Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Iqaluit April 11, 2014 - 9:50 am

Taissumani, April 11

Wooden Maps

Wooden maps collected by Gustav Holm on the east coast of Greenland. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Wooden maps collected by Gustav Holm on the east coast of Greenland. (HARPER COLLECTION)
A wooden map displayed on a Greenlandic stamp. (HARPER COLLECTION)
A wooden map displayed on a Greenlandic stamp. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Gustav Holm was a Danish naval captain who made his name as an explorer of Greenland. In 1876, at the age of 27, he took part in Steenstrup’s geological expedition to the Julianehaab District of south-western Greenland, on which he recorded Norse ruins.

Four years later he explored the region around Cape Farewell and some of Greenland’s little-known east coast.

Although the west coast of Greenland had been colonized for a century and a half, the east coast — Greenlanders called it Tunu, the back side — was virtually unknown.

So in 1883 when Holm set out to explore more of this virgin territory, he encountered Inuit who had never met white men before.

The Umiak Expedition took its name from the fact that the party travelled in four traditional umiaks, often referred to as “women’s boats” because they were generally rowed by women.

For this expedition, Holm hired 20 women, seven men in kayaks, a crew leader and two interpreters. Three white men also accompanied him.

The expedition passed its first winter on the west coast near Nanortalik. Finally, in early May of 1884 they left for the forbidding east coast.

Over the next two years Holm and his party visited eleven communities previously unknown to colonial authorities or to Kalaallit (West Greenlanders.)

The population of these scattered camps numbered 413. In addition, he added five new fjords to the emerging map of East Greenland.

Holm made a large collection of ethnographic objects acquired from the Tunumiut. It has been described as “the earliest, most systematically collected, documented, and most widely publicized ethnographic collection of its kind.”

He also documented the folk tales and beliefs of the East Greenlanders. But perhaps the most unusual items that he collected were a few wooden maps.

Early explorers throughout the Inuit circumpolar world were generally impressed with Inuit map-making abilities. When provided with paper and pencils, Inuit often drew marvellously accurate depictions of the lands with which they were familiar.

But the maps that Holm collected were unique, for as well as being visually useful, they were also meant to be tactile objects, things to be handled.

The maps had been carved by a man named Kumiti. (There are a confusing array of spellings for this man’s name.) One represented the coast north of Angmagssalik, where Holm had not yet travelled.

In fact, this unusual map came in two pieces. One represented the coast, including its fjords. The other depicted the offshore islands. The maps had to be correctly positioned in relation to each other, and were meant to be “read” from left to right.

Moreover, on the main block, the map was meant to be read on both sides, up one side and down the other. Holm wrote, “The mainland is continued from one side of the block of wood to the other, while the islands are disposed on the accompanying stick without any regard to the distance between them…  By manipulating the stick so that the islands appear in their right position to the mainland, the traveller is enabled by means of this map to inform others of the route he has taken.”

These small maps contained a wealth of detail. Holm observed, “All the places where there are old ruins of houses (which form excellent places for beaching the boat) are marked on the wood map; the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried over between the bottom of two fjords, when the way round the maze between the fjords is blocked by the sea-ice.”

Moreover, these maps were not flat, but also contained “the contours of the country” so that “the reliefs of the mountains can be to some extent reproduced.”

Being made of wood, they floated when dropped into the water. Some reports indicate that they could be carried inside a traveller’s mittens and that the user could navigate the coast by the feel of the map.

These wooden maps are today held in the Greenland National Museum. In 2000 they were featured on a Greenlandic stamp.

They are a lasting testament to the ingenuity of the Tunumiut in depicting their coastline in an ingenious form of cartography.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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