Q&A with the "A Case of Access" team

Photo: Albert Elias and Helen Gruben discuss beaded gloves at the Smithsonian Mu

With Natasha Lyons, Kate Hennessy, Chuck Arnold, and Cathy Cockney

In November 2013, IPinCH spoke with Natasha Lyons (Director, Ursus Heritage Consulting), Kate Hennessy (Assistant Professor, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University), Chuck Arnold (former Director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Independent Researcher), and Cathy Cockney (Manager, Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre) about their work on the IPinCH-supported Community-Based Initiative, A Case of Access.


IPinCH: Could you explain how the project got started and what it entailed? 

Natasha Lyons: Cathy, Mervin and I had been working together for a number of years on a project up north, and in 2008 we started to talk about the MacFarlane Collection, and how great it would be to learn more about it. It’s a collection of several hundred ethnographic items that were collected by a Hudson’s Bay Trader in the 1850s in the Anderson River area of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and it’s a very rich collection ­— a lot of clothing and skin items... A real treasure. But it’s very cost prohibitive to have the collection itself travel and so Cathy and I talked about applying for some funding to take Elders and other Inuvialuit members to Washington, and that’s what we did…We went in 2009 to visit the collection with a pretty big group ­— 12 people all told from Inuvialuit, anthropology folks and media folks.  We had a week-long visit with the collection, and documented a lot of knowledge about it and discovered a lot of things that we didn’t know that we wanted to pursue research on. 

Cathy Cockney: ...Many of the clothing and the tools that are at the Smithsonian are probably no longer made and they are really traditional Inuvialuit material culture. We thought it was important not only for researchers but for the Inuvialuit community to go down and also have a look at what’s available at the Smithsonian. 

IPinCH: How did you select the individuals to go? 

Cathy Cockney: I went on the radio —everybody listens to the radio in the north — … to talk about the project and how we would like to select Elders to participate. The response was really good… eight Elders from the region contacted me… and there [were] a couple of youth that contacted me expressing their interest…It’s always good to have Elders involved because they have the knowledge, and even though they may not make the tools anymore, they may have seen their parents or grandparents making the tools. A couple of the Elders did say that they witnessed their grandparents using a bow and arrow. And the youth up here are very interested in learning about our traditional Inuvialuit culture because we’ve gone through so much change…

IPinCH: What were some of the challenges in organizing the project? 

Kate Hennessy: …It was many, many years in the making to get people to Washington. It’s quite expensive to travel from the north, so cost, and funding, and continued funding, are an issue for all parts of [this ongoing] project. It was also a good challenge for all of us to try to bring together the documentation, the research materials, to translate those into the Inuvialuit Living History website and to work as a group to collaboratively produce the content….[Also] paying close attention to what makes a participatory project. Natasha led the team in drafting a project charter at the beginning of our work together, where we all talked about our goals and priorities for the research…what people wanted to get from this work, how we would work together, how would we respect one another, and the various contributions that we could make at various times in a long-term project…how we wanted to publish, what kinds of projects we would take on, how we would use one another’s time given that…only Stephen Loring (Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian, and IPinCH) and I are salaried academics and Cathy and our Inuvialuit partners…don’t have that kind of support…

Natasha Lyons: Another challenge…is about making a project like this sustainable. We tried different methods of sharing what we had learned with the Inuvialuit community — it’s a very large community of about 5,000 people. Many live in the north and many also live in other parts of the world. One of the things that we did … was to produce a plain language glossy newsletter… about the project about a year before the website was launched to talk about what we had been doing… and to invite other Inuvialuit to comment on what we were doing. We also did a series of outreach visits in the north…and some interviewing…. The visit to Washington…was really opening a big, and great, can of worms, and we’re still moving forward here, probably for a long time because we haven’t even gotten into the natural history side of the collection. 

IPinCH: Were any of the objects in the collection particularly memorable for anyone on the team? 

Chuck Arnold: In preparing the descriptions and interpreting some of the artifacts, I worked very closely with Darrel Nasogaluak in Tuktoyaktuk. [He] is a younger person, in his late thirties perhaps, and he is interested in traditional Inuvialuit technology…When we were writing up the descriptions, I would send photographs to Darrel, and then we’d get on the phone — about an hour or two every night… — and he would help me understand how they were used, how they were made, and then I would try to take his words and put them into curatorial descriptions. For almost every artifact…Darrel would have a story from one of his Elders. For instance…the incredible bows that are part of the collection…[Darrel] remembered a story that his grandfather told him. He was out hunting a polar bear and all he had was his bow and arrow…The polar bear got close to him one time, and he pulled out his bow and arrow and shot the bear — so powerful that the arrow passed right through the bear, killing it….The collection has really brought those memories to the forefront, and I think that’s made this truly a living history project. 

Photo: Albert Elias and Helen Gruben discuss beaded gloves at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Nov. 2009 (photo: D. Stewart).

This article is an edited excerpt from the IPinCH Conversations podcast. Listen to the full podcast below.