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Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo

Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo

by Kenn Harper, Kevin Spacey (Foreword by)

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In his search for the North Pole at the turn of the twentieth century, the renowned Robert E. Peary, long celebrated as an icon of modern exploration, used the Eskimos of northwestern Greenland as the human resources for his expeditions. Sailing aboard a ship called Hope in 1897, Peary entered New York harbor with six Eskimos as his cargo. Depositing them


In his search for the North Pole at the turn of the twentieth century, the renowned Robert E. Peary, long celebrated as an icon of modern exploration, used the Eskimos of northwestern Greenland as the human resources for his expeditions. Sailing aboard a ship called Hope in 1897, Peary entered New York harbor with six Eskimos as his cargo. Depositing them with the American Museum of Natural History as live "specimens" to be poked, measured, and observed by the paying public, Peary abruptly abandoned any responsibility for their care. Four of the Eskimos died within a year. One managed to gain passage back to Greenland. Only the sixth, a boy of six or seven with a precociously solemn smile, remained, orphaned and adrift in a bewildering metropolis. His name was Minik. Here, a century after the fact, is his story.

A searing true tale of extraordinary darkness told with intensity and vigilance, Give Me My Father's Body is Kenn Harper's absorbing, intricately documented account of ruthless imperialism in the name of science, of cruel deceptions and false burials, and of the short, strange, and tragic life of the boy known as the New York Eskimo.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When six-year-old Minik was chosen as one of six Eskimos from Qaanaaq, Greenland, to accompany explorer Robert Peary to New York City in 1897, he expected a brief adventure. Instead, he became an orphan and an exile. Treated as scientific curiosities, Minik's father and three others quickly succumbed to pneumonia, leaving the boy alone after the only other survivor returned to Greenland. Adopted by a middle-class family, Minik enjoyed a few relatively happy years until the family suffered financial disgrace. Peary refused to help support the boy or finance his return to Greenland, and Minik languished in poverty for several years. The horrific climax to his ordeal came when Minik learned that his father's body had been put on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Though his efforts to claim the body launched a media frenzy, they ultimately failed. Minik eventually returned to Greenland, where he had to relearn his native language and customs. Feeling marginalized among his people, he returned to the U.S. in 1916 only to die here two years later. Harper, who has lived for more than 30 years in the Arctic and is fluent in the Canadian Eskimo language, tells Minik's story straightforwardly and with sympathy. Yet he adheres so scrupulously to Minik's letters and other written accounts that his narrative is sometimes dry. As a tale of scientific arrogance, however, the book is chilling; as a portrait of an exploited, charming, intelligent, needy, sometimes vengeful and culturally ambivalent individual, it is truly unforgettable. B&w photographs. (Apr.) BOMC selection; rights sold in England, France, Germany and Spain; film rights optioned by Kevin Spacey. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
In 1897, explorer Robert Peary brought six Polar Eskimos from Greenland to New York City, among them a twelve-year-old girl and a boy of six or seven. Before a year was out, all of them fell ill and four died. The survivors were a young man, Uisaakassak and a boy, Minik, whose father, Qisuk, was among the deceased. Uisaakassak returned to Greenland, but Minik was left behind. Raised by a museum employee and his family, Minik had a fairly happy life. A decade after his arrival in the United States, however, Minik made a gruesome discovery: Qisuk's skeleton was part of a display in the American Museum of Natural History. He requested the return of his father's body; incredibly, the museum refused. Harper recounts Minik's life in unsparing detail. The arrogance of Peary, the museum