Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic May 02, 2014 - 10:39 am

Taissumani, May 2

Thule Revisited


Last week I looked at the ancient word Thule and its application to the most remote trading post in northern Greenland.

The Thule Station, the official name of which was “Cape York Station, Thule” was established in 1910 at the site of the Inuit village of Umanaq (Uummannaq) in a bay that the English had named North Star Bay near the base of a mountain that they called Mount Dundas.

Today I will look at other uses of this ancient word.

Knud Rasmussen organized a number of expeditions – geographical and ethnographical — from his base at Thule. He named them all after his trading post. And they spanned a period of two decades.

Five of the expeditions were confined to investigations within Greenland, two north to Peary Land, and three to Angmagssalik in East Greenland.  One — the only one in which Rasmussen was not a participant — went to Ellesmere Island.

But the most ambitious and well-known of all was the Fifth Thule Expedition, an ethnographic expedition to visit isolated groups of Inuit in northern Canada and along the Alaskan coast. It is because of this expedition, which began in 1921, that Rasmussen’s name is known in North America today.

On the Fifth Thule Expedition, the archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen, discovered evidence of a prehistoric Eskimo whale-hunting culture, the precursor to modern Inuit culture. Because the whaler George Comer had identified a similar culture in Greenland near Thule in 1915, Mathiassen dubbed this culture type the Thule Culture.
Originating in the Bering Sea area, the Thule Culture had spread rapidly eastward, reaching the Thule District of Greenland by about 900 A.D. and spreading from there to the east and west coasts of Greenland.

This nomenclature leads occasionally to some confusion – the Thule Culture is found in Canada, Greenland and Alaska; whereas the Thule District is a geographical designation defining part of north-western Greenland. The Thule District formally came into existence as an administrative unit in 1937.

During the Cold War, the United States wanted an airbase in northern Greenland. The Danish administration agreed that they could establish one on the flat plain near the Thule Station, a place that the Inuit called Pitugvik.

And so in 1951 construction began on Thule Air Base, a base (and a name) that continues in existence to this day.

The Danish administration felt that the survival of the Inuit residents at Umanaq in North Star Bay (not to be confused with another, larger Umanaq farther down the west coast) would be jeopardized by the arrival of a large contingent of American airmen and construction workers — estimated to number 20,000 at its peak – and so they relocated the Inuit to the tiny settlement of Qaanaaq (Qanaq), farther north.

Bizarrely, the Danes moved the name too. They had always called the Inuit settlement Thule, and so Qaanaaq was officially named Thule. To prevent confusion with the American Thule, the Inuit village was sometimes known as New Thule.

Umanaq was renamed Dundas in 1953, and remained a Danish meteorological and radio station. Of course, the Inuit were having none of these name games. They continue to call the places what they always did —Qaanaaq and Umanaq.

The distinctive flat-topped mountain at Umanaq, originally Mount Dundas in English, continues to be known as Thule Mountain or Mount Thule.  Peter Freuchen’s ashes are scattered on its top.
But there is another Mount Thule, and it is in the Canadian Arctic. The name was given to a mountain, 5,614 feet in height, on Bylot Island, 24 miles north of Pond Inlet.

Far to the north of any of these places there is another Thule off the north coast of Peary Land. It is Thule Hill, on Hanne Island, a tiny island named for Knud Rasmussen’s daughter during the Second Thule Expedition.

And finally, an asteroid named 279 Thule, exists in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Discovered by astronomer Johann Palisa, working in Vienna in 1888, it was named before any of the modern world’s many Thules, after the ultimate isolated place, Ultima Thule.

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).

Email this story to a friend... Print this page... Bookmark and Share