Dorothy Eber


Dorothy Harley Eber is widely respected for her knowledge of Inuit art and culture. She lives in Montreal.

"Encounters on the Passage is alive with suggestions for enthusiasts still seeking Franklin's grave, or his lost record books, or his sunken ships. But what stands out is how the Inuit experienced those crazy incursions. ...the richest material in this book, as with all of Eber's work, is not what it says about a few doomed intruders from the south, but the role it plays in storing and preserving Inuit storytelling."
Christopher Moore
The Beaver

University of Toronto Press Nov 2008

Encounters  on the Passage


Inuit elders who grew up in camps on the shores of Frobisher Bay can tell you what happened when Martin Frobisher arrived with his vessel in 1575: ‘He fired two warning shots in the air. So right away there were some grievances.’ Frobisher’s shots were the opening salvos in the search for the Northwestern Passage, a search that lasted for more than four hundred years and riveted the Western world, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. In Encounters on the Passage, present day Inuit tell the stories that have been passed down from their ancestors of the first encounters with European explorers. 

In many of these stories their traditional conception of the universe is still in place, with shamans playing starring roles opposite ‘the strangers intruding on the Inuit lands.’ Dorothy Harley Eber presents stories told to her about the expeditions of Sir Edward Parry, Sir John Franklin, and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and sets them squarely in historical context. In the case of the disasterous Franklin expedition, new information opens ups another fascinating chapter on the Franklin tragedy.

Collected over 12 years on visits to communities in Nunavut, these remarkable stories of expeditionary forces and their dealings with native peoples will be new and exciting reading for those interested in the search for the Northwest Passage, the Franklin tragedy, and the traditions of oral history.

NEW INFORMATION: Inuit told Eber that they learned from their ancestors of an “exploring ship” that wintered in the Royal Geographical Society Islands “because they were iced in and had no choice.”   

The Inuit visited the ship “because they were the first to try to come through.” The vessel was apparently trying to reach the waters below Victoria Island  “When summer came the ship, with sails, like flags, left for where we do not know but perhaps for where they had come from. There were quite a few white men  and it is believed that all the men left with the ship. Whether they made it we do not know.”

Sir John Franklin and the Royal Navy vessels the Erebus and the Terror left England in 1845. They entered the Arctic archipelago, and were never seen again by western eyes. In 1859 the search expedition of Leopold McClintock found a record in a cairn on the west side of King William Island which revealed the ships were abandoned in the ice on April 22, 1848 and that Sir John Franklin had died the year before on June 11, 1847.

Because of the position of lifeboats he found on the shore McClintock believed at the time that one or both of the ships were remanned and drifted or were navigated to new positions before they wrecked. In recent years search expeditions equipped with every technical advance have looked for the wrecks without success.

The Royal Geographical Society Islands lie between the west coast of King William Island and Victoria Island. Inuit say  there is “proof” that the white men  wintered  in the islands. This lies in an “oil slick” or fireplace the explorers left behind. “That these people stayed on the island is proved by the fact that the ground is soiled by rendered seal oil blubber. These people who stayed on the island used the seal oil for   heat.”  Inuit told Eber that Inuit would never use seal oil in this manner. Oil does not evaporate, they said, and therefore in mid summer months such slicks are still visible today, deeply sunk into sand.  Similar oil slicks or “fireplaces” have been sighted recently on the Adelaide Peninsula.  and adjacent islands. Inuit on King William Island report that a vessel also wintered in this vicinity “Old people now dead, knew this.”

There were two Franklin vessels but on King William Island one tradition has it that one ship went north around the island and disappeared. If a Franklin ship over wintered in the Royal Geographical Islands in 1848-49, and then was off the Adelaide Peninsula in 1850, this would validate Inuit statements made to John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company that they saw starving white men on a death march in 1850. 

Rae took the first reports of the fate of the Franklin expedition back to England but after the McClintock, investigators tended to discount the Inuit date assuming the crews must have  died shortly after the record in the cairn said the ships were abandoned.

From her interviews with Inuit, Eber concludes, “There were quite a few white men with the ship and the white men showed the Inuit papers.” Whether the papers were maps they did not know. “The Inuit may have helped the white men to keep themselves sheltered and warm. They may have been asked for help in terms of providing food.”  The Inuit gave Inuit names to some of the  white men, two of  which are still remembered today –Meetik – ‘duck’ – and to “a man who was talked about a lot, a superior, Qoitoyok –‘he who goes to the bathroom a lot.’”   “They called him that,” an interpreter explained, “because he was sick.”


Click on the link below to see Christopher Moore's article Listening to the North: Dorothy Harley Eber's Oral Histories