officials and others is staggering, yet reflects the attitude of the time that the Polar Eskimos were not their equals and were suitable subjects for study "in the interest of science." Peary's abandonment of Minik and the museum's denial of displaying or even owning the bones are equally appalling; it was only in 1993 that Qisuk's bones, as well of those of the other three Polar Eskimos, also prepared as skeletons, were returned to Greenland for burial. Harper tempers his well-researched and well-documented text, however, and the narrative never falls into sensationalism. The writing is lucid and accessible and the subject well presented. An abridged "young readers" edition with some of the earthier elements edited out reads smoothly and makes Minik's story accessible to a wider range of readers. The book includes plenty of b/w photographs that further extend the text. Not only is this fascinating reading,but it is also thoughtful and thought provoking. KLIATT Codes: J*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior high school students. 2000, Pocket Books/Washington Square Press, 277p, 21cm, $13.95. Ages 13 to 15. Reviewer: Donna L. Scanlon; Children's Libn. Lancaster Area Lib. Lancaster, PA, May 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 3)
First published by a small Canadian press in 1986, Harper's book achieved critical acclaim when it was reprinted last year, and it is available here in an abridged edition for younger readers. In 1897 the arctic explorer Robert Peary brought six Eskimos back to New York and deposited them at the American Museum of Natural History. Treated with not-so-subtle racism, the Eskimos essentially were put on display until all but one of them died within a few months of their arrival, probably from tuberculosis. The one survivor, a small boy named Minik, was treated well at first. Later, however, he ended up on the streets of New York, forced to shift for himself. For years he tried in vain to secure both the financial support and the passage back to Greenland that he had been promised by the museum and by Peary, but he largely was ignored. Sadder still was his eventual discovery that his father's bones had not been given proper burial as he had been assured, but instead had been put on display in the museum. Although Minik did eventually return to the arctic for several years, his health was never good, and he died in 1917 in New Hampshire. His father's bones, and those of the other Eskimos from the Peary expedition, were not returned to the North until 1993, in part because of the furor raised by the first edition of Harper's powerful and somber biography. Thoughtful teens should find this book a riveting experience. Photos. Maps. Biblio. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Archway, 233p, $5.99 pb. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Michael LevySOURCE: VOYA, August 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 3)
Library Journal - Library Journal
Originally self-published in Greenland in 1986, this affecting work details the short, sad life of Minik, an orphaned Eskimo raised in America at the turn of the 20th century. On the surface, it is a tragic tale of a boy caught between two cultures, but more than that it is an expos of the intellectual arrogance that permeated the race to explore the Arctic region during this period. In 1897, explorer Robert Peary brought Minik and five other Greenland Eskimos to New York to be studied as live "specimens" by the American Museum of Natural History. When four of them died, including Minik's father, Qisuk, their bodies were used for scientific research and kept for exhibit at the museum. Minik's accidental discovery of his father's remains, his unsuccessful attempts to have them returned to him, and the museum's refusal to acknowledge the truth or relinquish the bones reveal the inherent racism and pettiness of the scientific community. (Pressure created by the publication of this book finally caused the museum to release the remains in 1993.) Told in unembellished prose with heartbreaking excerpts from Minik's own writings, this powerful book is recommended for all public and academic libraries. [A foreword by Kevin Spacey is included.--Ed.]--Rose M. Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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Chapter One


