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

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ISBN-13: 9780743410052
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: 02/27/2001
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 0.70(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Peary's People

Qisuk 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, as 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 thefirst 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 Disko Bay, who had had over one hundred years of contact with the Danish colonial government and had become accustomed to the ways of the white man. The people of Disko 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. This immense ice cap 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...question them...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. 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.

Four months separated the autumn setting of the sun from its reappearance in February. 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 Þoe 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 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.

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 Þoe 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. 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, inÞuenced 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 house site. 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, he felt. 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 unable to speak the Eskimo language well, even after eighteen years of association with them, and he misunderstood many aspects of Eskimo culture.

Copyright © 1986, 2000 by Kenn Harper

Table of Contents

ForewordXI
IntroductionXV
1Peary's People1
2The Iron Mountain11
3Arrival in America21
4An Eskimo Orphan in New York33
5Minik, the American43
6The Wallace Affair55
7Scam65
8"Destined to a Life of Tears"75
9Give Me My Father's Body83
10In the Interest of Science91
11"The Very Pitiful Case of Minik"99
12"A Hopeless Condition of Exile"109
13The Polar Plan121
14Runaway127
15"An Iron-Clad Agreement"137
16Return to Greenland149
17An Eskimo Again157
18The Thule Station167
19Uisaakassak: The Big Liar173
20Wanted: Dead or Alive179
21The Crocker Land Expedition191
22Back on Broadway205
23The North Country213
Epilogue220
Afterword225
Appendix231
Notes237
Bibliography257
Acknowledgments265
Photographic Credits269
Index273

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

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discusion

1. In rendering Minik Wallace's tragic story with such care, skill, and poignancy, Give Me My Father's Body is a true standout in the Arctic history genre — a genre that has in the past been charged with jingoism and celebrating, among other things, the inherency of American imperialism. But what is perhaps most distinctive about this work is that it is crafted by someone who actually speaks the languages of his subjects and lives in the world about which he writes. Paying particular attention to Kenn Harper's Introduction, Epilogue, and Afterword, discuss the specific ways in which the author's experience, ideology, and personal background may have contributed to this book's unique historical perspective.

2. "Winners write history." How does this tried-and-true classroom standby which we've all grown up with speak to the issues surrounding this particular book (as well as to the Arctic history narratives that have preceded it)?

3. Thinking back to your high school or college history courses, what do you recall reading about Robert Peary and the American exploration community as a whole at the close of the nineteenth century? How has Kenn Harper's book challenged or even debunked many of the characterizations and so-called myths that have been perpetuated over the decades?

4. What aspects and shadings of this story would likely have been lost, overlooked, or simply interpreted differently had it been written by someone other than Kenn Harper?

5. In the long view, which of the following finally bears more weight upon a work of historical writing: the history that is being written, or the historian who is doing the writing? Explain.

6. Early on, Harper looks back to the archetypes of the arctic historical narrative (by such luminaries as Freuchen, Rasmussen, and Malaurie) and writes, "This book tells the story that they have all missed." In this deceptively simple statement, what might Harper be leaving unsaid? That is, why is it that this particular story has been largely overlooked and quietly elided by the United States' anthropological, historical, and museum communities for so many decades?

7. "Neither fish nor fowl, no longer a simple Eskimo and yet not a complicated Yankee, he was more than ever alone." In Give Me My Father's Body, the notion of "home" is paramount. How does the drama of Minik's painful search for a true home, for a lasting sense of connection, distinguish Harper's history from other histories you've read?

8. Discuss the techniques by which Harper's writing style (for example, his subtle and unadorned prose, as well as his tendency to leave many of the narrative's darker implications unsaid) lends to the book a gravity and an empathy that touch upon certain universal emotions. How does Give Me My Father's Body compare, both stylistically and thematically, to other histories you I've read about turn-of-the-century New York and the United States?

9. Given that many in today's Inuit community take issue with the use of the term "Eskimo" — likening it to other antiquated terms like "Negro," "colored," and "redskin" — what do you make of Harper's decision to use Eskimo throughout Give Me My Father's Body? Reread the author's discussion of this decision in his Introduction.

10. What kind of a man was Morris Jesup? For decades regarded as the leading player and key financier behind the development of the American Museum of Natural History into the world's bedrock of anthropology as well as an unassailable national institution, Jesup comes across in Kenn Harper's book as a character of great ambivalence and ambiguity, to put it mildly. What would you say was Jesup's chief motivation? The perpetuation of scientific integrity? The furthering of America's "manifest destiny"? His personal reputation? And what do you make of his about-face regarding Minik's welfare?

11. In conjunction with your discussion of Jesup, talk about Harper's presentation of the book's other principals, many of whom have been long championed as legendary heroes in the canon of American history: Franz Boas, Frederick Cook, Donald MacMillan, Knud Rasmussen and, especially, Robert Peary.

12. What is possibly the most unsettling aspect of Give Me My Father's Body is the fact that Minik's tragedy is only a single one among a long list of crimes and abuses visited on the Polar Eskimos by Peary and others in the name of science and American supremacy. For example, Peary absconded with the meteor, a landmark to which the natives had attached sacred significance, and which was also their sole source of iron. How did Peary, and his American backers, justify such an action? Discuss Harper's other revelations about indignities suffered by the Inuit, whether large or small.

13. Reread the book's epigraphs by Robert Peary, Osarqaq, and Erik Holtved. How do they inform the narrative that follows, and what, with their inclusion in his book, does Kenn Harper seem to be saying about the art of historical scholarship and about the natures of scientific inquiry, human myth-making, and cultural imperialism?

