Taissumani, May 27

The Minds of White Men


When Knud Rasmussen travelled in the Nattilingmiut region in the early 1920s, travelling with two Greenlandic companions and living with the Inuit, interviewing them and recording their stories and legends and life ways, he was curious as to what they – they Inuit – thought of qallunaat, the white men.

The Nattilingmiut were masters of their environment in this very difficult and changeable land. They were not quite sure what to make of Rasmussen, a man of mixed Danish and Greenlandic ancestry.

Although in many ways he acted like a white man – they had certainly never met an Inuk who interviewed people and wrote copious notes on everything he learned from them – but he also spoke in a version of Inuktitut that they could understand and drove dogs in much the same way that they did.

Rasmussen wrote that he often “had the feeling that they [the Inuit] regarded him in quite the same manner as many white men look upon the Eskimo – as being inferior to themselves, as a sort of powerful barbarian to whom particular deference was due, because he was bigger and stronger than themselves and had an outfit and instruments of power far in excess of their own.”

And so he questioned the Inuit on their impressions of white men, recognizing that this isolated group had had limited contact with outsiders.

What he learned is fascinating. The Inuit believed that the qallunaat were a strong people who lived in a distant land.

Harkening back to Inuit mythology, they thought that the white men, like the Indians, were the bastard children of a disobedient Inuk woman and a dog. The Inuit generally admired the white men and were generally agreeable to their requests and demands, and they believed that the white man’s resources were infinite and inexhaustible.

They were impressed with the accomplishments that they saw white men demonstrate in the Arctic. They could find their way by the position of the sun. They could draw realistic images of people that they were meeting for the first time.

Inuit had a talent for making maps of their traditional hunting lands, and so they were especially impressed by the fact that white men could make accurate maps of lands that they were seeing for the first time.

They were, of course, impressed with the firearms that the white men possessed. This made them formidable enemies when things went wrong, but also allowed them to hunt efficiently for food.

Despite these advantages that the white men had in the land of the Inuit, the Inuit nonetheless believed that they also had strengths that gave them superiority over the white men.

These strengths included the ability to live in a cold land, the ability to build snow houses, drive dogs and handle a qajaq. These were elementary accomplishments, but necessary for survival, yet the white men had generally not mastered them and were therefore inferior and generally dependent on the Inuit.

And all the Inuit believed one thing with certainty. White men had to be treated with the utmost caution. Kuvdluitsoq summed up for Rasmussen the Nattilingmiut view of qallunaat:

“Qablunait nutaqqatut isumaqartitauvaktut: It is generally believed that white men have quite the same minds as small children — therefore one should always give way to them. They are easily angered, and when they cannot get their will they are moody and, like children, have the strangest ideas and fancies.”

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]

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