OISUK AND NUKTAQ WERE at Cape York already when the vessel hove into view. They recognized her from a distance — it was the Hope again, the same chartered Newfoundland sealer that had come the year before. They waited as Captain John Bartlett worked her carefully through the last few miles of drift ice and anchored at this favorite rendezvous of whalers, explorers, and Eskimos on the northern shores of Melville Bay. Then the familiar cry rang out. "Tikeqihunga," shouted an imposing figure from the deck. "I have arrived!" The man they knew as "Piuli" had returned once again.

    It was August of 1897. This was Robert Peary's fourth expedition to northwestern Greenland, the home of the Polar Eskimos. This visit would be a short one, like last year's had been. The explorer had but one purpose on this summer excursion — to secure a large meteorite that lay on an island thirty-five miles to the east of Cape York and haul it off to New York.

    In 1891 Peary had arrived for the first time in the district and established his headquarters in McCormick Bay. He had had grandiose plans for that expedition, among them to determine the northern limit of Greenland, to make ethnological studies of the Eskimos, and to discover a practical route to the North Pole, the elusive prize of centuries.

    On that expedition Robert Peary met for the first time the fabled Polar Eskimos. These were people quite unlike the Greenlanders he had met five years earlier in Disco Bay, who had had over one hundred years ofcontact with the Danish colonial government and had become accustomed to the ways of the white man. The people of Disco Bay had told fabulous tales of these wild Eskimos to the north, who still lived in much the same way as their own forefathers had done throughout the Arctic. Peary finally saw these untamed natives in 1891. He liked what he saw. For the next eighteen years, they would be "his" Eskimos.

    The Polar Eskimos had seen white men before, of course, but never one like Robert Peary. Physically he was most impressive. At six feet tall, he dwarfed most of them. Although lean, his superbly muscled body was conditioned to the precision of a finely tuned instrument. He was immensely powerful. He had that austere handsomeness that so befits the career adventurer. His hair was reddish blond, and his long, bushy mustache gave him a look of studied arrogance. But it was his eyes that one noticed first. Steely gray-blue in color, they gave the impression of seeing through a person, rather than looking at him. They betrayed his quick and ready smile, which was not really a smile at all but a public-relations gesture; the mouth smiled, but the eyes were devoid of emotion.

    The Eskimos learned early that he was excitable. He was easy to anger and could harbor a grudge for a long time. He set difficult objectives for himself and would tolerate no obstacles in the way of their achievement. Members of his expeditions, be they white men brought along from the south or Eskimos recruited in the north, were nothing more to him than tools to be used in the accomplishment of his goals. Even his most laudatory biographer acknowledged that "many in Peary's command used to return hating him in a way that murder couldn't gratify." For the Polar Eskimos, he was the most determined and the most difficult white man they had yet encountered. But they served him, as they served all those who came among them, for he carried trade goods with him on his ship and rewarded well those who did his bidding.

The first white man to visit the Polar Eskimos was the British explorer John Ross. Some time before his arrival, a woman of the tribe had prophesied that "a big boat with tall poles would come into view from the ocean." Sure enough, one day in the early summer of 1818 a ship arrived and lay to by the ice edge. The Eskimos thought it a marvel of ingenuity and described it as "a whole island of wood which moved along the sea on wings, and in its depths had many houses and rooms full of noisy people. Little boats hung along the rail, and these, filled with men, were lowered on the water, and as they surrounded the ship it looked as if the monster gave birth to living young."

    The ship remained long enough for Ross to make contact with the Eskimos. Fortunately, he had along a West Greenlander who could interpret, after a fashion, for him — though his dialect was very different from that of the Polar Eskimos. Then, as unexpectedly as it had arrived, the ship "turned towards the sea with the sun shining on its white wings and disappeared into the horizon."

    Ross was surprised to find people living this far north. And the Arctic Highlanders, as he called them, were equally surprised to meet Ross, for in their isolation they had thought that they were the only human beings in the world.

    It was a small enough world that they inhabited, a narrow strip of coastline bounded on three sides by glaciers and on the fourth by the sea. The broad expanse of Melville Bay and the glaciers that descend to it separated them from the West Greenlanders to the south. The Humboldt Glacier in Kane Basin bounded their area on the north. To the east, the great expanse of the inland ice was everywhere only a few miles distant. This immense icecap and its tributary glaciers had always limited the extent of Polar Eskimo habitation and travel. When Elisha Kent Kane, the American explorer, met the Polar Eskimos in April of 1854 at Rensselaer Harbor, he noted, "If you point to the east, inland, where the herds of caribou run over the barren hills ... they will cry `Sermeq,' `glacier'; and, question them as you may about the range of their nation to the north and south, the answer is still the same, with a shake of the head, `Sermeq, sermersuaq,' `the great ice-wall': there is no more beyond."

