Taissumani, March 7
The Fifth Thule Expedition — The Great Sled Journey
In early 1922, Peter Freuchen and Therkel Mathiassen each explored north from Igloolik, including parts of Baffin Island. Mathiassen spent the summer excavating at Repulse Bay, then travelled with Jacob Olsen to Southampton Island, where they became stranded until February of the following year.
That winter Peter Freuchen froze a foot, which resulted in the amputation of a number of toes — eventually he lost the entire foot. In 1923 Mathiassen travelled to Pond Inlet where he continued his archaeological work before returning to Denmark via St. John’s.
Freuchen and some of the Inughuit would also return to Greenland via Pond Inlet. Kaj Birket-Smith and Helge Bangsted returned home via Churchill and Winnipeg.
On March 11, 1923, Knud Rasmussen started on his great sled journey westward, the dream of his life. He was accompanied only by two Inughuit, Inuit of the Thule District of northern Greenland, whom he had recruited specifically for the expedition.
Qaavigarsuaq, also known as Miteq, was young and unmarried, reputed to be the son of one of Robert Peary’s men. Arnarulunnguaq served as seamstress, general assistant, and apparently as Rasmussen’s occasional bedmate. Her husband, Iggiannguaq, had been hired as part of the expedition, but died before ever leaving Greenland.
The purpose of this grand undertaking was to visit the rest of the Inuit of the far northern reaches of Canada, including all those along the Arctic coast and the Mackenzie Delta, and continue onward along the north coast of Alaska to Bering Strait.
The party spent the first summer among the Nattilingmiut, at that time a very isolated group of Inuit, less influenced by white contact than any other group Rasmussen was yet to meet.
He interrupted his time among them for a brief visit to the Ukkusiksalingmiut (Utkuhikhalingmiut) at the mouth of the Back River, people whom he described as “the most elegant, the most handsome and the most hospitable people I met on my long journey.”
Rasmussen and his party travelled light, carrying only emergency rations and a supply of trade goods that he would use to acquire ethnographical specimens from the Inuit he met.
In fact, it is as a result of the collecting efforts of Rasmussen on the great sled journey, as well as Birket-Smith’s and Mathiassen’s work, that the largest collection of material culture from Canadian Inuit is located not in Canada, but in Copenhagen.
By November of 1923 they were at Kent Peninsula in the territory of the Copper Inuit, where they were joined by Leo Hansen, a Danish photographer who had arrived from Alaska and would travel with them for the rest of their route westward.
They remained among the Umingmaktormiut (People of the Muskox) at Kent Peninsula until mid-January. From there it was on to Tree River, Bernard Harbour and eventually the old American whaling centre of Herschel Island.
They travelled by boat as far as Kotzebue and reached Nome on the last day of August. This westernmost community in North America was a crossroads for Inuit from many parts of Alaska, and Rasmussen was able to collect much folklore there.
Without a visa from Soviet authorities to enter Siberian territory, Rasmussen took a chance, chartered a schooner and crossed Bering Strait, hoping to continue his researches among the small Eskimo population there.
But, without a permit, he was allowed to stay only one night and part of the next day. He interviewed a number of Chukchi tribespeople, and the few Inuit that he encountered.
When he stepped ashore in Nome the following day, he was presented with a telegram. His Soviet visa had been granted.
But it was too late in the season to return to Siberia. He spent a few days in Nome, interviewing Inuit there. And with that, the Fifth Thule Expedition was at an end.
Rasmussen contributed many volumes to the expedition’s published reports. These are a treasure-trove of information on the myths, legends, beliefs and life-stories – what he called the intellectual culture – of the people he met.
His Danish colleagues also contributed their own reports to the collection. Jacob Olsen published an account in Greenlandic of his experiences. Rasmussen also wrote a popular account, Across Arctic America, in which he described the incredible journey. A few of his observations from the introduction to that book deserve to be quoted here.
Rasmussen stated that “from my heart I bless the fate that allowed me to be born at a time when Arctic exploration by dog sledge was not yet a thing of the past.”
He elaborated on that theme: “It was my privilege, as one born in Greenland, and speaking the Eskimo language as my native tongue, to know these people [the Inuit] in an intimate way. From the very nature of things, I was endowed with attributes for Polar work which outlanders have to acquire through painful experience. My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with the hunters, so that even the hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me.”
And, with modesty, he noted, “The Eskimo is the hero of this book… Only in form of telling, and as a means of binding together the various incidents is it even a record of my long trip by dog sledge.”