Sunday, November 22, 2015

An Explorer of People: Knud Rasmussen's Arctic Journeys to Document Eskimo Culture


"Even before I knew what traveling meant I determined that one day I would go and find these people, whom my fancy pictured different from all others. I must go and see 'the New people' as the old story-teller called them." Knud Rasmussen

Enthralling. Thrilling.

Every time I picked up White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic  those words popped into my head. I had to put the book aside for a few weeks. I SO was eager to return to it.

Rasmussen endured treacherous journeys across the Arctic, driven by his need to discover and document people who had rarely, if ever, seen Europeans. He was fully aware that 'civilization' was already ending the Eskimo way of life.

Charismatic, with high social intelligence, ruggedly handsome and fun loving, Rasmussen could charm his way into any society. The Inuit called him the White Eskimo for he lived fully as one of them; he could drive a team of sled dogs, hunt, relish rotten meat and green liver, talk the language and walk the walk.

Rasmussen was born in Greenland in 1879. His father was a Danish missionary. His mother's people had lived in Greenland for over a century and she was one-fourth Inuit. Rasmussen loved the Arctic; there were great hardships but there was also great freedom.

When he was twelve the family returned to Denmark, a shocking transition for the boy. At boarding school he mourned the loss of his old life and was an indifferent student. He became a heart-breaker and the 'king' of social gatherings. He dropped out of university and considered acting and opera. He socialized with the intelligentsia. In 1900 he decided on a travel writing as a career.

Rasmussen charmed his way into expeditions to Iceland and Lapland, writing articles as a freelance journalist. The Danish Literary Expedition finally brought him back to his beloved Greenland. He was able to reach the Thule people who lived farther north than any other people on earth. Rasmussen had finally found a new people, with different customs, in an unknown land. Thule became his home base for most of his life, With Peter Freuchen he established a trading base there. He became part of the community listened to the stories, memorized them, then wrote them down. He loved the artistry of the Inuit poetry and folklore.

Rasmussen went on seven expeditions, journeys that took him from Greenland to cross Arctic Canada. Rasmussen endured what many other could not: starvation, frozen limbs, pushing himself past exhaustion. He noted the similarities of the cultures, language and mythology and developed a theory of their interconnectivity through migration eastward.

He accepted the Eskimo culture and peoples without European judgment. He knew their life was harsh and they did what they needed to do to survive. The killing of girl children or the voluntary suicide of the elderly prevented a community from growing bigger than their food sources could maintain. Cached meat spoiled in the summer warmth, but Rasmussen enjoyed mildewed blubber or green liver with the locals. Cannibalism happened in starvation times. Since men outnumbered women, husband sharing occurred.

Rasmussen's private life is not well documented. He never wrote about himself, never made himself into the hero of his own story. He had numerous lovers, and married and had children although his family rarely saw him. In later years he returned to his family to write. Promoting his books meant visiting populated cities like New York but he never felt at home anywhere but in the Arctic. His final journey to that hostile land, to film a movie that showed the true character of the Inuit, he became ill and never recovered.

Stephen R. Bown has written the first biography of the Danish Arctic explorer and ethnologist Rasmussen in English, which may be why few recognize his name. Since Rasmussen's extensive writings have not been translated into English, Bown was required to buy books, take them apart and tediously print them, scan them into a computer, then use software to translate them into English.

The book has charming black and white illustrations, maps, and photographs.
Read an excerpt from the book here.

I had never heard of Rasmussen before. I am thrilled by this book and now want to read his book The People of The Polar North.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic 
by Stephen R. Bown
DeCapo Press
Publication Date November 10, 2015
$27.99 hard cover
ISBN: 9780306822827


1911 Handkerchief Depicting Walrus Hunt, from my blog post here