Putting names to ancient faces

“This is an important part of conserving Inuit history in Nunavut”



A handful of Inuit youth reached a milestone last week in putting names to faces of Nunavut elders, formerly missing from photographs of Inuit stored at the National Archives of Canada.

After months of traveling door-to-door in Nunavut communities, the mostly volunteer group has wrapped up the first phase of Project Naming, an effort to find the names of Inuit shown in stacks of black and white photos taken decades ago, and now stored in the federal government archives in Ottawa.

Since summer 2001, students from Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an Ottawa-based college program for Inuit, have been meeting elders in their communities to show them photos on laptop computers, hoping they might recognize the smiling and sometimes perplexed faces in the pictures.

The laptop photos were scanned from original prints taken by federal public servants and other photographers from the 1930s to the 1960s. Until now, hundreds of these photos lacked proper identification, and simply labelled the Inuit as “Eskimos.”

On May 21, students joined staff from Library and Archives Canada and officially launched a web site featuring the faces – and more importantly, the names – of Inuit from around Nunavut’s three regions.

People surfing the Internet can now get a glimpse of the photos, taken in Kinngait, Kugluktuk, Igloolik, Taloyoak, Arviat, Hall Beach, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Iqaluit, and Kimmirut. The project was funded by Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Elders, Language and Youth, and the federal ministry of Canadian heritage.

Murray Angus, a college instructor who oversaw the project with support from National Archives staff, said the naming project aimed to fill in the blanks left behind by the photographers. He pointed out that many elders are dying, and taking their knowledge of the past with them.

“[The project] is an opportunity to record information about the past that will soon be lost forever,” he said.

Angus noted that the project also put Inuit in touch with their past.

Mathewsie Ashevak, a student from Kinngait, collected names while interviewing elders he rarely spoke with before, including his own grandmother, Kenojuak Ashevak.

In a project report, Ashevak recalled how listening to their stories taught him a new respect for his elders.

“This opportunity gave me a better understanding of how we should build our territory, Nunavut,” Ashevak wrote.

Project organizers hope to continue collecting names for hundreds more archival photos in 2005, especially in the Kivalliq region.

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