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July 2016: Biography Memoir > White Eskimo--Stephen Bown (5 stars)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments This book satisfied my craving to learn more about the life and accomplishments of Rasmussen after getting pumped up about him with Ehrlich’s wonderful memoir “Seven Seasons in Greenland.” While a fever of public attention has and still does attend to the race to reach the North Pole, the amazing work of this Dane in the early 20th century is little known. Raised in Greenland among the Inuit, this son of a missionary rector was perfect in personality and skills for what could be called ethnographic exploration. Starting with Greenland itself, which is over three times the size of Texas or France, he travelled by dogsled seeking out all known groups and tribes of Inuits and documented their way of life, their stories and songs, and their myths and spirituality. In his most significant expedition, he led a group of Danes and Greenlanders from Hudson’s Bay through Canada and Alaska all the way to Siberia along the icy waterway of the Northwest Passage. His books on the Intuit (or Eskimo in the older appellation) represent an unparalleled accomplishment and important source material on the varieties and commonalities of a culture that was even then rapidly being transformed by contact with modern civilization.

The author introduction sums up why Rasmussen was uniquely suited for his avocation:
The skills Rasmussen acquired as a child—his facility in spoken and written languages, his hunting ability, his familiarity with travel by dogsled, his early exposure to Greenlandic and Norse myths and legends—all combined to create a unique personality ideally suited not only to geographical but also cultural Arctic exploration. His later journeys “were like happy continuances of my childhood and youth … the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me”.

Where Knud grew up in northwest Greenland was a village of a few hundred Inuit containing four Danish families. Their language was spoken in his home, and he constantly played with native children, directly imbibing their culture and learning their skills in hunting and dogsled travel. His father, Christian, was a liberal humanist who respected native culture and beliefs despite the overall thrust of the Lutheran mission. When he made his rounds to various settlements in his 600-mile long territory, he often took Knud along. While his father attended to marriages, christenings, and funerals, Knud homed in on the shamans and female elders for their stories. Because his mother was part Inuit, he was more accepted as an equal. When he was 12, he was sent to private school in Denmark, where through much struggle came to be accepted as an exotic outsider. By the time he completed school, his parents had moved to Copenhagen, and Knud yearned to go back. After a period of hanging out in intellectual circles, womanizing, and dabbling with ambitions to become an opera singer, he drifted into journalism to make a living. He talked his way into an assignment on the status of the Laplander Sami people of Arctic Scandanavia. His delving into the Sami way life made him realize how much their culture was being destroyed by modernity, and through his book he tried to inspire efforts to preserve it as much as possible:

In the end, he was concerned that to achieve understanding and acceptance, people needed to overlook the Sami’s apparent material poverty and see their rich inner life. It was the forstimpression of an idea that would so powerfully inform his own life—that social culture, not its architecture or mode of locomotion or diet or clothing was the true mark of a society’s soul. “There was once a time on earth,” Rasmussen wrote, “when there was less wisdom and more happiness. Men were more simple, more reasonable than now, and we are told they lived life for life’s sake.” Here he expressed a philosophy that would accompany him all his life, a vision that led him to his great interest in the mythical world of the Arctic native peoples.

Eventually he infected other Danes with his dream of studying the Inuit and promoting ways to preserve their culture. Through funding of a foundation, he led a two and a half year expedition around northern Greenland, called the Danish Literary Expedition. By making use of hunting along the way, such expeditions could be achieved with a small party of Danes and Greenlanders and only a few sleds. His leadership and inspiration to others were remarkable. He would sing to his crew, make a game of imagining all the wonderful food they didn’t have, play Mozart in camp on his portable gramophone, and use any excuse to make a celebration of feasting and dancing at any settlement they contacted. However, the inevitable jealousy from other Danes who had inflated egos sometimes caused major problems. Two deaths on one foray of the expedition reflected just how close to the edge of survival these trips involved. After the early success, he established in 1910 a trading post at Thule in northwest Greenland with his friend Peter Freuchen, a cartographer and zoologist, which provided an income source and starting base for a series of subsequent expeditions.

