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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic February 21, 2014 - 9:50 am

Taissumani, Feb. 21

The Fifth Thule Expedition – Beginnings

Ivaluarjuk, a story-teller whom Rasmussen met among the Iglulingmiut. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Ivaluarjuk, a story-teller whom Rasmussen met among the Iglulingmiut. (HARPER COLLECTION)

The Fifth Thule Expedition was Knud Rasmussen’s crowning achievement. Born in Ilulissat in 1879, Rasmussen grew up among Inuit and was part Greenlandic.

An expedition to northern Greenland in 1902 introduced him to the Inughuit, the Polar Eskimos, about whom he had heard tales since boyhood.

In 1909, on another expedition to that district, he met Dr. Hans Peder Steensby, a scientist interested in the origins of Eskimo culture. Steensby believed that the Eskimo culture was not originally a maritime culture, but that it had originated in the interior of northern Canada, near Great Slave Lake, and only later spread to the coast.

Steensby’s theories fueled in Rasmussen a desire to take up this study and to visit central Eskimo groups, that is, the Inuit of northern Canada. That very year he outlined his plans for a major expedition to Canada in the Danish journal, Geografisk Tidsskrift. But it would take 12 years for his dream to become a reality.

Although the Inughuit had once been extremely isolated and self-sufficient, in the latter half of the 1800s they had become dependent on whalers for a variety of trade goods, including guns and ammunition. After 1891, with whaling in decline, it was the American explorer Robert Peary who provided these items.

But in 1909 Peary had discovered (or claimed to discover) the North Pole; he would no longer return to supply the group he called “Peary’s People” with trade goods. Scottish whaling ships arrived only sporadically, and in most years not at all. The Inuit would face tougher times.

Knud Rasmussen saw the opportunity to fill a void. In 1910, he founded Thule, the world’s northernmost trading post, at the site where a mission had been established the previous year. His friend, Peter Freuchen, became post manager.

From the outset it was intended that this would be no ordinary trading post. It would serve also as a base for the expeditions Rasmussen proposed, to explore the region, fill in blank spaces on the map, and collect the folk tales and traditional knowledge of the Inuit.

Furthermore, the profits to be had from trading would finance these scientific endeavours. Through trade, then, the Inughuit must surely be the only tribal group in history to have financed scientific research into their own culture.

Four “Thule Expeditions” ensued. Finally, in 1921, Knud Rasmussen was ready to realize his long-held dream, the Fifth Thule Expedition. Its official title added the words, “Danish Ethnographical Expedition to Arctic North America, 1921-24.”

Its purpose was lofty, but in simplest terms, as expressed by Rasmussen himself, it was to investigate “the great primary problem of the origin of the Eskimo race.” It was time to find out if Steensby’s theories held water.

This was a scientific expedition. Four Danes participated: Peter Freuchen as surveyor and naturalist, Therkel Mathiassen as archaeologist, Kaj Birket-Smith as ethnologist, and Helge Bangsted as his assistant. (In the expedition’s final phase, another Dane, the photographer Leo Hansen joined Rasmussen.)

Rasmussen himself was the leader and folklorist. A Kalaaleq (a West Greenlander), Jacob Olsen, was secretary and interpreter to the Danes who could not speak an Eskimo dialect. Six Inughuit also participated.

They established their headquarters at a small island in Foxe Basin that they named Danish Island. It would be their base for three years. From there, the scientists travelled north, south and west to document the land, its wildlife and, most of all, its people.

In February of 1922, Rasmussen was travelling by sled with his Polar Inuit companions along the shores of Foxe Basin, north of Lyon Inlet. They were about to make camp for the night when suddenly, out of the darkness, appeared a team of fifteen white dogs pulling a long sled carrying six men.

Sighting the party of strangers, a small man with a long beard, his face framed in ice and snow, leapt from the sled and ran towards Rasmussen. 

This, Rasmussen wrote, was Aua, the shaman of whom he had heard so much. Because he spoke Greenlandic fluently, Rasmussen was easily able to understand the dialects he encountered in northern Canada.

So he was able to learn much about the customs of the people he called the Iglulik Eskimos (a sub-group of the Aivilingmiut) from Aua, his garrulous wife Orulo, and the others who lived in their camp.

Indeed Aua and Orulo are the central characters in the length report that Rasmussen wrote under the title, The Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos.

Next Week — Testing Steensby’s Theory among the Caribou Inuit.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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