Robert Peary and the Inuit

Taissumani: 2007-04-27

By Kenn Harper

Robert Peary had studied the narratives of earlier explorers to the High Arctic before he first went among the Inughuit for his over-wintering in 1891. He wasn't terribly impressed with what he read. Many other explorers had disparaged Inuit travel methods and had chosen to cart along all the food that they thought they might need. Peary thought it would make far more sense to use the dogs of the Inuit as his means of power, and the Inuit themselves to hunt for fresh meat for themselves, his party and the dogs. So his first winter was, in essence, an experiment to see if his ideas about living, to a certain extent, off the land and the efforts of Inuit hunters were practical. He found that they were.

Still, some of his actions amused the Inuit. When he came back in 1893, this time to over-winter for two years, he brought donkeys on the ship, to haul the expedition supplies from the beach to the site he had chosen to build his headquarters. He also brought his wife. He was the only explorer who had ever brought a woman so far north. Moreover, she was pregnant. Their first child, Marie Aghnighito, was born farther north than any white person had ever been born.

A Peary biographer gushed praise for his efforts:

"He learned to drive and care for dogs in native fashion… He learned to dress like an Eskimo… He learned the technique of building a snow-igloo… He learned the value of laying in a supply of fresh meat during the proper hunting seasons… He learned where game was most plentiful by listening to native teaching, and what methods of search were most successful. He discovered the psychology of the native, and so was able to organize the tribe almost with the efficacy he would have used with a large band of trained white helpers…"

It might be important to add that the biographer who wrote these laudatory words in praise of Peary, Fitzhugh Green, learned so little about the same group of Inuit that he ended up shooting his own guide on a later expedition.

Perhaps Peary integrated himself with the Inuit a little too well, certainly more than his wife expected. Once Josephine and their child were back in the South, Peary carried on a relationship for many years with Aleqasina. She was, of course, married to one of the hunters whom Peary commandeered at will and moved about like his own chattels every time he was in the district. Peary's relationship with her began when she was only 15 years old. It resulted in two children, Saamik and Kale. (It was my privilege to know Kale as a wonderful old man when I lived in Qaanaaq in the early 1980s.)

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Although Peary thought the Inuit were a means to an end, he certainly did not look upon them as his equals. He wrote about them as "my faithful, trusty Eskimo allies, dusky children of the Pole," and "effective instruments for Arctic work." In one remarkable passage, he even wrote:

"I have often been asked: ‘Of what use are Eskimos to the world?' They are too far removed to be of any value for commercial enterprises; and, furthermore, they lack ambition. They have no literature; nor, properly speaking, any art. They value life only as does a fox, or a bear, purely by instinct. But let us not forget that these people, trustworthy and hardy, will yet prove their value to mankind. With their help, the world shall discover the Pole."

The Inuit called him Piuli (the best they could do at pronouncing his name) or Piulirriaq – the great Peary. Uutaaq called him "a great leader" and was his friend. But Imiina, reminiscing about him in 1967, called him "the great tormentor" and said, "People were afraid of him…really afraid… He was a great leader. You always had the feeling that if you didn't do what he wanted, he would condemn you to death."

In describing Peary having the contents of a barrel of biscuits thrown out on the beach for the Inuit to scramble for, Imiina commented, "My heart still turns cold to think of it. That scene tells very well how he considered this people – my people – who were, for all of that, devoted to him."

And so the relationship between Robert Peary and the Inughuit (some of whom are descended from the great man) was, and is, complex, one of respect, admiration and fear. Peary too was torn, between Josephine and Aleqasina, and between admiration for the Inughuit and the culture-bound beliefs of his time that said they must somehow be inferior to him because they were not white.

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