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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic February 28, 2014 - 9:36 am

Taissumani, Feb. 28

The Fifth Thule Expedition – The Caribou Inuit

Kibgarjuk, wife of Igjugaarjuk of the Caribou Inuit. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Kibgarjuk, wife of Igjugaarjuk of the Caribou Inuit. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Inuit love to name strangers in their midst, and by very early in the Fifth Thule Expedition, all the Danes had acquired Inuktitut names. Knud Rasmussen, known in West Greenland as Kununnguaq and in the Thule District as Kunupaluk, became known to Canadian Inuit as Kunu or Kunut.

Peter Freuchen, whom the people of northern Greenland knew as Piitarsuaq (big Peter) kept that name, but was also sometimes simply called Piita. The Inuit also called Jacob Olsen by his first name, modifying it to Jakku.

Kaj Birket-Smith was Qakulluk, the Inuktitut word for fulmar, said to be because of the bird-like appearance of his face. Helge Bangsted was, by some accounts, called Ikkisaanngi; this may simply be an Inuit attempt to pronounce his first and last names.

Therkel Mathiassen was known as Tikilik; some have suggested that this is because, as an archaeologist, he may have worn a thimble (tikiq) on his fingers during excavations.

I think this is unlikely. The Inuit first met him in winter when there would have been no excavations going on. He was probably initially called Tikili, an approximation of his first name; the final “k” would have been added later to make it sound more like an Inuktitut name.

In May of 1922, Knud Rasmussen and the young Inughuit man, Qaavigarsuaq, joined Kaj Birket- Smith and Helge Bangsted at Baker Lake, where they had been since February.

From there, all four travelled up the Kazan River to Yathkyed Lake (Hikuligjuaq) where they spent a month. This journey was critical to Knud Rasmussen’s research.

He and Birket-Smith were followers of Steensby’s theory on the inland origins of the Inuit. Their belief, as summarized by Ernest (Tiger) Burch in 1988, was this:

“(1) The original Eskimo culture was of an exclusively inland type… located somewhere in the northern interior of Canada. (2) Either led by the caribou or driven out by hostile Indians, the original Eskimos moved to the central Arctic coast between Coronation Gulf and Boothia Peninsula. (3) From that point, they spread westward into Alaska and eastward into Greenland. (4) Later on, a new form of Eskimo culture developed around Bering Strait. (5) This new culture was spread eastward by migration across the North American Arctic to eastern Greenland, and westward to easternmost Asia.”

But, they believed, one group of Inuit had never made it to the central Arctic coast, and they were the Inuit of the inland Kivalliq Region, those whom Rasmussen dubbed the “Caribou Eskimos.”

Neither did they make it to the Hudson Bay coast for the tundra west of the bay barred their passage. “This group,” wrote Rasmussen, “lived on in the interior, and it is among them that the culture of the aboriginal Eskimo has been preserved.”

Only recently had this group had any contact with those groups on the coast. They bore, believed Rasmussen and Birket-Smith, the original Eskimo culture.

After visiting the Caribou Inuit first-hand (which Steensby had never done) Rasmussen and Birket-Smith found no reason to disagree with Steensby’s theory.

But in fact, they were all wrong, and there were many reasons to dispute the theory. Birket-Smith had studied the historical record, which did not indicate that there were any Inuit living inland before the nineteenth century, and simply ignored it.

Rasmussen had relied on his collection of folklore, much of which was considerably different from that of the coast-dwellers. But there were many similarities, which he chose to attribute to modern borrowings from the coast.

Both men had succumbed to the temptation to use their data to prove their previously-developed theory and to ignore those aspects that didn’t fit, rather than approaching the subject like an open book and let the data shape a theory.

Ironically, it was their colleague on the Fifth Thule Expedition, Therkel Mathiassen, who challenged Rasmussen’s and Birket-Smith’s theories on the basis of archaeological research he did at many other locations on the expedition, including at Repulse Bay and Pond Inlet.

As Burch summarized, Mathiassen “showed that the Eskimo culture originated in Alaska and subsequently spread eastward across Canada and Greenland.” He noted also that “virtually all subsequent research” substantiated that conclusion.

It is ironic, then, that Rasmussen’s conclusions on the subject of Inuit origins (“his most cherished research,” in Tiger Burch’s words) were wrong, but that we are still enormously indebted to him and his colleagues for our knowledge of the traditional customs and beliefs, especially pre-Christian beliefs, of Inuit in Canada.

In 1930, Birket-Smith published a two-part work, “The Caribou Eskimos, Material and Social Life and Their Cultural Position.” In the same year Rasmussen published “Observations on the Intellectual Culture of the Caribou Eskimos” and “Iglulik and Caribou Eskimo Texts.”

These were issued as volumes of the “Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition,” a series of incomparable works which comprise about 5,500 pages.

Without Rasmussen’s work we would know nothing of the religion of the Caribou Eskimos, nor of the beliefs of the Inuit of the northern Hudson Bay coast, the Aivilingmiut and their sub-group the Iglulingmiut.

But there was more than this to the Fifth Thule Expedition. The story will continue.

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 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).






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