All-female crew set to sail Franklin’s Northwest Passage route

The Beyond Her Horizons team includes former Inuit Circumpolar Council chair Okalik Eegeesiak

Former Inuit Circumpolar Council chair Okalik Eegeesiak looks at the beadwork of Siusarnaq, also known as Shoofly Comer, who was one of the Inuit women to help polar explorers such as American whaler and trader, George Comer. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Houston)

By Meral Jamal

An all-female team will set sail on a 75-day polar expedition from Pond Inlet to Nome, Alaska, on Aug. 1.

Beyond Her Horizons, which includes former Inuit Circumpolar Council chair Okalik Eegeesiak, polar scientist Noémie Planat and artist Jessica Houston, will sail Sir John Franklin’s famous Northwest Passage route.

They want to document Inuit women’s knowledge of their lands and how women contributed to the strength of their communities and the success of early explorers, Houston said in an interview.

“Exploration stories are so dominantly told from this male perspective about the captain,” she said.

“But we want to focus on the women who supported [exploration] and how those successes wouldn’t have happened without their contribution.”

It’s about recognizing the patience it took to sew clothing for expeditions and the value of the person who stayed home during it — “the kind of the human qualities and characteristics that are at play that are not like the flag-planting or going through the ice as landscape and something to conquer.”

Houston, Planat and Eegeesiak, who lives in Iqaluit, will stop in communities including Cambridge Bay, Tuktoyaktuk and Point Barrow, Alaska. They will travel aboard the sailboat Que Sera, a 16-metre steel schooner built in 1984.

Other team members will offer support on the ground. That includes Aaju Peter, an Iqaluit lawyer, activist and designer, and Bernadette Dean, a historian, knowledge-keeper and great-granddaughter of Siusarnaq, also known as Shoofly Comer, who was a close friend and helper of polar explorer George Comer in the early 1900s.

The team is preparing for their journey by travelling to other locations that tell the story of Inuit women and their histories.

Team members Okalik Eegeesiak, Jessica Houston and Noémie Planat will spend 75 days aboard the Que Sera, a 16-metre steel schooner built in 1984. Their journey will begin in Pond Inlet and end in Nome, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Beyond Her Horizons)

In late June, for example, Houston and Eegeesiak drove to Connecticut to visit the Mystic Seaport Museum where they met the great-grandson of one of the explorers who looked for the Northwest Passage and was supported by Siusarnaq during his travels.

“I just feel like there’s something so powerful about hearing stories,” Houston said of the experience.

“It’s not in an academic format where you’re reading an anthropological paper — you’re really just hearing somebody speak about their own lived experience and the quality of the sharing and the voice and the storytelling aspect of it, I find that really powerful.”

Houston and Eegeesiak said hearing stories from family members of explorers and the Inuit women who helped them will be a critical part of the time they spend in each community.

Jessica Houston, left and Okalik Eegeesiak in front of Inuk translator and guide Tookoolito’s grave in Connecticut. The team is spending some time preparing for their journey by travelling to other locations that tell the story of Inuit women and their histories. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Brisebois)

They will meet with the communities through sharing circles over tea and bannock, and carry some of the archival material such as photos they have found to aide in their recollections.

Once they’re back from the expedition, the team will present the photos, videos, and oral histories they gathered in Inuktitut, English and French through a series of exhibitions about the lives of Inuit women explorers. It’s not known yet if it will be available online.

“[The expedition is] a form of reconciliation,” Eegeesiak said.

She hopes the communities involved and those that get to see the final exhibitions accept “the fact that we’re realizing how important we are to community development and how much Inuit women contributed to the success of lots of men.”

“I think it’s a lot about the relationships that we’re happy that we’re cultivating on route with Inuit women and their histories before and after sailing,” Houston said.

“For my own self, it’s about: how can I bear witness and be an ally? What I’m really looking for is to be guided along the way in the journey.”

The journey is funded with $49,576 from the Trebek Initiative, a grant-making partnership between the National Geographic Society and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Other sponsors of Beyond Her Horizons include Canadian North and Canada Council for the Arts.

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(6) Comments:

  1. Posted by Stevie on

    Wow evr nice beading

  2. Posted by LENORE SAUER on

    I am a Senior, age 83, and have a great love for your country and for the Arctic in particular. In 1986, I traveled to Frobisher Bay, July 4th weekend. Sealift could not commence as there was still ice on the bay. I know that things have warmed-up but I am concerned that the ladies who are planning a sailing trip following Sir John Franklin’s route will be starting their trip so late. I would think that they should leave BY August first. Why so late? Good luck ladies and yes, this trip should be documented online, maybe even as it’s happening. Now that would be wonderful ! BON VOYAGE!

    • Posted by Dennis Oatterson on

      Way to go Okalik!
      Bon voyage…

  3. Posted by Eskimos Fan on

    Would the Inuit Women’s Association have, had room?
    Great opportunity for research.?

  4. Posted by No Moniker on

    Let’s understand this journey for what it really is, an opportunity to affirm the privilege and reward the status of a select few Inuit women.

    The idea that any can somehow divine the “lived experience” of their ancestors in the context of past ages of exploration is an illusion that like most modern attempts at identity based ‘knowledge making’ relies almost exclusively on mystique over substance.

    Nunatsiaq, as usual, plays the dupe and spins all the needed yarns to make these shadows appear far more serious and real than any thinking person can possibly believe.

    • Posted by Fake Plastic Tree on

      Paul Cartledge once wrote “All history is present history in the sense that the concerns of the present are bound somehow to affect the way history is studied and written.”

      I would agree and add that the writing of history is not only to ostensibly understand the past (if it is ever really just that?) but to align the past with the stories, narratives and above all the mythos of our culture.

      To understand history one must understand how and why it is written the way it is, in other words one must not confine their study of the past to facts only, but to a philosophical understanding of what history means to us in the present moment.

      Without descending into cynicism ask yourself, what is the relationship of this historical narrative to power? Is it challenging or reinforcing power?

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