Qaavigarsuaq and his wife, Bebianne, in front of their home in the 1950s. (Photo believed to be by Werner Carstensen, courtesy of Arktisk Institut 206182.)

Qaavigarsuaq: A marksman and fascinating character

By Kenn Harper

The explorer Knud Rasmussen wrote of Arnarulunnguaq’s and Qaavigarsuaq’s contribution and loyalty: “Considering the rigors they endured, I don’t know which is the more remarkable, that I came through the three and a half years with the same team of dogs or with the same Eskimos.

“Surely, however, it is no mere sentimental gesture to point out that they had a bigger share in the outcome of the trip than I have space to show.”

In 1921, Rasmussen had recruited Qaavigarsuaq by taking him on a hunting excursion to test his marksmanship. After he had demonstrated his skill, Rasmussen told him he wanted him on the expedition; his parents had already given their permission.

Qaavigarsuaq in old age. Scanned from the cover of Qaavigarsuaq, by Hans Larsen. (Photographer unknown)

On the expedition, he was sometimes known by one of his other names, Miteq, which proved easier for the Danish participants to pronounce.

In Copenhagen, while awaiting passage back to Greenland, Qaavigarsuaq acquired a bicycle and cut a fine figure cycling around the city.

On one occasion, while at Rasmussen’s home in Hundsted, he borrowed a bicycle and rode all the way to Copenhagen. He attended parties with Rasmussen, where ladies were attracted to the handsome Greenlander.

Before leaving Thule, Qaavigarsuaq fell in love. His chosen one was Bebianne, the daughter of a West Greenland catechist Enok Kristiansen employed by the mission.

When Rasmussen recruited Qaavigarsuaq for the expedition, the two lovers knew that they would have to endure a long separation. Bebianne picked up a small stone and gave it to the young man, saying that he should carry it with him throughout the expedition as a remembrance of their love.

Qaavigarsuaq was true to his word and carried it with him everywhere. When he accompanied Rasmussen to Siberia and was detained by the Russian police, he was searched. Fearing he would lose his stone, he hid it in his mouth. The Russian officer never found it.

It was the late summer of 1925 before Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq were able to return to Thule. On his arrival, he learned Bebianne was due to get married — to someone else — that very day.

According to family lore, he ran to the church, stopped the ceremony, produced the stone from his pocket and showed it to Bebianne. She said he had been gone so long that she thought he had died, but her love for him remained.

The wedding in progress was called off. Shortly thereafter, Qaavigarsuaq and Bebianne were married.

The couple had eight children. They lived at many locations in the Thule district: Uummannaq, Qeqertarsuaq, Savissivik, Moriusaq and Qaanaaq. Able to read and write, he taught these skills to others.

Following Knud Rasmussen’s death, he penned an article about Rasmussen and the expedition, which was translated and published in Danish.

Qaavigarsuaq passed away in Qaanaaq in August 1978, but was buried in Uummannaq, the place he had loved the most.

The other four Inughuit who had lived and worked with the expedition at Danish Island had begun their long journey back to Greenland with Peter Freuchen, via Pond Inlet and Admiralty Inlet. They were dropped off by ship at Cape Seddon in late 1924, and made their way up the coast to their previous homes.

As a child, Puursimaat had been a favourite of Rasmussen, who treated him almost as a foster child. His wife, Aqattaq, was the youngest member of the expedition and the least experienced as a traveller. She had often remained behind at Blæsebælgen on Danish Island to look after the place while others travelled.

On their return to Greenland, the couple had a son, Minik, born in 1925. Aqattaq was the first of the Inughuit participants to die; she succumbed to tuberculosis in Siorapaluk on Aug. 8, 1932.

Puursimaat subsequently remarried to a woman named Naduk, who died in 1939. He lived on until 1975. Inuit in Arctic Bay remembered him fondly from his lengthy stay at Uluksan in 1924; a number of Inuit children were named in his honour after his death.

Arnannguaq and Aaqqiuq’s daughter, Navarana, born at Danish Island on Aug. 9, 1923, was baptized when they returned to Greenland in 1925. She died in 1933.

A second child, Mikivsuk, was born in 1927. In 1930, Aaqqiuq, a veteran of many expeditions throughout the High Arctic prior to the Fifth Thule Expedition, joined an expedition led by German geologist Hans Krüger.

The party of three — Krüger, Aaqqiuq, and a Dane, Ǻge Rose Bjare — departed the RCMP detachment at Bache Peninsula, Ellesmere Island on March 19, heading west.

After two support sledges manned by Inughuit turned back in Eureka Sound, the party was never seen again. Insp. Alfred Herbert Joy, who searched in vain for any trace of them, described Aaqqiuq as “a thoroughly capable man. He is a first-class hunter, and an excellent dog driver, and a good and cheerful worker. He has done much travelling with white men, and has always given entire satisfaction.”

Arnannguaq never remarried. She died of influenza in 1955.

The financial compensation the Inughuit received for their participation in the expedition remains a mystery. Qaavigarsuaq complained to his biographer, Hans Larsen, that he received no payment for his years of service but that he got 200 Danish kroner, a paltry sum, each Christmas for the first few years after his return.

Qaavigarsuaq’s daughter, Regine, observed: “When you think about how much the Fifth Thule Expedition has contributed to science, we find it very strange that our parents and the other Inughuit have never been visibly honored.

“They were awarded the silver merit medal, but we do not even have a memorial of them, and one can wonder why that is so … Without Inughuit, the Fifth Thule Expedition would not have come to realization, so one can wonder where they are in our history.”

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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