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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 12, 2014 - 3:37 pm

Taissumani, Sept. 12

Grave Robbing

Dr. Frederick A. Cook. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Dr. Frederick A. Cook. (HARPER COLLECTION)

The explorer was travelling in northern Greenland with one south Greenlander and two young Inughuit — Polar Eskimos — both about 20.

It was summer and travelling conditions were dreadful. The explorer had taken some burial goods from an Inuit grave a few days earlier – small things – a pin, a needle-case and a knife - things that he thought inconsequential, things worthy of study back in a far-off museum in Copenhagen.

One of the young Inughuit, Qisunguaq, spoke to the explorer: “You are so strange, you white men! You collect things you will never require, and you cannot leave even the graves alone. All this calamity is the revenge of the dead. Perhaps we shall die of hunger. Just because you took those stupid things!”

The explorer tried to justify his actions. He hadn’t so much stolen the grave goods, he explained, as exchanged them for things that the soul of the deceased might find more useful in the afterlife — tea, matches, blubber and meat.

But Qisunguaq did not relent in his criticism, “The thoughts of the dead are not as our thoughts; the dead are incomprehensible in their doings!”

The explorer — for it was none other than Knud Rasmussen — had in fact followed the earlier expressed wishes of the two young men in his choice of exchange gifts. In his mind he had done the right thing.

The pillaging of Inuit graves was nothing new, and no-one knew it better than the Inughuit. Less sensitive explorers had ransacked their graves for years, with never a thought of leaving alternative grave goods for use of the soul in the next life.

On his many expedition to northern Greenland, Robert Peary plundered Inuit graves at will, taking not just grave goods but skulls and skeletons back to New York for the American Museum of Natural History. His activities took on an even more ghoulish tone in 1896 when he arrived back in the district on a brief summer expedition.

He asked some of the first Inuit whom he encountered where he might find Qujaukitsoq, a trusted hunter who had worked for him on a previous expedition. The Inuit informed him that Qujaukitsoq and his wife and daughter had died during the winter. Then where were their graves, he had asked.

His diary entry for Aug. 22 of that year reads, “The ship’s men brought off the cask containing Qujaukitsoq and his wife and the little girl together with the accessories of his grave…” On Peary’s return to New York, the museum of course purchased those skeletal remains from him.

These were not the bones of anonymous long-dead Inuit – these were the remains of a former employee, a travelling companion, dare one say “a friend” – and his family. But it was all the same to the single-minded Robert Peary.

Those bones remain in the American Museum of Natural History in the Department of Anthropology under accession number 99/105-111, which shows that the museum purchased from Peary three skeletons (a man, a woman, and a child), three crania, and one calvarium.

Peary’s rival, Frederick Cook, was no better. An 1894 photograph shows him gleefully holding a skull that he had just extricated from a grave on the west coast of Greenland.

Perhaps the most egregious offender was William Duncan Strong, who surreptitiously exhumed 22 Inuit skeletons from a Christian graveyard in Zoar, Labrador, and took them away to Chicago for study in 1927.

His notable career in anthropology did not suffer in the least from his deplorable actions. Those skeletal remains were returned to Labrador and reburied with dignity in 2011.

Repatriations continue from time to time, but there are still a lot of Inuit skeletal remains in museums throughout the world.

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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