    In Ross's and Kane's time, theirs was a self-supporting society of about two hundred people relying on hunting and collecting for their food. They lived in small camps, usually of a few families each, and within the confines of their ice-enclosed strip of coastline they were nomadic. A long and oppressively dark winter dominated their lives. The sea ice usually did not break up until late July or early August. Even then, summer brought warmth but not freedom, for the Eskimos were landbound during the scant two-month ice-free season — they had lost knowledge of both the kayak and the larger umiaq, the women's boat. Their loss confined the population to shore, where they lived the summer on caches of food put up during the long and glorious spring. With summer movement so restricted they chose their summer camping grounds in areas where they could supplement their diet with the meat and eggs of the little auk. This godsend came by the millions each spring to nest on the fabled bird cliffs; it was such easy prey that everyone — men, women, children, and the aged — were able to take part in the catch. The birds provided not just food but also skins for the inner coats of both men and women.

    If the immobility of summer was limiting, winter was not much better, for the midwinter darkness restricted movement almost as effectively as did the open water of summer. Four months separated the autumn setting of the sun from its reappearance in February and the height of the dark season was a time of laxity and occasional depression. When Kane wintered for the first time, seventy miles to the north of Etah, he had with him a young Greenlandic Eskimo man, the first of those from more southerly parts of Greenland to come among the Polar Eskimos. Suersaq (white men called him Hans Hendrik) had been born below the Arctic Circle, where the sun never permanently disappears, and he described his experience of that first winter:

    "Then it really grew winter and dreadfully cold, and the sky speedily darkened. Never had I seen the dark season like this, to be sure it was awful. I thought we should have no daylight any more. I was seized with fright, and fell a-weeping. I never in my life saw such darkness at noon time. As the darkness continued for three months, I really believed we should have no daylight more."

    When the ice formed in October, the Eskimos were finally able to leave the bird cliffs and move to the settlements where they would pass the winter living in stone houses. Before the dark was upon them, they hunted marine mammals at the floe edge — ringed seal, bearded seal, walrus, and narwhal — and sealed on the smooth ice at the heads of the fjords. Polar bears, indispensable for clothing, were also hunted in the fall and winter. As food had been cached in spring for the immobility of summer, so it was cached in the fall for the dark period ahead. Often it was insufficient, and starvation was common in late January and February. At times like these hunters gathered at Neqe — the very name means "meat" — where open water was close by throughout the winter. There they hunted walrus until the more favorable conditions of spring allowed more travel and sealing on the ice.

    Despite the hardships, this was home to two hundred people who lived for the magnificent months of sunshine that are the High Arctic spring. The sun made its reappearance in mid-February and, from then until mid-June, rose progressively higher in the sky each day. By early April the darkness of the few previous months had been supplanted by twenty-four hours of daylight. The sea still formed a smooth surface for travel. Families packed, traveled, visited with friends and kin, and moved on. Sea mammals were plentiful in the waters at the floe edge and seals basked on the ice surface. Indeed, life was glorious.

    In their isolation, the Polar Eskimos had lost not only the knowledge of seagoing vessels, but also the use of bird spears, fish leisters, and the bow and arrow. Incredibly, the last loss meant that they were not able to exploit the local caribou. A fortuitous immigration of Canadian Eskimos from Baffin Island in the 1860s reintroduced the kayak, the bow and arrow, and the leister. By the time Peary came among them, the Polar Eskimos were, as a result, better supplied than they had been when Ross paid them his brief visit seventy-three years earlier.

    When Kane lived in the northern part of the district, he noted tersely, "They have no wood." Driftwood rarely found its way to their shores, and the Polar Eskimos often used bone as a substitute, Narwhal tusks or bear and walrus bones fitted together were used as weapon shafts, and whale bones as sled runners. Wood, when it could be secured, was a priceless treasure.

    It was the desire for wood, above all else, that made the arrival of ships such a welcome event, though they showed up infrequently. In the wake of John Ross two distinct types of white men began to frequent Melville Bay. One group, men like Ross himself, came to ask peculiar questions and pursue elusive goals. It was hard to understand their motivation, but it mattered little as long as they traded or paid for the services of the Eskimo men with wood, guns, and the other commodities they carried.

