Taissumani, Sept. 6
The Wisdom of Kutsikitsoq
The Danish Thule and Ellesmere Land Expedition of 1939-40 was an expedition that is little known in the recent history of the Arctic. Perhaps that is because it was overshadowed by events of the Second World War. The expedition began in August 1939 when the participants established their winter quarters at Neqe, north of present-day Qaanaaq. It ended in 1940, some time after the Nazi invasion of Denmark in April of that year.
Many expedition accounts, written by white men, have much to say about the Inuit who acted as their guides and other Inuit whom they encountered. But the account of this expedition, written by the well-known Danish zoologist, Christian Vibe, is noteworthy for recording what the Inuit participants had to say about the white men.
Kutsikitsoq, a wise man of the Polar Eskimos, gave this word of caution about writing up the results of the expedition:
“Don’t write too much about us. White men keep on running around with notebook and pencil, as though they were incapable of remembering anything, and they write down a whole mass of trivialities; and when they go home they feed the people with a lot of lies about us and have themselves been great heroes. You will perhaps do the same and give us all something to laugh about, till the stones come rolling down the mountains, when the priest tells us what you have written about us and about yourself.”
It may have come as an unexpected revelation to the Danes, to learn that the Polar Eskimos often knew what the chroniclers of previous expeditions had written about them. But there had been priests of the Lutheran Church in the Thule District since 1909 – those priests were generally formally-educated Greenlanders from farther down the Greenland coast, men who spoke Kalaallisut and learned the language of the north Greenlanders and communicated the ways of the outside world to the northern hunters.
Kutsikitsoq continued his good-natured admonition with a suggestion that Christian Vibe did not follow, but nonetheless reported:
“Lend me your pencil, and I will scratch it all out, for it is surely mostly lies…”
Hans Nielsen was the Danish manager of the colony at Thule, and he gave similar advice to the members of the expedition:
“The less your work is publicized in the newspapers at home, the more will we think of it up here; for it has happened often that those who have come home with important results have been passed by in silence, while others have been received as great men.”
Another Polar Eskimo who participated in the expedition was Inuutersuaq, who was accompanied by his wife, Naduk. Christian Vibe explained to Inuutersuaq that he must not shoot musk-oxen within Canada. The hunter responded with: “Yes, but… the Canadian police don’t understand about musk-oxen.” He explained to Vibe that wolves eat many musk-oxen, and offered to even the odds – “I will shoot two wolves for every musk-ox, he suggested.” But Christian Vibe, and Canadian law, prevailed.
The account of this expedition is remarkable in presenting the Inuit point of view on many matters. On the expedition’s return to Greenland from Ellesmere Island, they learned of the invasion of Denmark from an unlikely source. Someone had left them a message, in a prominent location that they would not miss, written in Greenlandic on an old and discarded pemmican can. It read:
“The Germans are robbing the Danes of all their meat, but the King is safe. There is no more kerosene in the store.”
The expedition ended shortly thereafter.