Americans catch Iqaluit historian’s passion for Minik tale
IQALUIT — It’s a story whose hoaxes and deceptions inspire anger and tears, and a tale whose equal parts of adventure and tragedy dominated Kenn Harper’s life for years.
In 1977, Harper, now a well-known Iqaluit businessman, first became “unhealthily obsessed” with the short, sad life of a young Polar Eskimo named Minik.
Nearly a quarter century later, the story still fascinates Harper, and spurred in part by the recent purchase of the film rights by an Oscar-winning actor, many others now share his obsession.
The story began when American explorer Robert Peary took Minik and five others from Northwestern Greenland to New York City in 1897.
Poor little Minik. He was only seven when he arrived at New York’s National History Museum. He was the youngest of the group of six, brought as “live specimens” and souvenirs of Peary’s exploits.
One by one the other Greenlanders succumbed to illness, leaving Minik an orphan.
Adopted by a museum superintendent, Minik learned that when his father, Qisuk, died, the museum had staged a phony funeral, substituting a log for the body under the shroud. The bones of Qisuk and the others ended up in the museum’s collections, while the Eskimos’ brains were pickled “in the interest of science.”
Unsuccessful in his attempts to see his father’s remains properly buried, Minik returned to Greenland, but, drawn by the city lights as much as the Northern lights, Minik made his way back to the States. He died there of the Spanish Flu in 1918.
Harper first heard about Minik when he was living in Qaanaaq, Greenland. There, the young exile’s life story had become wildly embellished. According to some elders, Minik had returned to the States to claim a fortune and ended his days as a fabulously wealthy man. Others said he’d become a dentist or a hero in the First World War.
“Stories need endings, so people were just making them up,” Harper says.
Harper’s curiousity to find out the true story drove him to delve more deeply into Minik’s life, although he wasn’t sure what he would do with the information.
“I didn’t know if I had an article, a book or a wild goose chase.”
He eventually wrote a book, and then published it himself.
“It was a story that needed to be told,” Harper explains.
During his research, a “deliriously curious” Harper made a special trip to New York City to find out more about Minik. There, he knocked on many doors, including that of the Explorers Club, where he was first rudely turned away. He was finally able to consult its collection of Peary’s papers- it turned out to be a storehouse of information about Minik.
“Peary was like Richard Nixon because he kept all the evidence. He was an egomaniac and kept everyting, positive or negative,” says Harper.
Harper uncovered more information at the archives of the American Museum of Natural History where he found a file on William Wallace, Minik’s adoptive father. The file also contained evidence that, over the years, the museum had repeatedly tried to discourage anyone seeking information on Minik or the bones of his friends and father.
“There was a massive cover-up. It was a story that wouldn’t go away,” Harper says. “The museum’s institutional memory told it something had happened, but it didn’t want to own up to it.”
Harper also tracked down people who remembered the young boy when he had lived in upper New York State with the Wallace family. He found photos of Minik, and eventually located Minik’s grave in the small northern New Hampshire village where he’d spent his last year living with a close friend’s family.
In the early 1980s Harper finally was ready to write. He sat down for eight months in Qaanaaq to write his book. By this point, he was in a race with Danish academics to publish his material, but no publisher wanted to take the risk.
After his decision to publish the story himself in 1986, Harper sold 9,000 copies, mainly in Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Nuuk.
But Harper’s book, Give me my father’s body: the Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo, is now hitting the mass North American book market as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Its American publisher, Steerworth, has heavily promoted the updated edition. And while Minik’s story hasn’t yet been translated into Inuktitut or Greenlandic, it’s already available in Danish, Spanish, German and French.
This renewed attention to Minik’s story came after Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey acquired movie rights to the book. Deeply affected by the tale of Minik, he also wrote the forward to the new edition.
“When you get to the end of a great story, there comes a moment of silence. The lights in the theatre come up, or you turn the last page in a book as good as this one, and you sit stunned. There is nothing to say. And in the next heartbeat, you think of a million things to say,” Spacey writes.
But in addition to touching deep emotions in readers, Give me my father’s body has also become a rallying cry against archeological excavation in the North.
This phenomenon surprises Harper. In his opinion, the treatment Minik’s father received at the hands of the museum wouldn’t have happened today, and wasn’t even approved of at the time.
Harper says that staging such “a macabre event” as a phony funeral was never considered appropriate, even according to the standards of the day. And he doesn’t think the excesses and abuses of the past explorers or scientists should be used to justify the over-regulation of research.
“I think the whole permit regime has been imposed to protect Inuit who are able to protect themselves.”
When he was researching the book, Harper says he was “just a guy asking questions – and anyone could say no.”
Without the freedom to ask those questions, Harper said Minik’s story and the return of the Greenlanders’ bones might never have happened.
After an earlier round of publicity about the bones’ storage and a US law making it illegal to keep the skeletal remains of American native peoples, the American Museum of Natural History finally returned the skeletons of four of the group- those of Qisuk, Nuktaq, Atangana and Aviaq- to Qanaaq in 1993.
There, a small plaque reading “Nunamingnut Uteqihut” [they are home] marks their graves.