaluit.

Inuit tradition, however, is to choose a name that is descriptive.

From her living room overlooking Iqaluit's small, bayside graveyard, Ms. Peplinski, a long-time resident of the North, pulls up a digital satellite map on her laptop. It soon comes alive with such labels as Black Island That Looks Like A Raven, Place Where Tuniit Sharpened Their Tools, and Mountain Shaped Like Breast.

Some names refer to dangers a traveller might face, while others refer to nearby shelter or the state and strength of the tides. There are names of outposts, of hunting routes, of cracks and crevasses that appear only in certain seasons.

For centuries, this information was passed down from generation to generation. But today, with many younger Inuit relying on global-positioning devices, the oral tradition is starting to fade. As the number of elders who still know the names dwindles, the fear is that, unless preserved as quickly as possible, that knowledge will be lost.

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"It's very important for me to have this on paper," says project co-ordinator Sheila Dolayou, whose hunter husband learned his craft largely via the oral tradition.

Researchers have been documenting Nunavut place names for more than 100 years, but the work became more formalized with the creation of the Inuit Heritage Trust in 1994. The group, which gets its mandate and funding from the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, is charged with documenting and preserving myriad aspects of Nunavut heritage, including place names.

Collecting the names can be slow – and expensive. Nunavut covers more than two million square kilometres, and many communities can be accessed only by snow machine in certain times of the year. Ms. Peplinski says virtually all the people who knew the routes and landmarks on the west side of Baffin Island are likely already gone.

But when the researchers find elders, the results are often astonishing. Rarely do two of them disagree on what a name should be, Ms. Dolayou reports, and often, when shown satellite images, they can point out features that don't appear on standard maps.

"Some people," says Ms. Peplinski, "make it their business to remember this stuff."

Community at a glance

It is a Wednesday morning and the Google Maps team is driving around downtown Iqaluit, hopAelessly lost. The curving main roads run circles around a smattering of homes and businesses whose exteriors vaguely resemble ski chalets, shipping containers, or a hybrid of both. In the distance, ravens swoop over Frobisher Bay. Drowned in March snow, the city is numbingly beautiful.

Eventually, the team reaches its destination: the office of Arif Sayani, Iqaluit's director of planning and development.

Mr. Sayani is excited about the Street View project in large part because it will allow him to bring up visual aids when discussing building permits in town council meetings. But the Google mappers are also in need of his expertise.

Using the massive area maps that dominate his office walls, Mr. Sayani points out where the public roads end, where the most popular walking trails are, and which of the city's landmarks are worth documenting. (The Googlers ask for directions to the street sign for the colourfully named Road To Nowhere, but the city has stopped replacing the sign, because it kept being stolen.)

There are myriad reasons why many Iqaluit residents are excited about Street View. A significant portion of the economy is related to tourism, and allowing visitors to check out the area and its businesses virtually before they spend thousands of dollars on a plane ticket might help boost travel.

Chris Kalluk, a mapping expert based in Cambridge Bay, some 1,700 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit, first approached Google about coming to Nunavut. He says the mapping efforts are a positive step for Arctic sovereignty and a way for Canadians everywhere to take a closer look at a part of the country many of them rarely visit.

Local input is key

But perhaps the most important aspect of Google's visit is the extent to which the local community is being given responsibility for keeping the online map up to date – by adding everything from landmarks to hunting routes to snowmobile trails in English or Inuktitut. It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the traditional way the North was mapped – by foreign strangers, with little local input.

"If this comes about, everybody can be a cartographer," says John Graham, Iqaluit's mayor.

Meanwhile, the researchers at the Inuit Heritage Trust are doing their own version of crowdsourcing, albeit with a much greater sense of urgency. The group has transferred a massive list of traditional place names to the government of Nunavut.

In the meantime, Ms. Peplinski and her colleagues are continuing to trek across the territory, collecting cultural data that would almost certainly otherwise disappear. She says that a group of Nunavut residents went back to Cumberland Sound a few years ago determined to recreate the legend of Throwing Rock Place. However, damming up the inlet simply by throwing stones proved incredibly difficult.

Clearly, says Ms. Peplinski, to accomplish such a feat, "you've got to be hungry."

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