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Book review: White Eskimo
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Cover photo: Leo Hansen/Arktisk Institut
Rasmussen’s personal story of struggle, adventure, friendship and discovery has not remained as well known as his academic reputation. Despite its epic scope, a brilliantly chronicled blend of action, leadership, science and literary talent, his story has faded from general knowledge…apart from specialists in the Arctic, Inuit ethnography and Arctic exploration, few know what an adventurous life Rasmussen led and what an intriguing individual he was. (pg. 306) Stephen Bown
White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey
into the Heart of the Arctic
by Stephen Bown
reviewed by Sue Hamilton
In Across Arctic America (AAA) Knud Rasmussen details his exploration the North American continent and investigation of its peoples. In White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic, author Stephen Bown not only describes all of this pioneer’s expeditions but also Rasmussen, the man – what stimulated his curiosity, what inspired him, how he inspired others, how he managed to survive three years of arduous travel to accomplish remarkable objectives. Whereas, in AAA Rasmussen avoided talking about himself and was loathe to describe his own attributes: “…never dwelt upon himself. He never praised his own efforts and stamina, bravery or work…” (pg. 156), Bown tells readers why Rasmussen was extraordinarily successful existing in both modern and aboriginal societies. White Eskimo’s prologue alone paints a compelling portrait the man’s character, stimulating an appetite to learn all the particulars.
Rasmussen was an example of nature and nurture collaborating to create an extraordinary human being. He inherited his father’s humanistic approach to the local culture in which the younger Rasmussen grew up, encouraging immersion into the Greenlandic society. From his mother, who was one-quarter Greenlander, he inherited pride in his Inuit background. In his childhood home of Ilullissat, he drove dog teams and hunted with his Inuit companions. His ability to feel comfortable among his aboriginal friends and have them feel at ease with him, plus his enormous cultural curiosity set the early course. Even before gaining the eventual status of the living legend he was to become, Bown details Rasmussen’s early, albeit transient, attempts at careers as an actor (having left university to pursue it), then opera singer and then free-lance journalist. However, all these activities contributed to shaping the balance of his life.
Bown chronicles Rasmussen’s life as an explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer with stories and comments…
“Rasmussen was very much aware of the timeliness of his journey…meetings with important angakut [shamans] gave him insights into and knowledge of the Inuit spiritual world just as these beliefs were being undermined and discouraged by outside influences.” (pg. 266)…including observations of Rasmussen made by the people with whom he had contact in Europe and Greenland as well as his expedition companions and Inuit he encountered during his seven Thule expeditions:
“The Greenlander and the Dane were merged in that great, gifted man. There was no warmer or more sensitive heart, and no one could be so carried away by things, always ready to help by word or deed. No one could create joy around him as he could.” Kaj Birket-Smith (Ethnographer and participant of the Fifth Thule Expedition; pg. 304/5).Lest Rasmussen admirers perceive him god-like, Bown keeps us grounded with knowledge of the explorer’s foibles, such as his associations with women, recounting the handsome and dashing young nomad’s capricious nature regarding relationships in both Greenland where customs regarding intimate liaisons “were more fluid” and not considered promiscuous, and in Europe where the social values were quite different.
Bown also points out what some might seem a contradiction between Rasmussen’s strong empathy towards Inuit and his social-political attitude regarding their future in the world. Sought as a northern affairs advisor to the Danish government, he railed against their isolationist policy towards Inuit that wished them to remain “uncivilized”. In 1910 he suggested to his good friend and fellow expeditioner Peter Freuchen that they:
“…should sail beyond Melville Bay…and set up a trading post…the Polar Inuit needed to be protected from the exploitative barter of itinerant whalers; and the Inuit should have a secure supply of the goods they had come to rely on…There have been very, very few explorers to the North who were able to observe and then describe and truly comprehend aboriginal people, their daily struggles to survive, their way of life from the cultural perspective of the people they were there to study.
“No matter it was Greenlanders or Eskimos in Canada and Alaska, he came to them as one of themselves. They unfolded their soul to the greatness and warmth of his being, and in return he received their simple tales of life and its struggles, with the mysterious powers, their wild legends and fine poetry, with the open and understanding mind that can only be explained in one way: in his heart they touched strings that vibrated in harmony with them.”
“Portaging” the sleds and dogs across ice-hummocked terrain during the Second Thule Expedition
Photo: from The Report of the Second Thule Expedition, 1916-1918
My nineteen pages of handwritten notes highlight only some of Bown’s captivating text about Knud Rasmussen’s life and times. But this is supposed to be a review of the author’s book, White Eskimo, not just about the feats of its protagonist as such. In writing this biography, in this one volume Bown delivers insight not only about one of the few truly eminent polar explorers, but also about mostly pristine arctic cultures from Greenland to Alaska.
Bown’s is not the only Rasmussen biography, although it may be one of the few written in or not translated into English. Even Rasmussen’s compatriot Peter Freuchen wrote one. But I would suggest that Bown, not having lived contemporaneously with Rasmussen, nor having worked in the same profession, provides a more objective approach. Stephen Bown’s White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic conveys that same level of trust and credibility that the subject of this book enjoyed during his circumpolar lifetime and to this day.
Just as Rasmussen was comfortable in two worlds, Bown’s White Eskimo is equally worthy of a place in both home and academic library collections. White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic, Stephen R. Bown; Da Capo Press, first edition November 10, 2015; hardcover with dust jacket; ISBN-13: 978-0306822827; 384 pages, in English; includes five maps, drawings, sixteen pages of photographs, a bibliography and an index (listing 44 page references to dogs); available from booksellers everywhere.