Taissumani, Feb. 14
Kununnguaq — Knud Rasmussen
In this column, I have often quoted, sometimes extensively, from the writings of Knud Rasmussen, to whom we are indebted for voluminous writings on the culture of Inuit in both Greenland and Canada, and to a lesser extent Alaska, almost a century ago.
Some readers may not know who this man was, and how he was able to leave such a remarkable legacy. So in this column I will try to answer a simple question — Who was Knud Rasmussen?
Knud Rasmussen had the good fortune to be born in Ilulissat, in 1879. That community, known to the Danes as Jakobshavn, was a picturesque colonial administrative centre in Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland. Its Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) name means “the icebergs,” appropriate because this is where an immensely productive glacier disgorges huge icebergs into the sea.
Although his father was a Dane, Knud’s mother was of mixed ancestry, part Danish and part Greenlandic. Knud grew up speaking Kalaallisut, a language related to Inuktitut. This knowledge would stand him in good stead on his future travels and adventures.
Ilulissat was not only an administrative centre. It was also home to Inuit hunters and dogsled drivers, men well-versed in the use of the qajaq and, perhaps more important, men and women who were story-tellers. Knud learned their travel and hunting techniques and soaked up their endless tales.
He spent part of his youth in Denmark where he was sent for his education, but always his heart was in Greenland.
In 1902 he participated in the strangely-named Literary Expedition, led by a Dane, Mylius-Erichsen, to northern Greenland to visit the isolated tribe known to explorers and scientists as the Polar Eskimos (now the Inughuit), the most northerly people on earth. That expedition lasted two years and sealed Rasmussen’s fate — he would devote his life to a study of Inuit culture.
In 1910 with his Danish friend, Peter Freuchen, he established a trading station at a place he called Thule, a name from Greek mythology that described the end of the earth.
The Inuit had their own name for the location. They called it Uummannaq, which means “reminiscent of or shaped like a heart.” Greenlandic missionaries had already built a church there the previous year.
Thule would be Rasmussen’s base for the next decade. The place was so isolated that Denmark had not yet claimed ownership of the district. It was a no-man’s land.
Knud Rasmussen worked with the local Inughuit (the Polar Eskimos do not consider themselves Kalaallit) to establish a formalized local government from the customs that had traditionally directed their lives.
It is a testament to the dedication of Rasmussen and the local hunters that the system they put in place survived the eventual Danish takeover of Thule. Some vestiges of it remain to this day.
Knud Rasmussen was many things in those years — merchant, hunter, traveller, explorer, adventurer, listener, researcher, writer. Beginning in 1912 and continuing for the next two decades, he organized a series of seven expeditions — some exploratory, some ethnographic — named numerically as the seven Thule Expeditions, to northern and east Greenland and to Canada.
For me, the greatest of Rasmussen’s endeavours was the Fifth Thule Expedition to Arctic Canada and beyond. It lasted from 1921 to 1924. It was such an achievement that I will devote a separate column solely to that expedition.
For now, it is sufficient to say that the Fifth Thule Expedition happened at the last possible moment to achieve its hoped-for results, the documentation of Inuit customs in the most isolated areas of Canada. Canadian Inuit traditional culture was everywhere under threat, from missionaries, traders, and in some areas explorers for minerals.
Rasmussen recorded customs, legends and life-histories that were in danger of being lost, preserving them for future generations. His writings on this, the most ambitious of his expeditions, comprise many volumes. Historians, scientists and Inuit are forever in his debt.
To Greenlanders he was Kununnguaq (Little Knud). To Canadian Inuit he was Kunu. He was not without his faults, womanizing apparently being one of them (if that is indeed a fault.)
He became a Danish national hero. Until quite recently most Danish biographies of him were hagiographic in the extreme, but a more critical and balanced view is gaining acceptance, as it should.
Knud Rasmussen died far too young, in 1933, at the age of 54. We owe him so much. Imagine how much more he would have accomplished had he lived to a ripe old age.
Let his epitaph be a statement attributed to him, “Give me dogs, give me ice, and you can keep the rest.”