Canadian author Stephen R. Bown has written an engaging book about one of the lesser-known figures from the great age of Arctic exploration. White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey Into the Heart of the Arctic is a biography of the Danish explorer and anthropologist who travelled to the northern reaches of Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, and Alaska to learn about remote Inuit communities that had had little or no contact with white culture. Canada’s History senior editor Nelle Oosterom spoke with Bown about the book.
Who was Knud Rasmussen?
Basically, everything we know about premodern Inuit intellectual life is a result of this one individual.
Knud Rasmussen was born in 1879 in the town of Illulisat, Greenland, which was formerly known as Jacobshaven. He was raised in Greenland in a part-Inuit, part- Danish family [he was one eighth Inuit on his mother’s side] and he saw change occurring in Greenland from his earliest years. He anticipated that this change would accelerate with the development of airplanes, and faster ships, and better maps. There was more and more contact between Inuit and white people who otherwise would have been extremely remote from each other.
Because Rasmussen was fluent in the language and culture of the Inuit — at the time they were called the Eskimo — and because he was also an excellent hunter and a dogsled driver, he had complete cultural fluency that enabled him to gain access to the homes of these extremely remote and nomadic people in a way no outsider ever could have done. Because of his incredible social culture and charisma, he was trusted and respected.
Over months of living with isolated bands and travelling with them, he was able to earn their trust and convince them to share their most intimate beliefs and customs with him. He recorded all their poetry, philosophy, legends, songs, religious beliefs, personal stories of tragedy, mystery, and adventure — and he did this just on the cusp of change.
He essentially gave us a record of an intellectual culture that could otherwise have completely disappeared at that time. He wasn’t just a collector, he was also a poet with a keen intuition and insight into human nature. His own life was a string of adventures. He traversed the Greenland ice sheet multiple times; he travelled all the way from Hudson Bay to Siberia by dogsled, a journey that took years and was about twenty thousand miles [thirty-two thousand kilometres] in duration. His whole life was one grand epic adventure — but his contribution to global culture because of his collection and translation of the intellectual culture of Inuit peoples from diverse communities across the polar world is essentially priceless.
What was Rasmussen’s primary motivation for going into the Arctic?
That’s the heart of the question. I think, really, he was on a quest to understand himself better through a quest to understand the people from the mysterious side of his lineage — that is, his Inuit lineage, which was not very well understood in the early twentieth century.
To Rasmussen, the heart of the Arctic was the inner life of the people who lived in the far northern reaches. … He believed that the soul of any culture was not in its architecture, or in the size of its cities or technology, but in its philosophy, its songs, its legends, its beliefs, its intellectual culture.
From growing up in Inuit culture, Rasmussen knew it to be as rich and as insightful and wise as any culture in the world. To an outside observer, this would have been very difficult to perceive.
How was he different from most Arctic explorers?
Most Arctic explorers are coming from somewhere else, questing after some essentially meaningless but symbolic geographical objective, like being the first to go to the North Pole, or the first to sail the Northwest Passage. … But Rasmussen was actually very different because he already had one leg in the cultural world of the people who lived in the Arctic.
His objective was also very different. He wasn’t going after those symbolic conquests. His goal was essentially to travel and to meet every known Inuit band that then existed in the world. ... He showed that the people living in Alaska, and in Arctic Canada, and in south and north Greenland were all basically the same culture. No one knew that it was the same culture at that time. He was able to speak the same language wherever he went. And he was on his own personal quest to satisfy his curiosity about his heritage.
How is his work viewed today?
Some ethnographers and linguists might quibble a little bit about some of his claims, but essentially the enormous body of work that he collected during his life in the Arctic constitutes the foundation for everything that’s known about the premodern societies of Inuit people. If he hadn’t done that in that moment in time, the knowledge probably would have been lost, because it was an oral culture without written records.