Hans Peder Steensby was a Danish ethnologist and geographer. (Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Royal Library, Copenhagen/Wikipedia)

Steensby and his inlet

By Kenn Harper

Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. originally proposed a rail link to a terminus and port at Steensby Inlet in northern Foxe Basin before shifting its attention north to Milne Inlet.

But Steensby Inlet continues to occasionally be mentioned as a viable alternative to the northern port.

So who – or what – was Steensby, and why is the name on the map of northern Canada?

Hans Peder Steensby was a Danish ethnologist and geographer, born in 1875 as Hans Peder Jensen. When a young man, he changed his surname to Steensby, after the parish where he was born. Professionally, he developed an intense interest in the origins of Inuit culture.

Steensby never visited northern Canada – his Arctic experience was confined to Greenland – but he was well-read on Arctic exploration and ethnography. He knew, as did all scholars, that the Inuit of Greenland had migrated eastward from the lands that are now northern Canada. And so he developed a theory as to where their unique Arctic culture had developed.

It was, he theorized, originally not a maritime culture at all, but had developed in the interior of northern Canada near Great Slave Lake. Only later, he thought, had it spread to the coast and adopted its unique adaptation to maritime conditions.

He expressed all these ideas in his PhD thesis at the University of Copenhagen in 1905. It was eventually published for a wider audience in 1916.

In 1909, on an expedition to the Thule District of northern Greenland, Steensby met the young ethnologist and adventurer, Knud Rasmussen, who was of Danish and Greenlandic origin. Rasmussen spoke Kalaallisut and was at home in the Arctic. He was interested in all aspects of Inuit history and culture. He listened to Steensby and became convinced that his theories were correct. And in his mind a plan developed to investigate Inuit origins and prove the truth of the scholar’s ideas.

Rasmussen proposed an expedition to Arctic America, on which he would visit as many isolated Inuit groups as possible. But it would take over a decade for him to actually carry this plan through to fruition.

In 1921 he and a group of Danish scientists and Inuit assistants from Greenland finally launched the Fifth Thule Expedition. Its base of operations was a small island they called Danish Island, near present-day Naujaat, formerly known as Repulse Bay. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of that major cultural initiative, which lasted three years.

Section of the map of Steensby Inlet area made by Therkel Mathiassen and Peter Freuchen. (Source: Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, Vol. 1, No. 2)

In 1922 Rasmussen and the Danes Kaj Birket-Smith and Helge Bangsted, accompanied by the Greenland Inuk Qaavigarsuaq, travelled south, then inland to visit the Inuit around Lake Hikuligjuaq (Yathkyed Lake), south of Baker Lake.

The theory they were testing was neatly summarized by the anthropologist Tiger Burch in 1988:

“The original Eskimo culture was of an exclusively inland type … located somewhere in the northern interior of Canada. Either led by the caribou or driven out by hostile Indians, the original Eskimos moved to the central Arctic coast between Coronation Gulf and Boothia Peninsula. From that point, they spread westward into Alaska and eastward into Greenland. Later on, a new form of Eskimo culture developed around Bering Strait. This new culture was spread eastward by migration across the North American Arctic to eastern Greenland, and westward to easternmost Asia.”

But one group of Inuit had stayed put. They remained in the “barren grounds” west of Hudson Bay. Their descendants were the people Rasmussen was visiting. He called them “The Caribou Eskimos.”

After investigating and documenting the culture of these isolated Inuit, Rasmussen and Birket-Smith were convinced that Steensby had been right. But in fact, they were wrong. They were blinded by the desire to believe. They let their preconceived notions colour their interpretation of the data they collected, instead of letting the data form the basis of a theory, which should have differed radically from Steensby’s.

Ironically, it was Rasmussen’s and Birket-Smith’s colleague, archeologist Therkel Mathiassen, who challenged their theories. On the basis of his work at Naujaat and Pond Inlet, he showed that the original Inuit culture – what became known as the Thule Culture – had originated in Alaska and spread eastward across Canada and into Greenland.

Nonetheless, Inuit and modern scholars are heavily indebted to Rasmussen for the work he did in documenting Inuit cultures on the brink of change. Whether it be the Iglulingmiut and Aivilingmiut, the Nattilingmiut (Netsilingmiut), the Caribou Inuit, or the Inuinnait, Rasmussen visited them all at the eleventh hour, before a tide of explorers, prospectors, missionaries, police, and traders swept into their lands and brought irreversible change.

Steensby’s theory fell from favour. He is little known today. Rasmussen’s reputation, on the other hand, rose and he became a national hero in Denmark and Greenland. He deserves to be more widely known in Canada.

Steensby knew nothing of the downfall of his theory after the Fifth Thule Expedition for he did not live long enough to see even the beginning of that expedition. In 1920 he died of a heart attack aboard ship while returning to Denmark from North America where he had been researching the Vinland sagas.

Ironically, it was Therkel Mathiassen who put Steensby’s name on an inlet reaching into northern Baffin Island at the northern end of Foxe Basin. His justification for the “new names” he added to the map was simple: he named places “often after persons who in some way or another have supported or helped the Expedition or done deserving work in arctic-geographical research.”

