Finding ‘Indigenous Intermediaries’ in the Archives of Arctic Exploration

Dr Peter R. Martin

Dr Peter R. Martin is a Postdoctoral Research Associate working at the Scott Polar Research Institute – part of the Department of Geography – at the University of Cambridge. Peter’s work is influenced by a number of different literatures including exploration studies, histories of science, postcolonial studies and intellectual history. In this blog post, Peter describes how the role of local indigenous peoples and their knowledge has often been overlooked within the histories of exploration.

How did people in Europe and North America learn about the Arctic regions at the end of the nineteenth century? This was one of the main questions I sought to answer in my recently completed PhD project which was carried out as part of an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award with the University of Oxford and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) (with the Institute of British Geographers).

Black and white photograph of an indigenous man. cica1906
Photograph of Sachawachick taken by Ernest Leffingwell during the Anglo-American Polar Expedition c.1906. Source: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/U.S. Geological Survey

I studied the archival collections held at the RGS-IBG, looking at the ways in which Arctic explorers produced knowledge about the Arctic. I also studied how they communicated this information to public audiences.Much of my research involved studying the expeditions undertaken by the likes of George Nares, Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Peary. I looked particularly at how these explorers were able to use institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society to share their findings. When these ‘heroic’ Arctic explorers returned from their expeditions they delivered lectures at the RGS, published articles in the Society’s journals and received awards and medals from the Society’s senior Fellows. A close relationship with the RGS therefore allowed these explorers to become international celebrities. This meant that the narratives of their travels were able to reach wide audiences. My research therefore showed that while the RGS was an important institution for the production of Arctic geographical knowledge, it was equally important in circulating this information amongst many different people.

The gold Royal Geographical Society placard sign at their address.

Understanding the role of Indigenous Intermediaries

As I was carrying out this research, however, it became clear that it was not only the explorers who were producing this Arctic knowledge. It was often the case that local indigenous peoples were deeply involved in practices of exploration and they offered support to explorers in all kinds of ways. Importantly, as my recent article shows, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic were no exception.

The term ‘indigenous intermediaries’ has been used to describe those people who were involved in practices of ‘western’ exploration. However, such people have rarely been recognised to the same extent as the ‘heroic’ explorers mentioned above. Their contributions to these expeditions have often been hidden (or worse, erased). It is therefore important to understand the processes through which this happened in order to truly understand the complex roles they played.

First of all, many explorers worked hard to establish particular narratives about themselves both during and after their expeditions. Their travel accounts were edited before publication in order to establish or bolster the heroic reputation of the author. If it was revealed that an explorer had been dependent on local peoples during their journey, it could challenge the image of them ‘mastering’ the land under study. As a result, any reliance on indigenous people was removed from these accounts, either by the explorer him- or herself, or by the publishers they used to sell their stories.

A second aspect relates to the troubling historical connections that have been drawn relating to race, intelligence and scholarly authenticity. It was widely assumed that geographical knowledge which had been gleaned from indigenous peoples could not be afforded the same level of reliability as that which had been gathered by a western explorer. If the producer of geographical knowledge was not well known to the Fellows of the RGS, then their reputation had to be earned. Because indigenous peoples rarely had prior connections to the Society, it was impossible for them to be considered worthy producers of geographical knowledge. As a result, their information and testimonies were simply disregarded.

The Anglo-American Polar Expedition 1906–07

To explore these issues in more depth, I focussed on one expedition in particular – Ejnar Mikkelsen’s 1906–07 expedition to the north coast of Alaska. In particular, I studied the involvement of the local Iñupiat community in this journey. Mikkelsen was a former captain in the Danish Navy and set out to investigate rumours that an undiscovered landmass might exist somewhere in the Beaufort Sea. Setting up a base camp on Flaxman Island, he carried out a series of sledge journeys along the North Alaskan coastline in search of this land.

Mikkelsen was supported on this expedition by a local resident named Sachawachick, who helped Mikkelsen to hunt caribou for food and accompanied him on his sledge journeys. At one point, he even rescued the Dane by using his kayak to help him cross a dangerous lead (opening) that had developed in the sea ice.

Crucially though, Sachawachick also informed Mikkelsen’s geographical investigations in the region. The map below, drawn by Mikkelsen while he was in the field, was based on information he had received from this Iñupiat man. It depicts the migratory routes of different wildlife in the area, including birds and whales, and highlights two areas where land might therefore exist. This information, Mikkelsen believed, provided substantive evidence for the existence of land in the Beaufort Sea and he was keen to notify the RGS of these exciting findings. He dispatched a letter from Point Barrow to the RGS Secretary John Scott Keltie giving details of the expedition’s progress. Importantly, the letter described Sachawachick’s involvement in the expedition in considerable depth and also relayed the evidence that the Iñupiat man had given that pointed to the land’s existence.

A map of the sea drawn by hand with routes marked with arrow lines and two overlapping zones of the coastline, where land was perhaps.
Sketchmap showing evidence of land in the Beaufort Sea. Source: RGS-IBG Correspondence Collection, RGS/CB7/59

Informing the Fellows

To notify the RGS Fellowship of these intriguing results, Keltie then published Mikkelsen’s report in the Geographical Journal, providing an overview of the evidence that had been gathered. Crucially, however, no mention was made of Sachawachick. The assistance that the Iñupiat man had provided and the new geographical information he had supplied were omitted entirely from the ‘official’ record of geographical knowledge. This has meant that the only evidence revealing the true extent of Sachawachick’s contributions to the Alaskan expedition is found in the single letter Mikkelsen sent to the Society which is now held in its collections.

This is a prime example of the ways in which the roles of indigenous intermediaries within histories of exploration have been obscured or hidden. When information provided by local peoples was discussed in expeditionary reports, the true source of this information was rarely revealed. Instead, geographical knowledge would in almost all cases be attributed to the explorer with the scholarly connections required to achieve scholarly credibility.

For these reasons, historians need to study the archives of exploration more closely in order to uncover these important ‘hidden histories.’ It may also be the case that new and creative methods are needed that will allow us to ‘read against the grain’ of the exploration archive and identify these moments of indigenous involvement. Doing so will help us to understand the ways in which indigenous intermediaries have played a fundamental role in shaping many of the things we know about our world.


Associated image: Denali National Park, Alaska. Image credit: Diego Delsodos/Wikimedia Commons

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