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Seeking Environmental Knowledge from an Inuit Shaman



During his 1821-23 Arctic expedition British commander William Edward Parry relied on Inuit shamans and their extensive geographical knowledge to survey the unknown and rather hostile environment of the Canadian Arctic and to seek the Northwest Passage. In one instance, the expedition’s explorers consulted a shaman who correctly told them that their ships would not be able to reach their destination due to the quantity of ice and would then return home. This forecast became true when the expedition was repelled by heavy ice and snow and had to leave the Canadian Arctic. Episodes of geographical consultations with local shamans by British officers point to a more complex relationship between imperialism, exploration, and indigenous environmental knowledge. Furthermore this relationship can be linked to broader ambivalent attitudes and cultures of curiosity in western encounters with “the supernatural” in the Arctic environment.