Thursday, February 15, 2018

Minik

The story of Minik Wallace (shown here second from the right, next to his father Qisuk) is a stranger and sadder one than that of any other Inuk person brought from his home to the "civilized" world. That he was brought in the name of "science," and repeatedly lied to and deceived by men who claimed its mantle, makes his story all the more horrific. And, unlike London's Egyptian Hall or Barnum's American Musuem, the American Museum of Natural History still stands in New York City, and the bones of some of Minik's people are even today still stored somewhere among its basements and warehouses.

My friend Kenn Harper was the one to uncover Minik's story, and eventually tell it to the world. Kenn was a schoolteacher in the Canadian Arctic, who learned Inuktitut and later married an Inuk woman who was a distant relative of Minik. He heard stories among his relatives in Greenland that got him thinking; they had all heard about Minik, the boy who had been taken south by Peary, come back as a young man, and then left again. What had happened to him? Kenn's researches led him to the American Museum of Natural History, but archivists there said that they were sorry, no records relating to Minik or his adoptive father, Mr. Wallace -- who had been forced to resign his post at the museum due to charges of embezzlement -- survived. On the chance that something might be found in Mr. Wallace's personnel file, Kenn requested it, and was amazed to find that it was here that the directors and scholars at the museum -- including Maurice Jessup, Franz Boaz, and Theodore Kroeber -- had buried all the documents of Minik's life. These documents enabled Kenn to write the book that became Minik: The New York Eskimo.

They tell a sad tale of scientific exploitation, full of the kinds of trickery and lies we hate to associate with such esteemed anthropologists as Boas (who would later direct the research of Zora Neale Hurston) and Kroeber (who later had his own Minik-like issues with a California Indian named "Ishi," and whose daughter is Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, the distinguished science fiction writer). Yet quite beside the deception, which -- in his stepfather's words -- led Minik to "lose faith in the people he had come among," there is the issue of whether, even in a kinder and gentler world, it is any more fitting for a human being to become a "specimen" than it is to be a circus sideshow. In the end, we're not talking about individual motivation, but the entire scientific worldview of the early 1900's, and its legacies today.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

"Savages" On Display

The display of humans to other humans has taken many forms over the ages, but surely there have been few as problematic, and often degrading, as the practice of displaying human beings in zoos. The postcard at left is from Carl Hagenbeck's Hamburg "Tierpark" (Animal Park), and shows a group of Labrador Inuit who appeared there in the fall of 1911. The group included Nancy Columbia, whom Arctic historian Kenn Harper has aptly described as the most famous Inuk of her day; she was born in an Eskimo display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and over the course of her career appeared at well over a dozen world's fairs and expositions from Seattle to St. Louis to Madrid and Paris. She also was featured in a number of early silent films, and wrote he scenario for one of them, "The Way of the Eskimo," which was the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast film ever made; unfortunately it is not known to survive. In the photo above, taken in connection with their appearance at a "Nordland" festival organized by Zoo proprietor Karl Hagenbeck, Nancy is second from the left, with her trademark Princess-Leia style hairdo; her mother, Esther Eneutseak, is third from the right, with a baby in her arms.

Nancy and her mother were the core of this well-known group of "Eskimos," and while they were the best-known and longest-lived such group, they were far from the only ones. Carl Hagenbeck had displayed several other groups of Inuit at his Zoo, starting with Abraham Ulrikab and his family in 1880. Like many such Inuit, Abraham became ill due with a European disease -- smallpox -- and he, his wife, his teenage daughter, nephew, and infant daughter all succumbed with a few weeks of one another. Remarkably, he left a diary, which was recently translated and published. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be quite literally displayed to death.

A full listing of Inuit, along with Inupiat, Yupik, Greenland, and Siberian Eskimos who were put on display in Europe and the U.S., would be a long one, and their life stories would fill many books. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. Nancy Columbia, surely the most famous of them all, retired from shows around 1920, and lived quietly with her mother in Santa Monica, California. She married a motion-picture projectionist, and they had a daughter named Sue who still lives in the area. Nancy Columbia died in 1959, forgotten by the world, but not by those of us who study Arctic history; you can read the essay Kenn Harper and I wrote on her career here. You can also see selected clips of these and other very early Arctic films here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

John Walker's "Passage"

John Walker’s Passage is among the most unusual documentaries I’ve seen on any subject. Unlike the vast majority of documentary films that followed in the wake of Nanook of the North, PASSAGE doesn’t fully fictionalize its facts, nor does it entirely factualize its fictions. The opening sequence is the tip-off: Rick Roberts, who plays the Scottish surveyor Dr. John Rae, is seen walking in present-day garb through present-day London, passing such iconic sights as St. Paul’s, the Millenium Bridge and Trafalgar Square. As he enters the Admiralty building in Whitehall and ascends the stairs, there is a certain dramatic tension – what next? The answer comes as he knocks and enters; as he steps into the room, we see the Lords of the Admiralty in full period uniform, then realize that Dr. Rae, too, has traded in his nylon backpack and windbreaker for a frock coat and an oversize bow tie. We know where we are, but when are we?

