The promised land

This portrait of Qaavigarsuaq, Arnarulunnguaq and Knud Rasmussen is dated from 1924. (Photo by Leo Hansen, courtesy of Arktisk Institut 122236)

By Kenn Harper

On Sept. 19, 1924, the ice lay close to shore and the Teddy Bear, a trading vessel, was forced to wait off East Cape, near the Yupik village of Naukan, which Knud Rasmussen called by its Yupik name of Nuvuqaq.

The engine broke down and Capt. Joseph Bernard went ashore. Rasmussen did not accompany him, because he had no permit.

“It was like looking into the promised land that one was not fated to enter,” he wrote.

“Young men and children came running down, out on the ice itself, and right up to the ship. A few came on board and stayed with us for an hour.”

He noted briefly “how benevolent it was to understand him [a man from Naukan] and to be understood.”

A portrait of Knud Rasmussen. (Photo by Leo Hansen, courtesy of Knud Rasmussen Selskab)

Rasmussen had met a few elderly Yupik Eskimos at both Emmatown and Uelen “with whom I could talk.”

The editor of his notes goes further in saying that they were “a few elderly Eskimos whose dialect he understood and with whom he could converse,” and that “with their assistance he acquired some ethnographical details concerning the Eskimo tribe living in the neighbourhood.”

But Bernard’s memoir provides more details on his meeting with at least two Eskimos at Emmatown after his return from Uelen.

Bernard and Rasmussen were standing talking in front of Charley Carpendale’s house when two men approached coming down the hill from East Cape. Bernard recognized them as East Cape Eskimos.

“When they came up to me, I introduced him [Rasmussen] to them and he started to speak to them in the Greenland Eskimo language … After he got through talking, one of the men turned to me and said, ‘This man has been with the Eskimos a long time and he must have been here before because he speaks as we do.’”

It may have been these Eskimos who provided Rasmussen with the short word list he compiled for Naukan or East Cape. He makes no other mention of how he communicated with Inuit in Siberia.

In a telegram he sent to his committee from Nome on his return, he said, “Severe voyage East Cape where Eskimo understood Greenlandish perfectly.”

Did his linguistic skills and his Greenlandic mother tongue allow him to instinctively grasp some of the differences of the Yupik language so that he could communicate with the people he met?

Did he use an interpreter? Was there a simplified lingua franca, a trade jargon, in use there?

After all, the Yupik speakers from the Chukotka Peninsula and the Inuit of Kotzebue Sound had been trading together for decades and must have developed a method of communication.

Alternatively, did some of the few Inuit he met speak English as a result of their years of trading with Americans like Joseph Bernard or the Australian Carpendale? The record is silent.

On Sept. 19, with the engine now repaired, the Teddy Bear continued on its voyage back to America. On the return journey to Nome, the party spotted four walruses. Bernard and Qaavigarsuaq set out in a small boat and killed all four.

They were stormbound again for a time off Little Diomede Island. They lay at anchor there, very near the Eskimo houses.

Rasmussen went ashore “to have a talk with the men” who would have spoken a dialect of Inupiaq, as the Alaskan Inuit dialect was called.

But it was an old woman’s story that he recorded in his notes. He visited her in company with a “companion,” apparently a local person, who awakened the old lady whose name was Majuaq, with the words, “Here’s a man who is not a missionary or a trader either; all he wants is for you to tell him something about the people who lived in our land before the white men came with their customs.”

Majuaq asked, “How shall I talk with a man who does not understand our language?”

“He says he is one of us,” answered the guide.

Majuaq scrutinized her visitor and asked him some questions before stating, “You have the face of a white man, but our tongue.”

Rasmussen’s visit to the old lady was maddeningly short, dictated by the changing weather and Capt. Bernard’s desire to get back to Nome.

From her he had to time to record only one story, an account of the creation of song. It is very reminiscent of knowledge he learned in the eastern Canadian Arctic from Aua, Igjugaarjuk and Orpingalik:

“In days gone by, every autumn, we held big feasts for the soul of the whale, feasts which should always be opened with new songs which the men composed,” she said.

“The spirits were to be summoned with fresh words; worn-out songs could never be used when the men and women danced and sang in homage to the big quarry. And it was the custom that during the time when the men were finding the words for these hymns, all lamps had to be extinguished. Darkness and stillness were to reign in the festival house. Nothing must disturb them, nothing divert them.

“In deep silence they sat in the dark, thinking; all the men, both old and young, in fact even the youngest of the boys if only they were old enough to speak. It was this stillness we called qarrtsiluni, which means that one waits for something to burst.

“For our forefathers believed that the songs were born in this stillness while all endeavoured to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst.

“That is how the sacred songs are made!”

On Sept. 22, the Teddy Bear reached Nome. While rowing ashore in a dinghy, Rasmussen saw a man “running backward and forward on the beach, waving something in his hand.”

It was a telegram, addressed to Rasmussen. On Aug. 16, Nyeboe had finally contacted the Danish Foreign Ministry asking them to seek permission from Moscow for Rasmussen’s visit.

Fortunately, Denmark had formally recognized the USSR two months earlier, on June 18.

Five days after Nyeboe’s contact, the ministry sent a request to the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs in Moscow.

On Sept. 12, Moscow granted permission. But it was too late. Knud Rasmussen was already on his way across Bering Strait, and there was no way for Moscow to directly inform the officials in Chukotka.

The telegram the man on the beach presented him was from the Danish Foreign Ministry, granting belated permission for his visit.

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

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(2) Comments:

  1. Posted by Alex Alikasuak on

    Knud Rasmussen spent 3 months with my Grandfather of the Padlimuit . His name was Igjugajuk , a very powerful Shaman of his time . I never met him , only heard stories about him from my Father.

  2. Posted by what was on

    99 years on as we are, it’s good to see the story being told and don’t the people there look well in those photographs. In our world of flashing screens, of mind-numbing instant updates connected world so much has been lost of our human connection. Our Progress is not so great, is over-rated!

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