Christian Klengenberg: The rest of the story

Taissumani: 2009-03-13

By Kenn Harper

Christian Klengenberg had spent the years between his 1907 acquittal on a murder charge and the 1924 accident that took the life of Cst. MacDonald living in the western and central Canadian Arctic with his Inuit family, often travelling back to Herschel Island and Alaska.

He was the first white man to trade with the little-known Inuit of Victoria Island. Communication with them was difficult and he often used his daughter, Weena, who spoke Inupiaq, as an interpreter.

Klengenberg had found what he had earlier dreamed about. "I had found a land and a people where I could be the first to trade," he wrote, "and I made up my mind that eventually I would have my own ship and my own goods and go back with my family to Victoria Island and found a permanent trading post."

Klengenberg established several trading posts. These included one that he built in 1916 at Cape Kendall on the mainland near the mouth of the Coppermine River. Three years later he built a permanent post at Rymer Point on Victoria Island.

His Inupiaq wife, whose native name was Qimniq, has been described as "shrewd and energetic." She was a tremendous asset to a white trader in a new territory where she was able to communicate with the native Inuit in their own language.

The enterprising Dane was for many years able to evade much of the red tape of customs regulations that accompanied the insidious creep of southern bureaucracy into the Arctic and made real the once-imaginary line that separated Canada from Alaska just west of Herschel Island.

Eventually officialdom caught up with him in 1924, the year of Cst. MacDonald's drowning. The following year Klengenberg gave up his American citizenship – he had become naturalized many years earlier – and became a Canadian.

He hoped that the Canadian government might recognize in some way his contribution to Canadian sovereignty in the Far North. He told a biographer in 1931, "I would like a definite grant of land to myself and my heirs on Victoria Island… because my proper and continuous occupation helped to confirm Canadian title to what may provide valuable stations for the new air routes across the top of the world."

His hope was in vain. No land was ever granted.

Christian Klengenberg and Qimniq had a large family. His oldest daughter, Weena, married a Dane, Storker Storkersen. Etna married an Inupiaq man from Point Barrow, Ikey Bolt, and they eventually took over the Rymer Point post.

Lena married George Avakana and they ran a trading post at Cape Krusenstern. The oldest son, Patsy, joined the Canadian Arctic Expedition as an assistant to the anthropologist, Diamond Jenness, when only 15 years old. Two years later he acted as translator for a murder trial in Edmonton. Other children in the Klengenberg clan were Andrew, Jorgen, Bob and Diamond.

Qimniq and her older daughters were responsible for introducing Alaskan fashions to the Canadian Inuit with whom they lived, particularly the style of parka known as the Mother Hubbard, so different from the parkas used in the eastern Arctic. The Mother Hubbard, still popular today, is a lasting legacy of the Klengenbergs.

Many descendants of Christian and Qimniq Klengenberg live today in the communities of the central and western Arctic, especially Qurluqtuuq (Coppermine) and Uluksaqtuuq (Holman). They include community leaders, artists, sculptors and craftsmen.

Klengenberg was a larger-than-life character, the stuff of which legends are made. Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote of him that he "had a reputation for enterprise, energy, and fearlessness – but he was also known to be unscrupulous, ruthless and two-faced… I came to accept Klinkenberg (sic) as a kind of legend in which I only half believed."

But this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, for the pejoratives that Stefansson applied to Klengenberg apply equally well to Stefansson himself, an incompetent expedition leader and purveyor of falsehoods, responsible for the deaths of many men under his charge.

Christian Klengenberg died in Vancouver in 1931 while visiting his daughter. His son, Patsy, carried his ashes home to Victoria Island.

Whether Klengenberg murdered Jackson Paul in 1906 will probably never be known. But it's obvious that he was not culpable in the death of Cst. MacDonald in 1924, despite the aspersions cast upon him.

He was a tough man raising a large biracial family at the edge of the known world in one of the harshest environments known to mankind. He ignored the law when it suited him, and followed it when he had no choice. He was an explorer, trader and the founder of an Arctic dynasty. He also had a sense of humour – among the many ships and barges that he owned at various times was a scow named the Homely Hippopotamus.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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