Walker delights in these sorts of anachronistic transitions in which, again and again, we are invited to pay attention to the proverbial ‘man behind the curtain.’ We see “Dr. Rae” speaking with such luminaries as James Clark Ross and John Richardson; the next moment we see them out of costume, seated around a table in a modern room discussing story ideas for the film. One moment, we are presented with a brilliant turn by Geraldine Alexander as Lady Franklin; the next we see her out of costume, looking like Annie Lennox on a bad hair day. In and out of these transitions, we meet with a few figures who remain in the present and – at first – outside the main action of the film: the director himself, author Ken McGoogan on whose book the film was based, and perennial Nunavut political figure Tagak Curley.

The re-staged scenes from the past – Captain Coppin revealing his daughters’ visions to Lady Franklin, Charles Dickens proposing his article in Household Words to Lady Franklin and a skeptical Dr. Richardson, Dr. Rae trudging across the tundra – work wonderfully, but are punctuated with lengthy sequences set in the present, beginning with a visit by Rick Roberts to the Orkney home of Dr. Rae, practicing his Scots brogue and how to cock and raise a rifle with local experts. Gradually, we come to see the historical pieces as the interludes, and the present action as the play itself, a tangent which comes to a head when Tagak Curley arrives in London. Curley, a charismatic politician who’s better known around Nunavut for his evangelical campaign slogans (“Jesus is Lord over Nunavut!”), happily plays the native informant to Walker, who guides him to the foot of the Franklin statue at Waterloo place. “They forged the last link with their lives,” he reads – and Curley hurries to disagree. “That’s a lie. Dead men can’t discover anything.”

And thereon hangs a tale, though it is one the film never quite tells explicitly. The belief among Franklin’s admirers has been that men dispatched from his ship in 1847 almost certainly reached Simpson’s Cairn, erected near the strait of the same name by an eastward survey of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Doing so would have united eastern with western maps, in effect “discovering” the, or at least a, passage. There is no absolute evidence of this, but both the records left by land parties and Inuit testimony agree that some men of Franklin’s party, whether as explorers or bedraggled survivors, certainly reached the extreme southwestern edge of King William Island, and some crossed over to the mainland.

Dr. Rae’s claim, championed by McGoogan and loudly echoed recently by Billy Connolly, comes later – in 1854 – and has to do with the Rae Strait on the southeastern corner of King William. Since the western side was rendered impassable nearly every year by heavy pack ice, the shallower but clearer eastern side is seen as a truer “passage”; indeed it was the route taken by Roald Amundsen when he became the first to sail the passage from end to end. Rae, as the surveyor of this alternative “last link,” is heralded as the true discoverer of “the” passage. Rae’s superior skill in surveying, and in living off the land, is undeniable; that he was snubbed by the Admiralty and attacked by Dickens indisputable. Yet the snub came, not because of any geographical claim, but rather on account of the Inuit testimony, brought home by Rae, that the final few Franklin survivors had turned to the “last resource” – cannibalism – in their efforts to stay alive and escape their frozen prison.

Tagak Curley, though hailed by some as the “Father of Nunavut,” is certainly no expert on the Inuit testimony about the Franklin expedition, or he wouldn’t so readily dismiss Franklin’s claim. One need not admire the Royal Navy, or Franklin himself, to credit the evidence that his men did indeed reach a point at our near the furthest eastward survey. He’s on firmer ground with his criticism of those who attacked Rae for bringing home the evidence of cannibalism, particularly Dickens who believed the Inuit attacked the Franklin survivors, and spoke of their having a “domesticity of blood and blubber.” And here again, Walker does not disappoint; he brings two unlikely people into the discussion, which by now has moved into the Admiralty board room: Ernie Coleman, RN (ret.), and Dickens’s own great-grandson. Coleman happily launches into his defense of the idea of bloodthirsty Inuit, which gets the whole room, especially Curley, shouting. Then comes the heir of Dickens, a man who’s made some study of his ancestor’s claims, and is more than willing to admit that Charles Dickens acted out of prejudice and ignorance. When he apologizes to Curley and Curley accepts, the moment is both deeply moving and somewhat absurd – and yet it is a moment that could have happened in no other film.