14. Could a tragedy like Minik's possibly happen today? Are indigenous peoples undergoing similar kinds of treatment even now? Explain.

15. As "a part of the Hall family," Minik finally experiences for the first time in his life the matchless relief of anonymity, enjoying what Harper calls "the happiest period of his adulthood, and the most peaceful." Discuss the implications behind Minik's death here in New Hampshire — a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die," part of the remote "no-man's land of the Indian Stream Republic, the country that could never be." What effect does Harper achieve by underscoring these ironies and issues at the very close of his book?

Introduction

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discusion

1. In rendering Minik Wallace's tragic story with such care, skill, and poignancy, Give Me My Father's Body is a true standout in the Arctic history genre—a genre that has in the past been charged with jingoism and celebrating, among other things, the inherency of American imperialism. But what is perhaps most distinctive about this work is that it is crafted by someone who actually speaks the languages of his subjects and lives in the world about which he writes. Paying particular attention to Kenn Harper's Introduction, Epilogue, and Afterword, discuss the specific ways in which the author's experience, ideology, and personal background may have contributed to this book's unique historical perspective.

2. "Winners write history." How does this tried-and-true classroom standby which we've all grown up with speak to the issues surrounding this particular book (as well as to the Arctic history narratives that have preceded it)?

3. Thinking back to your high school or college history courses, what do you recall reading about Robert Peary and the American exploration community as a whole at the close of the nineteenth century? How has Kenn Harper's book challenged or even debunked many of the characterizations and so-called myths that have been perpetuated over the decades?

4. What aspects and shadings of this story would likely have been lost, overlooked, or simply interpreted differently had it been written by someone other than Kenn Harper?

5. In the long view, which of the following finally bears more weight upon a work of historical writing: the history thatis being written, or the historian who is doing the writing? Explain.

6. Early on, Harper looks back to the archetypes of the arctic historical narrative (by such luminaries as Freuchen, Rasmussen, and Malaurie) and writes, "This book tells the story that they have all missed." In this deceptively simple statement, what might Harper be leaving unsaid? That is, why is it that this particular story has been largely overlooked and quietly elided by the United States' anthropological, historical, and museum communities for so many decades?

7. "Neither fish nor fowl, no longer a simple Eskimo and yet not a complicated Yankee, he was more than ever alone." In Give Me My Father's Body, the notion of "home" is paramount. How does the drama of Minik's painful search for a true home, for a lasting sense of connection, distinguish Harper's history from other histories you've read?

8. Discuss the techniques by which Harper's writing style (for example, his subtle and unadorned prose, as well as his tendency to leave many of the narrative's darker implications unsaid) lends to the book a gravity and an empathy that touch upon certain universal emotions. How does Give Me My Father's Body compare, both stylistically and thematically, to other histories you I've read about turn-of-the-century New York and the United States?

9. Given that many in today's Inuit community take issue with the use of the term "Eskimo"—likening it to other antiquated terms like "Negro," "colored," and "redskin"—what do you make of Harper's decision to use Eskimo throughout Give Me My Father's Body? Reread the author's discussion of this decision in his Introduction.

10. What kind of a man was Morris Jesup? For decades regarded as the leading player and key financier behind the development of the American Museum of Natural History into the world's bedrock of anthropology as well as an unassailable national institution, Jesup comes across in Kenn Harper's book as a character of great ambivalence and ambiguity, to put it mildly. What would you say was Jesup's chief motivation? The perpetuation of scientific integrity? The furthering of America's "manifest destiny"? His personal reputation? And what do you make of his about-face regarding Minik's welfare?

11. In conjunction with your discussion of Jesup, talk about Harper's presentation of the book's other principals, many of whom have been long championed as legendary heroes in the canon of American history: Franz Boas, Frederick Cook, Donald MacMillan, Knud Rasmussen and, especially, Robert Peary.

12. What is possibly the most unsettling aspect of Give Me My Father's Body is the fact that Minik's tragedy is only a single one among a long list of crimes and abuses visited on the Polar Eskimos by Peary and others in the name of science and American supremacy. For example, Peary absconded with the meteor, a landmark to which the natives had attached sacred significance, and which was also their sole source of iron. How did Peary, and his American backers, justify such an action? Discuss Harper's other revelations about indignities suffered by the Inuit, whether large or small.

13. Reread the book's epigraphs by Robert Peary, Osarqaq, and Erik Holtved. How do they inform the narrative that follows, and what, with their inclusion in his book, does Kenn Harper seem to be saying about the art of historical scholarship and about the natures of scientific inquiry, human myth-making, and cultural imperialism?

14. Could a tragedy like Minik's possibly happen today? Are indigenous peoples undergoing similar kinds of treatment even now? Explain.

15. As "a part of the Hall family," Minik finally experiences for the first time in his life the matchless relief of anonymity, enjoying what Harper calls "the happiest period of his adulthood, and the most peaceful." Discuss the implications behind Minik's death here in New Hampshire—a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die," part of the remote "no-man's land of the Indian Stream Republic, the country that could never be." What effect does Harper achieve by underscoring these ironies and issues at the very close of his book?

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Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo (Abridged) 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Doozer on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Harper presents a disturbing side to America's fascination with the Arctic. The Inuit Minik's story is well-told, shedding light on the often dehumanizing actions of explorers and anthropologists.
LibraryDiva76 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
The tragic tale of a young boy who was taken from his home in Greenland and brought to New York City as a living artifact of his culture. Harper uses sources that have been buried by the New York Museum of Natural History for nearly a century to uncover the sad and shameful tale, and the museum's role in it. Very well-written, gives one a lot of food for thought.