    The Polar Eskimos could make more sense of the ways of the other newcomers, for they were skillful hunters who came, when the ice of Melville Bay was passable, in sailing ships in the late spring in search of the largest treasure of the northern sea, the bowhead whale. The Polar Eskimos had dubbed them upernaallit, "those who arrive in spring." They too carried trade goods. They also expressed more than a passing interest in the women of the Eskimos, and many were especially generous with gifts of wood, knives, and needles to the men who would let their wives visit the ships. The greatest bonanza of all was a shipwreck — a tragedy for the crews involved, but it could never happen often enough as far as the Eskimos were concerned.

Peary had approached the Eskimos with some wariness in 1891, influenced by reports of earlier explorers about the natives' treachery and thieving nature. Their behavior aboard ship had amazed Kane, who called them "incorrigible scamps" and wrote, "When they were first allowed to come aboard, they were very rude and difficult to manage. They spoke three or four at a time, to each other, and to us, laughing heartily at our ignorance in not understanding them. They were incessantly in motion, going everywhere, trying doors and squeezing through dark passages, round casks and into the light again, anxious to touch and handle everything they saw, and asking for or endeavoring to steal everything they touched." Before long they were busily running back and forth from the ship to their sleds, carrying off their loot.

    After studying the narratives of Arctic exploration, Peary had concluded that the travel methods endorsed by earlier explorers had led to unnecessary hardship and death. British explorers in particular had disdained the use of dogs for hauling sleds — they claimed the dogs ate too much — and used man-hauled sleds instead. As a result many expeditions that went north had stayed in the north — their remains lay dead on the tundra and the beaches. Peary shunned their "orthodox" methods. Instead, he would go among the natives, live in proximity to them, and use their travel methods. What could make more sense, he thought, than to use the Eskimos' dogs as the means of traction, and the Eskimos themselves to hunt for fresh meat for dogs and men alike? They would be paid cheaply with trade goods brought from the United States, so all sides would benefit. And so the 1891 overwintering had been in a sense an experiment to see if Peary's "radical" ideas about living in large part off the land and off the fruits of the Eskimos' hunting endeavors were practical. He was pleased to discover that they were.

    In 1893 Peary was back again, and this time he would overwinter for two years. His announced goals for the expedition were to continue the mapping and surveying of northern Greenland, complete the ethnographical studies of the Polar Eskimos, and, if conditions allowed, attempt to reach the North Pole. After the favorable experiences of his previous expedition, he felt confident in relying more on the Eskimos, and he developed closer ties with some of them this time. Two of them were Qisuk and Nuktaq, who had both worked for him in 1891 and were happy to do so again. They were impressed with Peary's tenacity and personal toughness. Here was a man who at least had enough common sense to use the native dogs to haul the sleds, although they were perplexed and amused by the donkeys he brought along to haul supplies from the beach to his housesite. He brought his wife along, an act that had convinced many of his critics in the south that the man was indeed crazy, for Mrs. Peary was obviously pregnant with her first child when the ship left for the north. The baby was born in December and named Marie Ahnighito; she was nicknamed "The Snow Baby."

    A Peary biographer summarized succinctly the explorer's adaptation to his northern environment: "He learned to drive and care for dogs in native fashion.... He learned to dress like an Eskimo.... He learned the technique of building a snow-igloo.... He learned the value of laying in a supply of fresh meat during the proper hunting seasons.... He learned where game was most plentiful by listening to native teaching, and what methods of search were most successful. He discovered the psychology of the native, and so was able to organize the tribe almost with the efficacy he would have used with a large band of trained white helpers.... "

    But although Peary lived among the Eskimos, he clearly did not feel them to be his equals. They and Matthew Henson, his black servant and dog driver whom he once berated for not calling him "Sir" often enough, were in Peary's estimation members of inferior races. Strong, knowledgeable, and reliable providers, they were somehow not as good as a white man. They, even more than his white colleagues, were the means to an end. He once had the effrontery to write, "I have often been asked: `Of what use are Eskimos to the world?' They are too far removed to be of any value for commercial enterprises; and, furthermore, they lack ambition. They have no literature; nor, properly speaking, any art. They value life only as does a fox, or a bear, purely by instinct. But let us not forget that these people, trustworthy and hardy, will yet prove their value to mankind. With their help, the world shall discover the Pole."