The movie earned strong reviews in Canada, and is now available there and in the U.S. on DVD. It’s not a perfect film, but it is provocative, and no one who has any knowledge or feelings about either Franklin or Rae should miss seeing it.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Inuit Meet the Explorers

For the explorers to meet the Inuit is one thing; for the Inuit to meet the "explorers" is quite another. What can it mean to be "discovered"? And how should one act in the presence of strangers whose clothes seem ragged and poor, but whose wealth -- reckoned up in the form of wood, metal, and manufactured items such as sewing needles and metal knives -- is so vast that it almost destroys the entire Inuit notion of economy? They come to you, starving, dying, frostbitten, gums blackened with scurvy -- and yet even their last few possessions make them rich beyond belief. It's little wonder that, eight or more generations later, these men appear more frequently as demons than as human creatures.

Dorothy Eber has worked collecting Inuit oral history for more than forty years; in 1971, she collaborated with the Inuit artist/writer Pitseolak Ashoona on Pictures Out of my Life, one of the very first published books by an Inuk. In 1996, she published When the Whalers Were Up North, an oral history of the contact and collaboration between Inuit and the crews of whaling vessels in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with all such histories, the vividness of memory, even at a distance of more than a century, is striking.

In all these books, you also see something of the modern life of these Inuit elders and their families. In the late 1950's, most Inuit were forced into permanent settlements, although the older people sometimes returned to camp on the land from time to time. Since there were so many people with identical names, Inuit were first issued numbers printed on dog tags, and later obliged to take last names as part of "Project Surname." The children and grandchildren of these Inuit grew up without much sense of what life out on the land was like, and traditional foods -- seal, walrus, and caribou meat, whale blubber (muktuk) and birds' eggs gave way to more standard southern fare, including canned, frozen, and fried foods. In the 1990's, satellite televisions started to become common, and the Internet arrived in the North; at one point there were more computers per capita in Nunavut than anywhere else in Canada.

And amazingly, throughout all these changes, the Inuit oral tradition continued to thrive, although at times details were lost, or different stories condensed into one. The deaths of the last elders who came of age out on the land meant that the fullest versions of many of these stories were lost, and stories about stories took their place. Ms. Eber's work has preserved what are, alas, very likely the last few versions of stories from these traditions, where the visits of explorers such as Ross, Franklin, and Amundsen are recalled almost as if they had happened yesterday.

Eber's work also looks back to earlier testimony, collected by Franklin searchers such as Charles Francis Hall and Frederick Schwatka. This testimony, which was later rediscovered and analyzed by David C. Woodman, eventually has given us the most accurate account of the final fate of the Franklin expedition, and was instrumental in the finding of the first of his ships, HMS "Erebus," in 2014. In those cases where Inuit testimony can be corroborated by physical evidence, as with the cut-marks on the bones (for cannibalism) or the location of this ship (at Utjulik), it has proven 100% accurate.

These stories also challenge us to see our ancestors and ourselves as we were seen by others: strangers, ill-equipped for survival but wealthy with scarce commodities; lost, searching for others who were lost before them, and unable to communicate clearly. Again and again, the Inuit did what they could to help these strangers: they provided food, hunted, and traded with them. And yet it seemed these strange people did not know how to live! The Inuit sometimes made fun of these odd people who yelled at one another and were very concerned about who was the boss (the Isumutaq, 'one who speaks for others'). And, to be fair, they made fun of themselves as well; after chopping a hole in one of the white people's big umiaks in order to get at the things inside, they laughed ruefully when, once the ice thawed, the ship sank to the bottom, taking all the things with it.

These tales carry both hints of the distant past, and the imprint of Inuit culture in the twenty-first century, with all its challenges. What do we hear when we hear these stories today?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Searching for Franklin

It might be said of Sir John Franklin, as of the unlucky Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, that "nothing became his life like the leaving of it." Had Franklin succeeded in finding a navigable Northwest Passage, he would have gone down in history as a notable dullard; instead, by vanishing, he has ascended to the firmament of Arctic mythology, as much a fixture of that sky as the Aurora Borealis. His death, and the mystery surrounding it, has inspired dozens of poems and novels, attracting writers from Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to Joseph Conrad and Margaret Atwood; any number of poignant ballads (among them Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage,' which has become almost a second Canadian national anthem), and (to date) four plays, six documentary films, and an Australian musical. A feature film, based on the Canadian novelist Dominique Fortier's On the Proper Use of Stars, is in the works from the director of The Young Victoria, and in the spring of 2018, a Ridley-Scott-produced television series, “The Terror,” based on Dan Simmons’ Franklin-inspired horror thriller, comes to AMC (you can see the first teaser trailer here).