This map was drawn for Mathiassen by the Inuit prophet, Umik, who brought Christianity to the Iglulik area. Steensby Inlet, called by him Kangerdlugssuak, is circled in red. Cockburn Land is an old name for northern Baffin Island. (Source: Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24)

Mathiassen noted that the inlet had an Inuktitut name, Kangerdlugssuaq in his spelling. He justified not using the Inuktitut name because “their uniform character often makes them unpractical.” He elaborated on what he meant by that: “for instance, words like Kangerdlugssuaq (the large fjord) … are much too common and frequently used.” In other words, to use only the Inuktitut names would result in their being too many places named Kangerdlugssuaq on the map. This is a valid argument that, in my opinion, has never been adequately addressed by Inuit Heritage Trust, charged today with adding Inuit names to the modern map of Canada.

In northern Greenland, Hans Peder Steensby is also remembered in two place names, the Steensby Glacier and Steensby Land.

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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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Pork Pie on

    This was a great story, Kenn. My understanding of the Thule-Inuit is that from Siberia they became a predominantly maritime culture following their migration to St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, referred to now as Old Bering Sea Culture. From there they moved to the north slope of Alaska around Utqiaġvik (Barrow) where they have been given the names Punuk then Birnirk culture.

    All this preceded the Thule migration into what is now Greenland and Canada, where they replaced the Paleo-Eskimo / Tuniit / Dorset people.

    One thing I find interesting about this is that ITK has written a history of Inuit that suggests the Tuniit and the Inuit represent a kind of continuity of a single culture, as if they were related, but DNA evidence suggests this isn’t the case at all and that the Thule ultimately colonized the Tuniit lands. I can’t imagine why ITK would suggest this?

    • Posted by Oral History Too on

      “The Tunit were a strong people, and yet they were
      driven from their villages by others who were more
      numerous, by many people of great ancestors; but
      so greatly did they love their country, that when they
      were leaving Uglit, there was a man who, out of
      desperate love for his village, harpooned the rocks
      and made the stones fly about like bits of ice.”

      Ivaluardjuk, Igloolik, 1922

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      I haven’t seen the ITK history that you quote. But a reason they may have for saying that is to say that Tuniit (Dorset Culture) were ancestral to the Thule culture and therefore to modern-day Inuit (which they were not) so that they (ITK) can claim a longer period of occupancy for Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Thule Culture and then modern-day Inuit occupancy is a little less than a thousand years in the Canadian Arctic, much less in some areas (like Labrador). But if the Tuniit (Dorset Culture) were ancestral to the Thule, then that occupancy would be much much longer. So I expect it is said for a purely political reason.

      • Posted by Pork Pie on

        Here’s the Link, Kenn.

        It opens as follows:

        “For 5,000 years, the people and culture known throughout the world as Inuit have occupied the vast territory stretching from the shores of the Chukchi Peninsula of Russia, east across Alaska and Canada, to the southeastern coast of Greenland.”


        I agree, this fabrication of reality is clearly political.

  2. Posted by Jay Arnakak on

    excellent point about Mathiassen’s concerns about Inuit conventions regarding place names: “…words like Kangerdlugssuaq (the large fjord) … are much too common and frequently used [by Inuit from different areas].”

    perhaps we should try and preserve local traditional place names by way of incorporating the first numbers denoting latitude and longitude (DMS) in academia and research papers for ease of Inuktitut translation.

    For example, perhaps Steensby Inlet could be catalogued as Kangerdlugssuaq 70N78W, and in parentheses (Steensby Inlet). The numbers can then be do away with in the Inuktitut translation.

    What to do now with geographical features like “the Northwest Passage”…

    • Posted by Rick on

      Are you referring ikpikiturjuaq as Kangerdlugssuaq? Steenby Inlet is called ikpikiturjuaq in Inuktitut.

      • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

        yes. thank you.

        this is one of the reasons why we need some kind of scientific notational convention (for academics and researchers) for the proper documentation of local traditional place names.

      • Posted by Kenn Harper on

        Inuit Heritage Trust map also shows Steensby Inlet as Kangiqlugjuaq. And shows Ikpikitturjuaq as a place slightly inland, denoting a short creek.

        • Posted by Phil Lange on

          *As always, a fascinating and important research article by Kenn Harper that helps us understand why the qallunaaq aspect of the arctic is as it is today. So many of us are unaware of Danish contributions to the Canadian arctic
          *We can show ‘like’/’dislike’ to comments, I’d like to be able to ‘like’ these articles.
          *re: common place names… a quick query; how many places are named Kuujjuaq (please correct my spelling) or a close cognate or close dialectical form of name in Nunavut?
          *Does anyone know of a GN database of geographical place names?—incl., say even creeks and hilltops? I’ve searched, but I’m defeated by the faint, ghostly grey typeface that trendy ‘way cool GN web designers have chosen, with my old eyes I can’t even see the words.

        • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

          Kenn, I think you’re right. I just looked up “ikpikittuq” in the Tununiq Dictionary and it says that it is a narrow trail from sea to inland (perhaps a river valley).

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