From the Editor
Canadian Inuit Dogs I have owned, raised and trained: a photo essay; Part 3
Book Review: Across Arctic America
Book Review: White Eskimo
Interview with Author Stephen Bown
The Thule Atlas Project
March Distemper Outbreak in Ilulissat
Okpik’s Dream/Harry Okpik still going strong
IMHO: I’m “Neat” with Tarps
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"My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood
I played and worked with the hunters, so even the hardships of
the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me."
Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition
by Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen
reviewed by Sue Hamilton
The magnum opus of the Fifth Thule Expedition: Danish Ethnographical Expedition to Arctic North America, 1921-1924, was written in ten-volumes, with contributions from members of this epic journey spanning from Greenland to Siberia. First editions (assuming there are not very many) of this encyclopedic work reside in but very few libraries around the world, therefore not generally accessible to those who may wish to study in intimate detail the ethnography of circumpolar Inuit. However, in 1927 expedition leader, Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933), published Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition, which remains very reachable to the rest of us.
English may not have been Rasmussen’s first (Danish) nor second (Kalaallisut) language, but his command of English is evident in his lyrical style, impressive and most enjoyable wordsmithing skills. Canadian arctic explorer and fellow ethnographer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), described Across Arctic America as “not only a work of literary charm but also one of the deepest and soundest interpretations of primitive life and thought that has ever been put into a book”.
Across Arctic America is a summary of Rasmussen’s 20,000-mile (by his account) dog team journey, and by no means directly, from Greenland, west across the polar North American continent to Alaska. It reads like a meticulously detailed diary of this ethnographer-anthropologist’s contact with the many “tribes” in various locations and conditions: “how they lived, what their language was, how they hunted, how they amused themselves, what things they feared, and believed…every manner of thing.” It is quite possible to imagine standing alongside the author seeing and experiencing what Rasmussen did. The ability to speak his Greenlandic version of the language allowed him to be perfectly understood which, in turn, established warm welcomes and instant friendships. “Igjugarjuk…declared that I was the first white man he had ever seen who was also an Eskimo.” Of the receptions he received, Rasmussen said upon reaching one encampment, ”Meat and fish were brought to us in abundance… indeed our reception from the first was typical of this unstinted hospitality with which we were treated throughout.”
Rasmussen’s passion for his work is evident. “I bless the fate that allowed me to be born at a time when Arctic exploration by dog sledge was not yet a thing of the past.” His book reveals enormous curiosity, patience, respect, admiration and love of both the people he encountered as well as the land they occupied. A humble man, Rasmussen says, “The Eskimo is the hero of this book”.
There much diversity and detail in Across Arctic America’s chapters: the superiority of ice shoeing sledge runners, landscape features, traditional hunting methods, housing styles, the challenges of traveling; starvation and death; duties of men and women, marital relationships; discussions with Elders and shamans about origins of the universe, people and animals; about spirituality, taboos and ceremonies; similarities and differences between the groups of people he met and how they compared to Greenlanders. Rasmussen also included songs, poetry and folklore. He often lamented finding those Inuit who had already been “tainted” by the outside world’s influences, be it religion, clothing, implements including rifles of which he said, “The introduction of firearms has affected the movements of the caribou, and the animals have begun to avoid their old routes and crossings,” leading to human starvation when game learned to fear the sound of gunfire.
Dogs which made the whole journey from Hudson Bay to Point Hope, Alaska Photo from Across Arctic America
Although he does not particularly focus on the use of dogs, Rasmussen does mention them here and there. He describes how dogs were harnessed to ice floes and then sent swimming to shore with the people and gear in tow; and, “One day we came upon a huge flock of geese, moulting and unable to fly…we let the dogs loose and a moment later we had a score of birds.” Readers will certainly gain an appreciation of how important dogs were to not only the Fifth Thule Expedition, but also the very existence of the polar inhabitants themselves.
Two attributes set Knud Rasmussen apart from most of the others who ventured into the North. One was that, being born in Ilulissat, Greenland to a quarter-Greenlandic mother and having spent his youth hunting and driving dogs with Greenlanders, he was never considered a real ‘outsider’ during his North American encounters. The other feature that set him apart was the purpose of his arctic explorations. It was all about the quest for a deep understanding of people and their ways of life. His travels were not intended to pollute or plunder with activities such as land claims, religious conversions or gaining other advantages. In closing his narrative, Rasmussen sums it all up:
“I am glad to have had the good fortune to visit these people while they were still unchanged; to have found, throughout the great expanse of territory from Greenland to the Pacific, a people not only one in race and language, but also in their form of culture; a witness in itself to the strength and endurance and wild beauty of human life.”Hardcover first editions of Across Arctic America are still occasionally available, at a very dear price range, on the secondary market from antiquarian booksellers. The 1999 edition, published on the 75th anniversary of the expedition’s conclusion, is readily available new and is definitely worthy of a place in one’s polar library. Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition by Knud Rasmussen; 1927 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 1999 by University of Alaska Press (ISBN-10: 0-912006-94-3); 415 pages, 69 illustrations, 5 maps and an index (listing 55 page references to dogs). Available from the University of Alaska Press, cloth bound $55.00 USD or soft cover $24.95 USD. Also available from online booksellers.