The search to rescue, and then to discern the fate of, Sir John Franklin and his men was the very first mass-media disaster. For more than a decade, it dominated the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic; writers such as Dickens, Collins, Swinburne, Thoreau, Eliot, Verne, and Conrad were enthralled by its dark mysteries; clairvoyants from Scotland to India had visions of Franklin's ships, and more than thirty vessels were dispatched, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in today's money, to seek him out. Stage plays, moving panoramas, and lantern shows depicted the wild loneliness of the "Frozen Zone"; lecturers equipped with maps, charts, and Esquimaux artifacts opined on his likely location, and his wife/widow Lady Jane Franklin became a dominating figure of the day, lauded by The Times of London as "Our English Penelope." Alas, for her, there would be no returning Odysseus! But loss and death draw down to deeper springs of human feeling, perhaps, than happy returns and loving embraces. And when, finally, the specter of the "last dread alternative" -- cannibalism -- was cast over the affair, it drove its tincture of admiration and revulsion deep down into the British psyche.

Even after the recovery of the expedition's final "Victory Point Record" by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859, there was continued interest in discovering anything further about his final fate. The American eccentric and erstwhile newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall led two search expeditions in the 1860's; in the 1870's, the U.S. Army dispatched Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on a new seach for paper records or artifacts that might help clarify the last days of the Franklin exedition. Individual searchers returned to the area periodically from the 1880's through to the 1980's, among them the great explorer Knud Rasmussen, who in the 1902's heard stories of Franklin's ships from the grandsons of the men who had seen them perish, stories almost exactly the same as those collected by Hall more than half a century earlier. Forensic expeditions -- Owen Beattie in the mid-1980's, and Anne Keenleyside in the early 1990's -- collected the bones, and analyzed the bodies, of known Franklin remains, finding evidence of lead poisoning, scurvy, and tuberculosis. Most significantly, historians such as David C. Woodman and Dorothy Harlan Eber have collected and gathered Inuit testimony, comparing numerous accounts with the hope that a common narrative thread could be found. Woodman has traveled to the Arctic numerous times, searching for the ships in the places the Inuit described.

But it wasn't until 2014 when the first of Franklin's ships -- HMS "Erebus" -- was finally found. It was located by Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists only a few kilometers from where Woodman had searched, right where the Inuit had said it would be. Dives on "Erebus" have netted several remarkable objects, including the ship's bell, several china plates, brass buttons, and the hilt of a naval sword. Many of those, such as myself, who had followed the search for years, thought that finding one ship was already beating the odds -- and then, in 2016, the second ship "Terror" was found, again thanks to Inuit accounts (though in this case that of a contemporary witness, Sammy Kogvik). New dives are planned for next summer, and many summers to come -- who knows what secrets these wrecks may disclose? My own view is that nothing that can be found is likely to fully resolve the lasting enigma of the lost expedition.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a granite plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashing on couches, and working -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, was a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Welcome to Arctic Encounters

Welcome to the course blog for our Spring 2018 course, English 261: Arctic Encounters. This  page will serve as the central stepping-off point for our virtual excursions into the Frozen North -- there are links here to all our class readings, viewings, and listenings, along with other academic resources.  But the most important part of this site, though, is the blog itself. For each class, I'll post an item about the readings or viewings we'll be considering, and everyone will have an opportunity to respond and post their own views. I encourage an informal style here -- no need to niggle over grammar, spelling, or formalities -- this should be the place for wide-ranging discussions, open exchange of ideas, and questions of all kinds. It's fine to respond to other students' postings as well -- I encourage you to think of these postings as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than isolated islands of thought.

There are few places left on earth where simply going there seems extraordinary – but but a trip north of the Arctic Circle still seems to signify the experience of something astonishing. This course takes up the history of human exploration and interaction in the Arctic, from the early days of the nineteenth century to the present, with a focus on contact between European and American explorers and the Eskimo, or Inuit as they are more properly known today. We'll read first-hand accounts and view documentaries that recount these histories, both from the Western and the Inuit side of the story. It's a region of the world that's growing in significance, as global warming heats up more than ice; in recent years, Canada, Russia, and Denmark have all staked out new claims to the frozen zone. The future of climate change, human cultural change, and increasingly scarce natural resources may lie, not in the West or the East -- but in the North.