On one foray, they established contact with an Inuit group that had been lost to knowledge by the southern tribe for generations. This part of the book was quite moving and uplifting. Another trip 600 miles across the Greenland icecap made for remarkable reading, an accomplishment previously made only by the Norwegian Nansen and an inspiration during Knud’s childhood . The account of ascending glaciers to 7,000 feet and crossing such a vast desert of cold and dead is mind boggling. They ran out of food and had to eat the walrus hide used for sled runners and eventually some of the dogs. I always hate to hear that, especially given the deep bonds explorers have to make with their dogs. Rasmussen had a special way with the dogs, and some said he could look into their eyes and inspire extra feats of endurance by some kind of hypnotism. The trip, ostensibly to search for survivors of a polar expedition, accomplished little for Knud’s agenda but the joy of adventure. Some ancient stone ruins were found that hinted at much older habitation. On the eastern shore they ran out of bullets, so Knud improvised a spear from a stick and a knife, by which he succeeded in killing dangerous musk oxen for their survival.

The major four-year journey to the Pacific didn’t come about until 1921. In the years preceding that, Knud married the aristocratic Copenhagen beauty Dagmar. She made one extended visit to Greenland, but the usual pattern was long waiting in Denmark for his periodic returns. Somehow she came to accept that her husband’s gregarious nature and allure would always be associated with affairs during their separation. Knud’s friend Freuchen married an Inuit woman who accompanied them on some of their trips. Her death from the Spanish flu was a particularly sad part of this book.

This book really doesn’t get into details of Inuit religion and mythology, though some wonderful passages from their songs and some of the stories are provided. Nor does it delve into the more recent history of the Inuit and the impact of global warming. I came away with quite a bit of respect for Denmark in restricting for a long time the access of outsiders to the Inuit settlements as far back as the early 18th century. The Norse had settled southern Greenland in the 10th century, a colony that peaked at about 5,000 residents and lasted until the 15th century (profiled in Diamond’s wonderful book, “Collapse”, and part of the oral saga of Erik the Red). The movement of Inuit into Greenland from Ellsmere Island in the 13th century led to some conflicts with the Norse. While global cooling led to their abandonment of their colony, the Inuits survived through their innovation of dogsled travel, kayaks, and harpoon hunting of seal and walrus. Thus, they were encountered when a second wave of Scandanavians arrived in the 1720s for whaling and seal hunting, accompanied with their missionaries. Soon Denmark achieved sovereignity and kept incursions to a minimum. Given that harbors are frozen for all but a brief window in summer, the tough life living there obviously contributed.

I must admit to looking down on the eating of raw or fermented meats as a mainstay of diet. And the prospect of months without sun seems horrifying to contemplate. But reading this helped me overcome some of these negative attitudes. I was previously inspired by Diamond at the beginning of his “Guns, Germs, and Steel” where he comes to the epiphany that the so-called primitive New Guinea tribesmen he befriended were just as intelligent, fully human, and invested in creative life careers as hunter-gatherers as him in his “civilized” lifestyle. It was so uplifting to gather in Rasmussen’s love of these people, almost with the sense of nobility we feel about Bronze Age Greeks:

Rasmussen’s view of the Inuit was so different from that of other people at the time because he had a window into their rich inner world. He was not put off by their shabby, often rough external image. When he was inhabiting this inner world, a bubble of awe enveloped him, and he saw the Inuit in a heroic mold.

Living so close to the edge of death, it is no wonder that their poetry and songs are not carefree tales of adventure and obstacles overcome:
Frequently they are preoccupied with darker, more disturbing themes of death, starvation, murder, evil spirits, hunger, disease, cannibalism, intertribal conflict and suicide by elders.

The author convey’s Rasmussen’s simplistic understanding and forgiveness for some of these baser elements, refraining from any deeper forays into sociology and anthropology to account for them:
The shortage of women led to fights over wives and polyandry, or husband sharing, which also led to murder. These seemingly brutal practices resulted from the requirements of the harsh land the people occupied.

message 2: by Sara (new)

Sara (mootastic1) | 770 comments Thank for this thorough and thoughtful review. I am not at all familiar with Rasmussen, but this review makes me want to know more. I will be adding it to my tbr.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Sara wrote: "Thank for this thorough and thoughtful review. I am not at all familiar with Rasmussen, but this review makes me want to know more. I will be adding it to my tbr."

Thanks most kindly. Hope it works out for you. A library version would be better than an ebook because of the maps and pictures.

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