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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

The Melmac Years

My peculiar resin d’être

Excavating the North

Two writers uncover more pieces in the puzzle of Arctic history

Ken McGoogan

Hummocks: Journeys and Inquiries Among the Canadian Inuit

Jean Malaurie; Translated by Peter Feldstein

McGill-Queen’s University Press

378 pages, hardcover

Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Gísli Pálsson; Translated by Keneva Kunz

University of Manitoba Press

374 pages, hardcover

One morning in August 1999, on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula in the high Arctic, three men prepared to set out from a rough camp to honour the explorer John Rae. We were going to erect a plaque marking the spot where, in 1854, Rae discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage—the only channel then navigable. A few days before, in the town of Gjoa Haven, roughly 115 kilometres southwest across Rae Strait, we had attached the aluminum plaque to a waist-high stand of welded steel, creating an unwieldy unit that weighed at least 15 kilograms. Now, as we broke camp, the Inuk Louie Kamookak fashioned a rough sling out of a sweatshirt, and we agreed to take turns carrying this awkward creation to its destination “traditional Inuit style.”

While the two southerners stuffed last-minute items into our day packs, Kamookak picked up the plaque and set off across the tundra at a pace I immediately pronounced unsustainable. He had covered a kilometre by the time we two stragglers set out. We expected that Kamookak would pause to rest and let us catch up, but after half an hour, he showed no signs of slowing. We maintained a rigorous pace, the antiquarian-adventurer Cameron Treleaven and I, but Kamookak, who appeared to glide effortlessly over the land, somehow increased his lead.

Treleaven and I looked at each other. The mischievous Inuk, we realized simultaneously, had no intention of allowing us to catch him. Like a competitive bicycle racer in a championship race, Kamookak was trying to break away from the pack. He was bidding to become the only one of us actually to carry the Rae memorial to its destination. In Fatal Passage, I tell the whole story. I mention it now because the moment of realization came back vividly when I read French explorer Jean Malaurie insisting that the competitive Inuit live for adventure and challenge: “The Inuk is in constant rivalry, trying to be the best, at the risk of losing his life through an excess of daring … he is motivated by a desire for renown.”

That observation, obviously true to my own experience, is one of countless insights contained in Hummocks: Journeys and Inquiries Among the Canadian Inuit, which is one of two books to appear recently about life at the top of the world. In English-speaking Canada, Malaurie (born in Mayenne, France, in 1922) is not nearly as celebrated as he should be. A near contemporary of Farley Mowat, whom he lauds for his “forceful expression of solidarity with the Inuit,” Malaurie fought in the French Resistance during the Second World War, and then studied geography and science.

In the late 1940s, he took part in two French geographical expeditions to Greenland. Then came the decisive moment of his career, when starting in 1950, he spent his first winter among the Inuit, and collected genealogical accounts from eleven settlements scattered over 775 square kilometres. Through the next two and a half decades, the erudite Frenchman would conduct 31 expeditions to the Arctic, many of them on his own.

As well, he would launch a magnificent book-publishing venture, the Terre humaine geography series; create and direct the Centre for Arctic Studies in Paris; and, at the request of Russian authorities, become director and honorary life president of the Polar Academy of St. Petersburg, which trains the natives of Siberia. In 2005, France celebrated Malaurie for having established a new, interdisciplinary approach to anthropology, honouring him with four books, five television documentaries, an academic conference and a major exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Malaurie’s own published works include Call of the North: An Explorer’s Journey to the North Pole, a large-format book featuring 300 colour photos, and The Last Kings of Thule, which appeared in English in 1982. Something of a palimpsest, this book chronicles his first winter among the Inuit, but also draws on several later expeditions, and is rightly considered his magnum opus.

The new book, Hummocks, published in France in 1999 and now appearing in English for the first time, is drawn from the same ocean of experience and revisits much of the territory as the earlier work. And those reading Malaurie for the first time might be wise to begin with The Last Kings of Thule. They should also approach knowing that, while Malaurie has done crucially important scientific research, he does not shine as a writer. His books are rich in insight, compassion and detailed observation; but they are descriptive and analytical, and lack a unifying narrative or even a coherent polemic.

And yet, while they marshal no arguments, these books do communicate a powerful vision. One of the clearest formulations of that vision comes in the preface to Hummocks. Repudiating the “spirit of social Darwinism,” which argues that Inuit territories should dissolve and integrate into a broader political whole, Malaurie offers this fundamental principle: “namely that civilizations are of equal importance, even if not at equal levels of development. Cultural diversity is a major asset to any nation, and protecting it is vital to the future of humanity.” The Inuit need time to achieve “a salutary hybridization of their culture with the larger Canadian society.” 

In this preface, written in 2006, Malaurie applauds the creation of Nunavut as a self-governing territory, cautions that time, however necessary, is running out, and warns against “the hidden agenda of the profit-driven West, [which] is to reduce minorities—indeed, all of humanity—to a group of clients.” Similarly, in The Last Kings of Thule, Malaurie rails against “the historical process of dispossession and impoverishment of a marginal people.”

Contrary to some recent works, Malaurie absolves culture, and specifically Christianity, of undermining the traditional Inuit hunting society. Instead, he blames the West’s economic system—“the capitalist mercantile system of exchange, which was insidiously introduced to coexist with the traditional system of joint possession.” This colonialist system, he argues, which arrived in the Arctic as a system of trade (whale oil, furs) and introduced personal property into a necessarily communalistic world, “could only impoverish the Eskimo and reduce him, in terms of development, to zero.” In advancing this perspective, Malaurie is authoritative and convincing.

