Taissumani, May 14
All in Awe of Peary
Last week I discussed the Inuit concept of “ilira” (or “ilirasungniq”) as an explanation for the confusion experienced by the young Inuit men, Ittukusuk and Aapilak, when they were questioned in 1909 over Frederick Cook’s claim to have reached the North Pole.
I believe that no-one will ever know the truth of the Inuit story of Dr. Cook’s attempt on the Pole. I believe that, from the very first questioning of Ittukusuk and Aapilak by outsiders, by Peary’s team of Borup, MacMillan and Bartlett, that the truth of their story became lost to posterity.
It may certainly have been lost to the white men who were
questioning them, for none of them were very capable in understanding Inuktun. But I believe that it was lost also to their own tribes-people.
Why? Because uncertainty had been thrown into what might otherwise have become a simple folk tale.
The strongest and best of the tribe had worked for Peary. The great Uutaaq was their leader, a wise and respected man, a fearless traveler. He had been loyal to Peary for years and had reaped the benefits of that loyalty in material goods. There were rewards and prestige for those who worked for Peary.
When Dillon Wallace, an explorer who had travelled with Inuit, heard that Peary was denouncing Cook, in part based on Inuit commentary, he wrote, “I am rather surprised to see Commander Peary quoting the Eskimos to the effect that Dr. Cook never reached the pole. Their whole idea of life is to say what pleases… They are all in awe of Peary and would not like to offend him. They would, for the sake of being agreeable, willingly declare that white snow is black.”
Ittukusuk and Aapilak were young men. They did not command the respect in their district that a man like Uutaaq did. They had travelled with a brave but poor man, a superb traveler trained as a medical doctor, Frederick Cook.
Peary had been financially supported by powerful American interests, but Cook’s only backer had been a professional gambler, John Bradley.
Morever, what few supplies Cook had left behind on the Greenland coast when he began his journey farther north in 1908 had been confiscated by Peary. He had nothing substantial with which to reward his loyal assistants.
The frustrated young men went to Harry Whitney and asked him what it was that Peary’s men wanted them to say.
There is no satisfactory explanation for the variances between the earlier Inuit version of Cook’s trip as told to Rasmussen, and the later versions of the story, unless one subscribes to the theory that Itukusuk and Aapilak changed their story to suit their
There was the possibility of reward if they pleased the all-powerful Peary. There was certainly nothing to be gained for them by not giving the answers that were expected of them.
The version of the Inuit story that has come to be accepted is that written by my old friend, Inuuterssuaq Ulloriaq, the historian of the Polar Eskimos, a few years before he died.
That version has been substantially published as an appendix to Wally Herbert’s “The Noose of Laurels.” Given the circumstances, is it any wonder that it contradicts Cook’s own version and substantiates many of Peary’s claims against Cook?
Ironically, Inuuterssuaq is also the author of an excellent and unimpeachable story of the much earlier Qitdlarssuaq migration from Canada to the Thule District.
But these are different types of stories. The Qitdlarssuaq story was unambiguous, the Cook story riddled with controversy and, I propose, Ittukusuk’s and Aapilak’s desire to please.
I knew Inuuterssuaq well and I enjoyed the hospitality of his home in Siorapaluk, the world’s most northerly Inuit community, many times.
We talked of Cook and Peary often and I know that he had a tremendous respect for Cook’s abilities on the land and sea and for his command of the Polar Eskimo language.
But he didn’t believe he had been at the North Pole. I think that my explanation may partly answer why.
Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].