A portrait of Knud Rasmussen, Danish-Greenlandic ethnographer and writer, posed in furs. He led the Fifth Thule Expedition to the Inuit of Arctic North America 1921-1924. (Source: Kenn Harper Collection)

Knud Rasmussen and the Fifth Thule Expedition

By Kenn Harper

This year marks the centennial of the Fifth Thule Expedition, a major scientific and cultural expedition to the Canadian Arctic. It deserves to be celebrated, and northerners should know about its work and its accomplishments.

I’ve written a number of articles over the years about the expedition and its participants. This year, I intend to write a number more.

There will be critics, those who think it unimportant to celebrate the work of a foreign expedition on Canadian soil. There will be some who deplore the fact that the physical artifacts collected by the expedition are housed in a museum in Denmark, rather than in a Canadian museum or northern interpretive centres.

But there are others, Inuit and Qallunaat, some working in the cultural fields, others just interested people with no axes to grind, who appreciate the work of the expedition and its collection of Inuit life stories, myths, legends, songs and beliefs. I believe it is an event worth commemorating.

Knud Rasmussen was born in Ilulissat (then called Jakobshavn), Greenland, in 1879. His father was a Danish priest, his mother a housewife of part-Inuit ancestry. Rasmussen grew up speaking Kalaallisut as his first language, as part of an Inuit community. He first drove a dog team at the age of eight. During his childhood he revelled in hearing the stories of the elders, especially about lesser-known groups of Inuit far to the north. But at the age of 12 this idyllic existence came to an end when he was sent to Denmark for his formal education.

In 1902 he returned to Greenland as part of a cultural expedition to the far northwest of the country where he first encountered the Inughuit, then known as the Polar Eskimos. In 1909 he returned to that district to help the Greenlandic church to establish its North Star Mission there. The Inughuit were at that time in a precarious position. Over the preceding decades they had become dependent on first whalers, and then the American explorer Robert Peary, for a supply of trade goods. But Peary had claimed to reach the North Pole in 1909 and would be coming to Greenland no more. The Danish government expressed no interest in the northwestern part of Greenland, not even claiming ownership of it. It was in effect a no-man’s land. So the following year Rasmussen and his friend Peter Freuchen established a trading post there, the Thule Station, to provide for the needs of the population.

Rasmussen conducted a number of geographic and ethnographic expeditions, some using Thule as his base. He called these the Thule Expeditions. And he wrote extensively about his travels and about what he learned from the Inuit, documenting their life ways. Throughout that decade he held fast to a dream — to visit the most isolated Inuit in North America and document their beliefs and experiences before their lives were irrevocably changed by an influx of missionaries, traders and adventurers.

The birthplace of Knud Rasmussen in Ilulissat, Greenland, is now a museum. (Photo by Kenn Harper)

In 1921 he was ready to realize his dream. With four Danes, one Kalaaleq (West Greenlander) and six Inughuit, he embarked on the Fifth Thule Expedition to the Akilinermiut—the people on the other side of the water. Among many goals, Rasmussen wanted to investigate what he called “the great primary problem of the origin of the Eskimo race”—to test certain theories about whether Inuit culture had originated and evolved from an inland culture, or whether it was always a maritime culture. In the process of doing this, he and some of his colleagues would investigate and document the folklore and religion of the Inuit they encountered, what he called their “intellectual culture.”

From the headquarters they established at an island they called Danish Island, near present-day Naujaat (formerly Repulse Bay) they visited Inuit north as far as Igloolik and southwest into the interior of the Kivalliq region. Because of his fluency in Greenlandic and his basic interest in the Inuit language and its many manifestations, Rasmussen was able to understand, and be understood, wherever he went.

In 1923 he and two of the Inughuit, Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq, left Danish Island and embarked on the high-point of the expedition, a trip by dogsled across the top of North America, through the territory of the Nattilik (Netsilik) Inuit and the Inuinnait, through the Mackenzie Delta, and into Alaska, from where they continued the trip by boat to Nome. Rasmussen even managed to cross Bering Strait to Siberia in an attempt to visit Inuit there. This magnificent journey was documented in his popular book, Across Arctic America.

The knowledge collected by the expedition was published in English in 26 reports published between 1927 and 1952 (and one final volume published only in 1988). These comprise of approximately 5,500 pages. The thickest and most interesting (to me, at least) of these volumes are Rasmussen’s Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos (1929), Observations on the Intellectual Culture of the Caribou Eskimos (1930), Iglulik and Caribou Eskimo Texts (1930), The Netsilik Eskimos (1931), and Intellectual Life of the Copper Eskimos (1932). The other scientists of the expedition also published impressive works on archeology and ethnography.

Inuit knew Knud Rasmussen as Kunu, Kunut or Kunuuti. (Kalaallit called him Kununnguaq, while Inughuit called him Kunupaluk.) Stories of the Fifth Thule Expedition are still told by the descendants of Inuit who knew Rasmussen in the Kivalliq region, as well as among the Nattilingmiut and Inuinnait, and Peter Freuchen is remembered by those, including his descendants, in the Kivalliq.