And for those keenly interested in Arctic exploration, because he ranges so widely, Malaurie offers a great deal that relates only tangentially to this vision. The Frenchman arrived in Greenland early enough, in 1950, that he was able to interview Uutaaq, one of those Inuit who in 1909 accompanied Robert Peary during his final dash for the North Pole. For a year’s work, Peary paid Uutaaq one rowboat, one rifle, one knife, one sledge, some canvas, some underwear, and some food and tobacco. While Peary wrote that he left his men so well provisioned that “they became like millionaires of the far north,” Malaurie insists that if Knud Rasmussen had not established a store that same year, these people would have had “very hard times ahead.” 

Malaurie contrasts the personal behaviour of Peary with that of his arch rival, Frederick Cook. The former, generally known as “the great tormenter,” fathered two sons in the Arctic and eventually abandoned them. Cook mastered the local language and was remembered for his friendliness. As one Inuk observed, “He knew how to lead us and handles us—by charm and by example, not by threats, coercion, and the power of his authority, like Piuli [Peary], our great tormenter.” 

Malaurie pays tribute to American explorer Elisha Kent Kane, who negotiated “extraordinary agreements” with the Inuit: “After 130 years, the favorable memory that Kane has left among my Eskimo friends is vague, certainly, but tenacious.” 

And he reflects astutely on Adolphus Greely, who led a disastrous expedition along the east coast of Ellesmere Island, and did not attempt to cross Kane Basin to where the Inuit lived: “is it not possible that Lieutenant Greely … might have avoided the disaster that struck him if he had set out with a different opinion of the value of the assistance the local natives could have given him?” 

In both these major books, Malaurie jumps around, mixing political comment with personal reflection and insightful observation. He suggests that, as a white specialist from a “hierarchical, status-obsessed world,” by adapting to the Inuit universe, he gets in touch with “the most primitive layers of my being, the bedrock of my inspiration.” He argues that the Inuit are more attuned to nature than other peoples, that they take a unique cognitive approach and “have direct sensory experience” of the natural order. Or again, while analyzing the influence of traditional, shamanistic beliefs on parenting behaviour, he notes that the Inuit child who takes the name of a dead person becomes the reincarnation of that individual, and the spirit of the deceased helps the child during his adolescence: “Therefore the child has two personalities, as Icelandic-American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson has explained—his own and that of the deceased.” 

Keen observations abound, then, while Malaurie’s approach to organization, which includes transition by merest association, can here be illustrated by turning to Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The strength of this book, and surely the main reason for its existence, is that it ferrets out the truth behind a long-swirling rumour. Author Gísli Pálsson determines that, yes, in the summer of 1909, during an expedition in the central Arctic, explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson took an Inuit (Inupiat) seamstress as his “country wife” and with her created a child.

On March 10, 1910, near Victoria Island, Pannigabluk gave birth to Alex Stefansson, and bundled him up “in the skins of … northern mammals.” During this early sojourn in the Arctic, Stefansson travelled with Panni and their son, and a few years later, during his third expedition, he reunited with them for several months, during which he taught Alex to read and write. Back in the United States, however, as he forged a world-wide reputation, the Manitoba-born Stefansson (1879–1962) never acknowledged his Arctic family, or his only progeny.

The author, an Icelandic scholar, has done an excellent job of nailing down the facts. He sifts through Stefansson’s journals and determines that Panni is mentioned far more than anyone else—although never as an intimate companion. He provides cross-references and additional details from the journals of other explorers, such as Diamond Jenness. He reproduces photos of young Alex and notes that, according to the professional who took them, the child bore “a striking resemblance to V.S.” Finally, he visits the Arctic and interviews the daughters of Alex Stefansson, Georgina and Rosie—the explorer’s granddaughters, who provide a wealth of family stories.

To his credit, Pálsson never waxes judgemental. By failing to address the big questions raised by his research, however, he sells his material short. Was Stefansson wrong to hide the intimate truth of his life in the Arctic? Or was he simply succumbing to certain ineluctable social forces? Was he wrong to take an Inuit wife in the first place? Or did this relationship provide so much valuable knowledge that, on the whole, it should be viewed as beneficial to northerners and southerners alike?

Instead of exploring Stefansson’s relationship with Panni in the context of “country marriages” between Natives and white explorers—an approach that might have produced a classic work—Pálsson sets this cross-cultural story against the backdrop of the explorer’s relatively mundane love life. True, he turns up a previously unknown fiancée, a Toronto woman named Orpha Cecil Smith, but that is of purely personal interest. He also rehearses Stefansson’s years-long affair with the best-selling novelist Fannie Hurst, and he treats the explorer’s happy marriage to Evelyn Baird. But none of these relationships raises anything like the serious and intriguing issues arising from his marriage to Pannigabluk.

Like Malaurie, Pálsson is more researcher than writer. His lesser mistakes include focusing too long on one of his sources (the daughter of Smith) and expending far too many pages on material that could resonate only with his original, Icelandic audience. Like Hummocks, then, Hidden Life falls short of greatness. Yet both works, although flawed, are happily translated, and constitute significant contributions to the scholarly literature of Arctic exploration.

Ken McGoogan, who has written extensively on the fur trade and Arctic exploration, recently published Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation.