Knud Rasmussen, photographed here in a pensive mood. (Photo from the Kenn Harper collection)

The legacy of the Fifth Thule Expedition

By Kenn Harper

All the reports by Knud Rasmussen, Kaj Birket-Smith, Therkel Mathiassen and others were published as volumes of the Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, a series of incomparable works issued over a number of years and totalling about 5,500 pages.

They comprise a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge on Inuit culture in the areas of Canada and to a lesser extent Alaska, touched by the expedition.

Some of the legends and beliefs recorded were documented nowhere else. Scientists have long recognized their indebtedness to Rasmussen, the Danish explorer. Inuit also realize their indebtedness to him for the documentation he made of their ancestors’ lives and beliefs.

As a result of the work of Rasmussen and his colleagues, the National Museum of Denmark contains the largest collection of Inuit material and intellectual culture in the world. They collected 11,000 archeological artifacts, along with 3,100 ethnographic artifacts, 1,975 photographs and more than 150 drawings by Canadian and Alaskan Inuit.

The notebooks of anthropologist Birket-Smith and archeologist Mathiassen are also housed there.

Other Danish institutions store Rasmussen’s other writings and print and photographic material. Modern digitization technology is making these resources available to more scholars, including Inuit and those at Inuit cultural organizations.

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

It is natural that the scientists who had lived in such close contact with the Inuit in Hudson Bay for an extended period of time would have some concern for the future of the people.

Mathiassen wrote, “What the future of the Iglulik Eskimos will be is difficult to say. Will it be possible for this little tribe, five hundred people, spread over an enormous area of land, to continue being able to hold its own in the struggle for existence, or will it, like so many other primitive peoples, be swallowed up in the fight against European civilization?”

Rasmussen ventured his opinions on such a question. In Alaska, he had been strongly impressed by the work of the government in establishing schools for the Eskimos and bringing in American teachers.

“The rising generation speaks English fluently,” he noted, “and this possesses the first qualification for meeting the competition of the immigrating whites.”

Rasmussen was Denmark’s hero. For two decades, he had positioned himself within the small nation to have an outsized voice on Greenlandic affairs. He became, in effect, the voice of the Greenlanders.

In fact, even before the start of the Fifth Thule Expedition he was advocating for a more open approach in Greenland.

Government of Nunavut, Employment Opportunities

“It will not be possible to preserve the Eskimos unspoilt,” he wrote in the new monthly journal Danmarksposten in 1920.

He continued, in words that may seem brutal or unfeeling but which he felt were only realistic:

“Their culture is of a kind that will succumb to that of the white man everywhere, and to maintain it artificially for ethical or ethnographical reasons cannot be done…  There is no choice.

“In future, the lives of all primitive people are dependent only on their possibilities for development under new conditions. The way ahead must be over the dead bodies of their own race. What is important, therefore, is to give the primitive people, in their minds and character, a death which is as merciful and gentle as possible … We must take away their, to our civilization, impractical culture and try to make them resemble ourselves.

“We must give them the white man’s aggressiveness and level-headed energy, his foresight and his audacity. Only through such a metamorphosis will they be able to pass through the door that leads to new times.”

A year later, he said blatantly, “As far as is possible we must try to make Danes of the Greenlanders. It is no use stopping half-way.”

The expedition brought him worldwide recognition as an authority on the Arctic and so it was quite natural that the Canadian government, struggling to know how to administer its own Arctic territories, sought his advice.

In late April 1925, he arrived in Ottawa for a whirlwind of meetings with government officials. His host was O. S. Finnie, director of northern administration in the Department of the Interior, but he also met with RCMP officials and with Rudolph M. Anderson and Diamond Jenness, both of whom had been on Stefansson’s Canadian Arctic Expedition.

He proposed the banning of high-powered rifles, and the establishment of reindeer herds.

Female infanticide was a problem in certain areas of the Arctic, but Rasmussen felt that education would solve that problem. Health care was needed through construction of small hospitals. He thought the proliferation of fur-trade posts should be curtailed, and advocated for a large area to be set aside for the exclusive use of the Inuit.

The following year, an Order in Council established the Arctic Islands Preserve, encompassing the whole of the Arctic Islands and a good part of the mainland. It was to ensure Inuit an area where they could live and hunt with a minimum of disturbance.

In his popular book, he laid out a grim prognosis for the future of the isolated societies he had studied in the Canadian Arctic:

“Before many years are past, their religion will be extinct, and the white man will have conquered all, the country and its people; their thoughts, their visions and their faith.”

And yet he remained an optimist, believing that a gradual opening up of the Inuit homelands to development under a controlled influx of non-Inuit would portend a brighter and more affluent future.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Rasmussen had ambitious plans for his own future “but they can only be poor in comparison with the Fifth Thule Expedition … My field of work has been and will continue to be north of the Arctic Circle … for it is the Eskimos that own my heart.”

And so a sixth, then a seventh Thule expedition ensued. On the seventh, Rasmussen fell ill in east Greenland. He was evacuated to Denmark where he died on Dec. 21, 1933. He was only 54. His death was front-page news. The entire nation mourned.

Greenlandic writer and priest Otto Rosing wrote of Rasmussen: “His importance for Greenland and the Greenlanders cannot be weighed in words alone.”

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 [email protected].


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(1) Comment:

  1. Posted by Tulugaq on

    Rasmussen was in good company with other colonizers, particularly in Canada. In 1920 Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs declared “Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, that is the whole object of this Bill” referring to a law compelling Indigenous children to attend Indian Residential Schools. Colonialism left a tragedy that we still live today and despite Denmark pretending to have a legacy of “soft” colonialism, its impact is still a tragedy and violation of the human rights of the Inuit.


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