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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic April 22, 2010 - 3:29 pm

Taissumani, April 23

Explorers and Inuit – The Nature of Testimony

Dr. Frederick Cook, the American explorer who claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, about a year before Robert Peary claimed to have reached the same destination, on April 6, 1909. The testimony of Inuit plays a major role in the dispute.
Dr. Frederick Cook, the American explorer who claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, about a year before Robert Peary claimed to have reached the same destination, on April 6, 1909. The testimony of Inuit plays a major role in the dispute.

In 1909 both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole.

Peary’s attempt on the Pole was a well-financed and well-manned affair, supported logistically by many men and women of the group of Inuit known as the Polar Eskimos. On his final dash he was accompanied by one African-American and five mature, influential Inuit. 

Cook, on the other hand, was a loner. He claimed to have reached the Pole accompanied by only two young Inuit, Ittukusuk and Aapilak. Much of the controversy that followed relied on various assessments of the truthfulness of the two young men.

Harry Whitney, a sport hunter who was in northern Greenland in 1909, wrote about the interrogation that Ittukusuk and Aapilak were subjected to. Three of Peary’s white support team (Borup, MacMillan and Bartlett) had questioned them on board Peary’s ship, the Roosevelt. 

Whitney wasn’t present at the questioning, but wrote that, after their interrogation, the two young men had come to him and asked him ” ‘what Peary’s men were trying to get them to say.’ They said that they had been shown papers but declared that they did not understand the papers.”

But Peary’s men claimed that the two men had failed to corroborate Cook’s claims.

At the heart of this conundrum lay a matter that many Arctic explorers have commented on.  According to most explorers, the Inuit approach to truthfulness was pragmatic — it was inextricably linked with the desire to please the questioner.

Let’s look at what some explorers and observers have said about the nature and reliability of Inuit testimony.

Frederick Cook himself wrote in “My Attainment of the Pole:”

“Among themselves the Eskimos have an intimate way of conveying things, a method of expression and meaning which an outsider never grasps. At most, white men can understand only a selected and more simple language with which the Eskimos convey their thoughts. This partly accounts for the unreliability of any testimony which a white man extracts from them. There is also to be considered an innate desire on the part of these simple people to answer any question in a manner which they think will please…. this desire to please is notoriously stronger than a sense of truth.” 

Roald Amundsen, whose experience was with Inuit in the central Canadian Arctic, said: “My experience with Eskimos is that they will give you the kind of answer you want.”

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a man as skilled at self-promotion and the manipulation of public opinion as Peary himself, wrote to Peary on Oct. 3, 1910: “There are two things I know about Eskimo character — they seldom lie, and they never keep a secret, no matter how solemnly they promise to do so.”

The Canadian explorer, Captain Joseph Bernier, was a supporter of Cook. He downplayed the confusion over Ittukusuk and Aapilak’s apparently inconsistent statements.

His opinion was reported in this way, “Capt.  Bernier said he took no stock in Eskimo evidence. They desired to please and would tell any story which they thought would be agreeable to their listeners.”

A. P. Low, another Canadian explorer of the High Arctic, stated: “The Eskimos…  are not quite truthful. When the source of a lie is traced, it is found to be due to a mistaken politeness, the native intention to please by answering in a manner which he thinks will be agreeable to the questioner.”

And so on. Northern literature is replete with similar comments on the nature of Eskimo testimony.

Wally Herbert, the last of the old school of Arctic explorer – and by that I mean, the last to travel with Inuit and use dogsleds — had a somewhat different view.

He wrote, “Nor should the folklore of the Eskimos be ignored… to argue that their own story of what they did is invalid because they were uneducated is as insulting as it is absurd, for unlike the white men who came to their country to seek fame and glory, they, the natives, had no need to lie.”

Herbert concluded that “what Itukusuk and Aapilaq told their own people is therefore the story that needs to be told…,” adding that what he was referring to was “the story handed down by word of mouth among the polar Eskimos themselves.”

He claimed that “stories are always retold exactly as heard, not deviating by a single phrase or word…”

Next week, I’ll look at some of the reasons for these conflicting assessments of Inuit testimony.

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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