April 10, 2009
Standing on the shoulders of a giant
Matthew Henson’s descendants honour their ancestor
"And who's this nice young man?" asks Allen Counter, standing outside the Iqaluit airport last Saturday afternoon.
With a handshake and hug, Allen Anaukaq Matthew Henson, 17, greets Counter, one of the three famous men he's named after.
The youth's connection to Counter is close: Counter, a Harvard University professor and author, has lobbied tirelessly to have Matthew A. Henson, Allen's great-grandfather, recognized for his contributions to polar exploration.
Allen, his sister Aviaq, and their father Vittus came from Nuuk to Iqaluit to link up with Counter, his family and friends, so they could travel together to Qaanaaq in the far north of Greenland.
The occasion is the 100th anniversary of Matthew Henson's arrival at the North Pole - or some nearby location - on April 1, 1909.
Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer, traveled to the North Pole with Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary and their Inughuit guides.
Their arrival at the pole, which many still dispute, was claimed to be the first by the explorers.
A photograph, taken to record the moment for history, shows Peary with Matthew Henson and their guides, dressed in Greenlandic-style parkas, polar bear pants and kamiit, and clutching flags from the United States and the expedition's sponsors.
During 20 years of unsuccessful attempts to reach the pole with Peary, Matthew Henson forged many friendships with the Inughuit of northern Greenland.
He learned their language, developed an appreciation for their land skills and fathered a son called Anaukaq in 1906 with a young woman, Akatingwah.
Counter and the Hensons arrived in Iqaluit with many items to place in a time capsule: a copy of a book by Counter about Matthew Henson, Henson family photos, letters, and flags from the United States and Greenland.
These were given to a U.S. Navy submarine that planned to deposit the capsule at the North Pole.
Counter also bore a congratulatory letter from U.S. President Barack Obama to take to Qaanaaq.
Matthew Henson's links to northern Greenland were lost during an era when long-distance communication was difficult or non-existent.
After 1909, Matthew Henson never saw Akatingwah or Anaukaq, although the Henson-Peary story continued to be well-known in Qaanaaq.
Anaukaq, who had seven children, died in 1990 at the age of 84. One of those children is Vittus, 61, the father of Aviaq Henson, a 29-year-old education student in Nuuk.
Aviaq said that elsewhere in Greenland, the name of Matthew Henson is still virtually unknown.
Although she found several books on Matthew Henson in Iqaluit's Arctic Ventures store - including a comic book in Spanish - she said there is no equivalent available in Greenlandic or Danish.
Creating more Greenlandic materials about the life and achievements of Matthew Henson remains Aviaq's dream.
Aviaq plans to make a film about the 100th anniversary celebrations with the help of Inga Hansen, a Greenlandic broadcaster who also made the trip to Qaanaaq.
Counter, an African-American like Matthew Henson, first pursued the explorer's Greenland connection in the late 1980s, when he visited Qaanaaq to find the sons of Matthew Henson and Peary.
He documented the "discovery" of Anaukaq and Kali Peary, and their meeting with relatives in the U.S. in a book and documentary called North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo.
During their two-week visit in 1987, dubbed the "North Pole Family Reunion," Anaukaq laid a wreath at his father's gravesite and met some of his U.S. relatives.
Those relatives include Oscar-winning actress Taraji P. Henson, who appeared in Hustle and Flow and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Counter was later successful in his effort to see Matthew Henson, who died March 9, 1955 at the age of 88, reburied in Arlington National Cemetery.
On April 6, 1988, Matthew Henson and his wife, Lucy Ross Henson, were reinterred in Arlington by presidential order with full military honors and a new monument, next to Peary and his wife.
Vittus Henson, who visited the new gravesite in 2000, says seeing his grandfather's final resting place among other heroes made him feel very proud.