Rasmussen always acknowledged his humble beginnings. “From my heart I bless the fate that allowed me to be born at a time when Arctic exploration by dog sledge was not yet a thing of the past,” he wrote. “It was my privilege, as one born in Greenland, and speaking the Eskimo language as my native tongue, to know these people in an intimate way.”

In the introduction to Across Arctic America, he wrote, “The Eskimo is the hero of this book.” At one point, he claimed that “it is the Eskimos that own my heart.”

I will have more to tell about the Fifth Thule Expedition in the coming months.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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(13) Comments:

  1. Posted by Fraser Hope on

    Great News Kenn
    When home on visits to Edinburgh I would access the The Fifth Thule Report at the Library and Archives of the Royal Scottish Museum.
    I managed after a long search to obtain from a Book dealer in Copenhagen a complete Report of all the entries to the Original Report except the last one published in 1988. Fascinating reading! Will encourage the Grandchildren to explorr their heritage.
    Umiliviniq

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  2. Posted by Silas on

    I’ve always been interested in the travels of Knud Rasmussen and The Fifth Thule Expedition. I look forward to your future articles.

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  3. Posted by Fraser HOPE on

    Do not know what happened to my earlier post? Here goes a second attempt –
    “Great News Kenn!”
    I had to access the Report in the Royal Scottish Musem in Edinburgh once or twice when I returned home for a visit.
    ManGed to obtain a complete copy of the Report except the 1988 addition from a bookseller in Copenhagen named appropriately Rasmussen! He said ‘Rasmussen’ is similar to ‘Smith’ in Denmark!
    I am hoping the Grandchildren will start to read through the sections relating to Qiqiqtaaluk and Kivalliq to get some ideas of their Heritage.
    Looking forward to the upcoming articles.
    Umiliviniq

    • Posted by Kataisee on

      It is my wish to ask to share with Inuit from all region first to honour families mentioned that are related. kataisee @yahoo.ca this is only a temporary email until all families involved have a chance. All family involved or mentioned will provide to you by themselves as they wish.
      ᖁᔭᓐᓇᒦᒃ ᑐᖅᑕᐅᓂᐊᕋᓱᒋᒐᒪ

  4. Posted by Jay Arnakak on

    As always, thank you, Kenn.

    I remember when the elementary school library in Clyde River was made into a pilot project public library. My greatest concern, and I did voice it, was that all books with old Inuit photos would be permanently checked out on the first day of the library’s opening. They were. One by one. It’s a human instinct to seek out what we identify with.

    I look forward to reading your upcoming columns, Uqammak.

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  5. Posted by Les Oystryk on

    Thank you very much for once again opening our eyes to the work and dedication of Knud Rasmussen as he focused his research and travels in Northern Canada. In my opinion he did that with all of us in mind, especially the Indigenous people he so respected. We can all learn a lot from that.
    I have been very interested in his work with the inland Caribou Eskimos since reading various references about his travels there. This was in an area north of Brochet, Manitoba (Reindeer Lake) where many of those people traded. I have never been able to locate his writings or reports from those trips and his experiences. Now I see you have listed “Observations on the Intellectual Culture of the Caribou Eskimos” 1930 as well as the “Iglulik and Caribou Eskimo Texts” 1930.
    Can you tell me where I can find those two reports to read? Thanks again.

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      I don’t think those titles are available digitized online. So I think you would have to access them from a library. Most libraries won’t have them, but should be able to get them on inter-library loan.

  6. Posted by Claus Oreskov on

    As chairman of the Knud Rasmussen Society in Denmark and Greenland (our board is a mixture of Greenlanders and Danes), it is a great pleasure to see how the 5th Thule expedition is celebrated here in Nunasiaq. I look forward to future articles By Kenn Harper. I have a small article that I need to translate that you might enjoy.
    PS: Knud Rasmussen also wrote a book in Greenlandic about the 5th Thule expedition (it was only for the first part – in Canada):
    “Inuit Nunáinik Kaujatdlainialungnek”

  7. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    Hello Claus. I am familiar with some of your work, particularly your article on Qaavigarsuaq in Slaedesporet, and your comments about Arnarulunnguaq in a blog. I intend to write about both of them in future columns. I had the pleasure of meeting Qaavigarsuaq in his old age, on my first-ever trip to Qaanaaq in the 1970s. Can you send me your email address to kennharper@hotmail.com so we can continue talking privately about mutual interests?

  8. Posted by Tom on

    Just finished reading Across Arctic America. The account is amazing, his 10 volume work even more so surely. I was looking up the expedition and came upon this site. Please keep writing.
    Also tried to find more photos from the expedition. Are these digitized? Thanks for the site.

  9. Posted by Inuit Historians on

    I would like to see Inuit doing the research and telling their own history.

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