November 05, 2015


White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic. By Stephen R. Bown. Da Capo. $27.99.

     A national hero in Denmark but virtually unknown in the United States, anthropologist and polar explorer Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933) engaged in seven Thule Expeditions from 1902 to 1933 that established or confirmed a great deal of what is now known about Eskimo/Inuit life and heritage – including not only ways of coping with some of the harshest climates on Earth but also the cultural and artistic endeavors that, surprisingly, flourish in lands where subsistence existence would seem to be the sole priority of life. Rasmussen was sometimes referred to as a “white Eskimo” by the Eskimo/Inuit themselves, as he explains in Across Arctic America, his 1927 book that is part anthropological analysis and part travelogue. Indeed, he came from both heritages: his father was a Danish missionary and his mother was Inuit-Danish. A short man with an outsize personality, Rasmussen was born in Greenland and died in Denmark, the geography providing apt bookends for his life and accomplishments.

     But real life is messy, and Rasmussen’s was no exception. He lived in the age of polar exploration, but his exploits did not inspire attention along the lines of that given to Norway’s Roald Amundsen or Great Britain’s Sir Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. There was a 2006 Canadian film called The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, but it was scarcely on the level of Scott of the Antarctic (1948), whose music was used by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Symphony No. 7. Stephen R. Bown sets out not so much to “right a wrong” in his biography of Rasmussen as to bring his life and career to a wider audience. He does a fine job of showing how Rasmussen could command a room in Copenhagen when seeking funding for his work (he was an actor and opera singer for a time and knew how to connect with an audience), but the focus of the book, as of Rasmussen’s life, is elsewhere. The Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924) was his masterwork, resulting in a 10-volume analysis of the origin and spread of the Eskimo/Inuit race. Rasmussen and two Inuit hunters spent 16 months traveling by dog sled, traversing the whole of Canada and journeying as far west as Nome, Alaska, before being stopped from continuing into Russia by a mundane matter: visa issues.

     Unlike Arctic adventurers seeking personal fame or national glory, Rasmussen was a cultural explorer, more interested in Eskimo/Inuit myths and stories of mountain-size bears, human-hunting dogs and flesh-eating giants than in claiming land for the greater glory of Denmark (although the Sixth Thule Expedition of 1931 was designed primarily to cement a Danish claim to part of eastern Greenland). Thanks to his genetic and cultural background, Rasmussen could move easily within native communities in Greenland and then use his European skills to explain and write about traditional culture. Besides, Rasmussen himself seems genuinely to have loved Arctic life, with its freedom and ever-present dangers, not to mention its foods (one of which may have contributed to his death).

     Bown is at his best when describing the extremely detailed preparations to which Rasmussen always had to pay attention in his explorations. White Eskimo is filled with stories of his leadership qualities, his forthright appreciation not only of his human companions on his travels but also of the “patient and uncomplaining dogs” without which none of his extended cross-ice travels would have been possible. Indeed, Rasmussen’s extremely close relationship with his dogs, which he treated as friends and companions rather than pack animals (he never used a whip), is one of the most interesting and revelatory parts of the book, showcasing and paralleling Rasmussen’s interactions with humans – both those who accompanied him and those he interacted with and studied during his expeditions.

     From the perspective of those who do not see him as a national hero, Rasmussen’s primary contributions are cultural. He showed that art can and does flourish even in the midst of what most observers would consider squalor – a finding that raises fascinating questions (which are beyond the scope of Bown’s book) about the purpose of art and its function in human development. This first English-language biography of Rasmussen is not really a book for general readership but one for those who remain fascinated by the age of polar exploration, and those interested in the long history of the Eskimo/Inuit people and their means of surviving, even thriving, in some of the most unforgiving territory in the world. White Eskimo is certainly the story of a life well-lived, an influential one that contributed greatly to an understanding of Eskimo/Inuit customs and thinking, a life lived – like those of the Eskimo/Inuit themselves – in extremely difficult terrain whose outward manifestations, once penetrated by a combination of intellectual curiosity and genuine empathy, reveal a rich inner existence that makes the exigencies of the everyday far more tolerable.

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