The Blond Eskimos
In the summer of 1906, a young Icelandic-Canadian adventurer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, reached the whaling and trading outpost of Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic.
There he met Christian Klengenberg, who had just returned from wintering with his family and the crew of the Olga on an island off the southwestern coast of Victoria Island.
Klengenberg told Stefansson about the Inuit he had met there and showed him a collection of artifacts he had acquired from them, including a number of knives made of copper. The people came to be known as the Copper Eskimos or Copper Inuit.
But it was Klengenberg's description of the people themselves that intrigued Stefansson. Klengenberg told Stefansson that these Inuit had never seen a white man before and yet they looked very much like white men themselves, having blue eyes and fair hair.
Stefansson spent 16 months in the Arctic on that expedition before returning south. Immediately he began planning another expedition, one that he hoped he would head.
He secured the backing of the wealthy American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Canadian government, which appointed Rudolph M. Anderson as the expedition's co-head. In April 1908 the expedition headed north, where the explorers and scientists would spend four years.
Two years later Stefansson and his Inuit guides finally reached a camp on Victoria Island where he encountered the people who had been on his mind for almost four years, the Copper Inuit.
He wrote in "My Life with the Eskimo," "That morning… I knew I was standing face to face with an important scientific discovery… When I saw before me these men who looked like Europeans in spite of their garb of furs, I knew that I had come upon either the last chapter and solution of one of the historical tragedies of the past, or else that I had added a new mystery for the future to solve: the mystery of why these men are like Europeans if they be not of European descent."
Stefansson spent a year among the Copper Inuit, then went back to Herschel Island and Alaska. In 1912 he returned south, first to Seattle, then to New York.
His claim to have discovered Inuit who resembled Europeans – the so-called Blond Eskimos – was picked up by the press and spread around the world. The Seattle Daily Times carried a headline: "American Explorer Discovers Lost White Tribe, Descendants of Leif Ericsson."
Lost tribe stories were always great fodder for newspapers. Stefansson, as an Icelander, was familiar with the saga accounts of the Icelanders who had colonized Greenland under Eric the Red, and whose descendants had disappeared a few centuries later.
Craving fame, he would love to have been the man who unraveled the mystery of their fate. What a romantic notion that they could have crossed into Canada and moved west, intermarried with the Inuit, and survived as a mixed race in the last part of the Canadian Arctic to be explored! What a twist of fate that an Icelander should be the man to "discover" them and bring them – and himself – to the attention of an incredulous world!
But the reports also made Stefanssson suspect in the eyes of some of his scientific peers. Had the man lost his objectivity? Had he simply convinced himself that he had found what he wanted to find? The Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, called Stefansson's claim one of the most ridiculous ever to have come out of the Arctic.
Stefansson, perhaps in an attempt to salvage his reputation, later complained that the media had embellished his reports and that only about 10 of the 1,000 Inuit he had met were blue-eyed. But his protestations were disingenuous.
He himself had written letters to the museum about the blue-eyed Eskimos, and he had gone so far as to suggest that their language resembled Icelandic, a Scandinavian language. There is absolutely no basis for such a suggestion, except for the stubborn desire of Stefansson to believe it.
Icelanders wanted to believe that Stefansson was correct. Even within the last few years, Icelandic anthropologists carried out a study, with the co-operation of the Inuit of the Central Arctic, called the Inuit Genetic History Project. It proved that the Copper Inuit are not descended from the lost Greenland colony, and should put to rest Stefansson's quaint and self-serving theory.
The man had deluded himself and seen what he desperately wanted to see, and what no other credible observer saw. In the process – not coincidentally – he had gained fame. It would not be the last time that Vilhjalmur Stefansson sought self-aggrandizement and hoodwinked 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 email@example.com.