    Peary's attitude toward the Eskimos, on whom he depended, often for his very life, tarnished the work he might have accomplished. He was intimately associated with the Polar Eskimos for almost two decades, yet, in the opinion of a noted anthropologist, he "did not produce a single good ethnograhic or archaeological study." He was unable to speak the Eskimo language well, even after eighteen years of association with them, and he misunderstood many aspects of Eskimo culture.

    The Eskimos knew him as Piuli — the best they could do at pronouncing his name — or "Piulerriaq." He was, they realized, a man of tenacity and drive. Uutaaq, who accompanied him on his final poleward dash in 1909, called him "a great leader," but to others he was an enigma. Knud Rasmussen, the Danish adventurer, put it the most charitably when he said that "their respect for the man was greater than their love." An anthropologist who heard the Eskimos talk about Peary almost half a century after he had left the district characterized him as a man who accomplished his aims "by threats, coercion, and the power of his authority." He appropriated the entire band of Polar Eskimos. They were "his," just as surely as were his sled, his Arctic gear, and anything else he needed in the fanatical pursuit of his goals. They could work only for him. Their dogs, he insisted, were to be available to him alone for barter. It was the same with their furs and the ivory tusks of walrus and narwhal, which he acquired in exchange for cheap trade goods from the United States and sold for a handsome profit. In his writings, the Eskimos were "my faithful, trusty Eskimo allies, dusky children of the Pole" and "effective instruments for Arctic work." At the end of his Arctic career, after an association of almost twenty years, he had the arrogance to write that "these people are much like children, and should be treated as such."

    His ego was enormous. He felt that "their feeling for me is one of gratitude and confidence," and he concluded that "it would be misleading to infer that almost any man who went to the Eskimos with gifts could obtain from them the kind of service they have given me; for it must be remembered that they have known me personally for nearly twenty years.... I have saved whole villages from starvation, and the children are taught by their parents that if they grow up and become good hunters or good seamstresses, as the case may be, `Piulerriaq' will reward them sometime in the not too distant future."

    To be sure, some Eskimos genuinely liked the man. The influential Uutaaq was among them. But many others retain a quite different memory of him. In 1967 an elderly man in tiny Siorapaluk, the district's most northerly village, reminisced about Peary, the man he referred to as "the great tormentor":

    "People were afraid of him ... really afraid.... His big ship ... it made a big impression on us. He was a great leader. You always had the feeling that if you didn't do what he wanted, he would condemn you to death.... I was very young, but I will never forget how he treated the Inuit.... His big ship arrives in the bay. He is hardly visible from the shore, but he shouts: `Kiiha Tikeqihunga! — I'm arriving, for a fact!' The Inuit go aboard. Peary has a barrel of biscuits brought up on deck. The two or three hunters who have gone out to the ship in their kayaks bend over the barrel and begin to eat with both hands. Later, the barrel is taken ashore, and the contents thrown on the beach. Men, women and children hurl themselves on the biscuits like dogs, which amuses Peary a lot. My heart still turns cold to think of it. That scene tells very well how he considered this people -- my people — who were, for all of that, devoted to him."

What People are Saying About This

Farley Mowat
Give Me My Father's Body is a rarity in the Arctic genre - a book about the fascinating region by someone who actually lived in the world about which he writes. But the book is much more than that: it is also the finest revelation about the truth behind the Pealy polar myth I've ever read; and the story of Minik, the New York Eskimo is a gut-wrenching account of man's inhumanity to man, and of the blind idolatry which such science is worshipped in our times.
—Farley Mowat, author of Never Cry Wolf and The Far Farers

Meet the Author

For more than thirty years, Kenn Harper has lived in Eskimo communities in the Baffin Region and in Qaanaaq, Greenland. He has worked as a teacher, development officer, historian, linguist, and businessman. He speaks Inuktitut, the Eskimo language of the eastern Canadian Arctic, and has written extensively on northern history and the Inuktitut language. He now lives in Iqaluit, capital of the new Arctic territory of Nunavut, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

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