Najagnir: ‘I have searched in the darkness’

Arnarulunnguaq and Qaavigarsuaq with a Qallunaaq in Washington, 1924. (Photo by Leo Hansen, courtesy of Arktisk Institut 122322)

By Kenn Harper

Knud Rasmussen and the two Inughuit had a month to wait in Nome, Alaska, before taking passage south on the first leg of what would yet be a long journey home.

Nome had been the centre of an Alaskan gold rush a quarter-century earlier. In 1899, the population had skyrocketed to 10,000 people, but by 1910 it had fallen to 2,600. In 1924, it was still an important commercial centre.

In Nome, as at Kotzebue in Alaska, Rasmussen and his companions experienced racism.

He noted that the many Eskimos there for the tourist season lived on the outskirts of town and were not admitted to the best restaurants.

When he and the two Inughuit, dressed in Eskimo clothing, entered one restaurant, “Mrs. Nichelingos’ pretty and lively waitresses were forbidden to serve us,” he wrote.

Rasmussen, Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq often spent afternoons at the Dream Theatre, where silent movies were shown, a novelty to the Inughuit. They also occasionally rode in a Ford car to the outskirts of the community where the Eskimos lived.

Najagnir, the shaman, in Nome, 1924. (Photo from E. B. O’Connor Photograph Collection, P422-30, Alaska State Library)

Rasmussen realized that in Nome he would be able to learn about various Eskimo groups, some of whom had travelled great distances for the late summer trading and tourist season.

On his final day in Nome, he had the good fortune to meet an angakkuq from Nunivak Island, the last shaman of the many he met on his journey.

The man’s name was Najagnir. He was a man wild in appearance, who had just been released from prison for having killed several people. But such was his power that no witnesses would testify against him, and the authorities had no choice but to set him free.

He was full of stories of his time in jail.

He opposed the increasing dominance of white men over Inuit in his own homeland and lost no opportunity to rail against their influence. So, he was not impressed by the foreign lifestyle he saw in Nome.

Najagnir was impressed, however, by seeing on the street a white horse pulling a heavy cart. This was the inspiration for a story with which to impress his fellow Inuit in Nome.

He told them that white men had killed him 10 times during the past winter, but each time he had vanquished death by sacrificing one of his 10 helping spirits, which were — of course — 10 white horses. For this reason, Knud Rasmussen called him the 10-horsepower wizard.

Rasmussen had only a brief time to interview Najagnir on that last morning. He was surprised to discover that, at this far westerly end of Alaska, this angakkuq’s words echoed much of the wisdom that he had learned from shamans all along his route from the east.

Here is what Najagnir told Rasmussen when he was asked what he thought of the way men live:

“They live brokenly, mingling all things together; weakly, because they cannot do one thing at a time. A great hunter must not be a great lover of women. But no one can help it.

“Animals are as unfathomable in their nature; and it behooves us who live on them to act with care. But men bolster themselves up with amulets and become solitary in their lack of power. In any village there must be as many amulets as possible. Uniformity divides the forces; equality makes for worthlessness.”

Rasmussen asked him how he had learned these things. Najagnir replied:

“I have searched in the darkness, being silent in the great lonely stillness of the dark. So I became an angakkuq, through visions and dreams and encounters with flying spirits … The ancients devoted their lives to maintaining the balance of the universe; to great things, immense, unfathomable things.”

He went on to explain that he believed in a power called Sila, “a strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact all life on earth — so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snow-fall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas or small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing.

“Children hear a soft and gentle voice, almost like that of a woman. It comes to them in a mysterious way, but so gentle that they are not afraid; they only hear that some danger threatens. And the children mention it as it were casually when they come home, and it is then the business of the angakkuq to take such measures as will guard against the peril.

“When times are good Sila has nothing to say to mankind. He has disappeared into his infinite nothingness and remains away as long as people do not abuse life but have respect for their daily food.

“No one has ever seen Sila. His place of sojourn is so mysterious that he is with us and infinitely far away at the same time!

“When all is well, Sila sends no message to mankind, but withdraws into his own endless nothingness, apart. So he remains as long as men do not abuse life, but act with reverence towards their daily food.”

For Rasmussen, Najagnir’s words showed the unity of Inuit belief across the top of the world, from Greenland through Arctic Canada and northern Alaska. They reminded him of the words of Igjugarjuk, an angakkuq among the Caribou Inuit far to the east in the Canadian Kivalliq:

“All true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of men, in the great solitudes; and it can only be attained through suffering.”

And with that, the expedition was at an end.

At the end of October, Rasmussen and Leo Hansen, accompanied by Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq, travelled by tourist steamer from Nome to Seattle.

From there they continued by train to Washington, D.C., where they met then-president Calvin Coolidge. In New York, Rasmussen was awarded the coveted Charles P. Daly Medal by the American Geographical Society, only the second Scandinavian — after Roald Amundsen — to receive it.

Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq arrived in Copenhagen on the vessel Hellig Olav on Nov. 20. Two weeks later, on Dec. 2, Rasmussen and Hansen arrived on the Oscar II.

The expedition committee’s publicity machine had been busy. Three aircraft escorted the ship into harbour, where crowds awaited Rasmussen’s arrival.

He had become Denmark’s national hero. The prime minister hosted a gala dinner attended by members of government. King Christian X, who had been the expedition’s protector, issued medals.

And Rasmussen was awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of Copenhagen.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 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

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(4) Comments:

  1. Posted by Interpretation on

    I wonder how they understood the shaman if he was from Nunivak Island (Cup’ik territory). Either an interpreter would have been required or he spoke to them in Inupiatun, though the quotes suggest full fluency in whatever language he used. Sometimes I wonder how much Rasmussen made up or embellished.

  2. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    Rasmussen used an interpreter in Nome when talking with Yupik people.

  3. Posted by Saimanaaq on

    Hey Ken, I love the caption: Arnarulunnguaq and Qaavigarsuaq with a Qallunaaq in Washington, 1924. I’ve never seen an old photo of Inuit with their names on it and not that of the qablunaaq. Chef’s kiss. Qujannamiik. No disrespect to qablunaat of course!

  4. Posted by Joanna Kafarowski on

    Were Arnarulunnguaq and Qaavigarsuaq invited to participate in the expedition celebrations in Copenhagen in November 1924? Was their arrival on November 20 recognized publicly?

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